There’s a new band in town that’s guiding national security by quietly tutoring the most powerful man in America. Never-Trump Republicans who’d been apprehensive about President Donald Trump are celebrating the trio’s influence, calling Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Homeland Secretary John Kelly the “Axis of Adults.” …None of these key national security chiefs were part of the Trump campaign, or movement. They are seen by those who work most closely with them as loyal to the office of the president but still getting to know the man himself, said a senior administration official, speaking anonymously to describe the interactions just 11 weeks in to the fledgling presidency.“They realize this is a tumultuous White House, and they are serving as a leveling influence over fractious personalities … responsibly protecting the country from enemies both foreign and domestic,” the official said, lumping Trump campaign veterans like embattled adviser Steve Bannon into the “domestic” enemy camp. Bannon’s removal from the official NSC roster by H.R. McMaster is seen as a sign the “adults” are winning.
Whether this trend is real or a chimera remains to be seen. I’m deeply unpersuaded by Tillerson. I guarantee you that if a magazine runs a story with the headline “Axis of Adults,” Trump would react the same way he did to the Time cover of Steve Bannon. As I noted last week, it’s far from clear that Trump’s more conventional foreign policy path will be either wise or permanent in nature. And I have to believe that part of this emerging narrative is simply the foreign policy community’s desperate craving for something approximating normalcy after a hundred days of anarchy.
There’s a deeper problem, however, that suggests that the “Axis of Adults” will have a harder time than these stories suggest — even as this coterie will have a decided advantage in future policy debates.
As I’ve discussed in the past, there is such a thing as policymaking shape. Trump appointees, simply by sticking around at their jobs, are presumably working their way into shape. One presumes that they will get better at it.
Still, as FanGraphs’ Travis Sawchik noted a month ago, some things are really hard to master regardless of the people involved. When Michael Jordan and Tim Tebow — world-class athletes — decided to try their hand at baseball, they struggled mightily. Sawchik’s conclusion:
Hitting a baseball, one thrown by a professional pitcher, is among the most difficult athletic endeavors in the spectrum of all of sport. Jordan and Tebow have demonstrated just how difficult it is to acquire such skill even for elite athletes. There is no substitute for time or reps in mastering this craft. There are no short cuts.
Let me suggest that the same holds true for foreign policymaking. McMaster, Kelly and Mattis are all experienced generals. They are now being asked to take on political tasks they have not had to cope with before. I do not mean to suggest that it will take them 10,000 hours to master their new jobs. There’s evidence that the 10,000-hour rule might not matter as much in statecraft. Still, experience is a plus, and this administration has been sorely lacking it across most of the foreign policy arena.
For all my doubts about the Axis of Adults meme, however, the Dozier story suggests that Mattis et al. are actually, you know, putting in the effort. They also have the power. Trump’s White House has ceded authority to the Pentagon in military matters. This is undeniably a reversal of course from the previous administration.
Will the same thing happen to foreign policy writ large? Again, I have my doubts — Tillerson still seems not to understand the public parts of his job. Still, he too seems to be putting in the effort.
In bureaucratic politics, time and effort can go a long way. And it is interesting to note the contrast between the diligence of the foreign policy Cabinet and the lack thereof among Trump’s White House staff. Vanity Fair’s Sarah Ellison painted a damning portrait of the people in the White House who were involved with the campaign. The parts about Jared Kushner stood out. Particularly this part:
Kushner was drawn into the campaign, and the administration, by degrees — “drafted into this crazy journey,” he has been heard to say. More than anything it’s a reflection of how few people there were to do anything in the campaign’s early days. At one point during the campaign, when Trump wanted to speak more substantively about China, he gave Kushner a summary of his views and then asked him to do some research. Kushner simply went on Amazon, where he was struck by the title of one book, Death by China, co-authored by Peter Navarro. He cold-called Navarro, a well-known trade-deficit hawk, who agreed to join the team as an economic adviser. (When he joined, Navarro was in fact the campaign’s only economic adviser.) Kushner operated in much the same way when it came to crafting Trump’s tax plan — calling up someone for help out of the blue. Given the initial absence of pros who could do the job properly, he also tried his hand at writing speeches. Responding to criticism from the boss (“Jared, this is terrible!”), Kushner said, according to a person familiar with the episode, “I’m not a f—ing speechwriter. I am a real estate guy.”
A few weeks ago someone argued, “The Trump White House is being managed like a family business, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” I’d like to suggest that it is in fact a very bad thing. The supposedly moderate, competent parts of the White House staff do not know nearly enough about foreign policy to properly take the lead on anything.
Mattis, McMaster and Kelly were at least good at something before taking the jobs they have now. Kushner, at best, was an okay real estate guy.
It would be easy to bet on Kushner in a conflict with the Axis of Adults. I’m just not sure it’s the smart best.