Last month Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare said the Trump maladministration is “malevolence tempered by incompetence.” Brilliant, and on the money, I think.
A lot of people have analyzed the actions of the so-called president looking for a grand plan behind the lies, schemes and general floundering around. But IMO the White House crew are more maladroit than Machiavellian. (See Sincerely, Niccolo Machiavelli: An open letter to Donald Trump, from the guy who wrote the book on power moves.) There may be a plan in there somewhere, but they’re too driven by their psychological issues, and too lost in their delusions, to make it work.
See also “Trump’s White House Is Falling Apart” by Jonathan Bernstein.
Nor is there any particular reason to expect things to get better, at least not without massive outside interference. And not just because the Russia scandal is hardly over just because Flynn is gone. The factionalized, inept White House remains just as dysfunctional as ever. Executive branch nominations have slowed to a crawl, with just one submitted since Feb. 1 — balanced by the withdrawal of the former selection for secretary of the army, Vincent Viola. They can’t find anyone willing to handle communications. Did you know they still don’t appear to have formally submitted the nomination of Sonny Perdue, the choice for agriculture secretary, to the Senate? Did they just forget? Who knows?
Then there’s an increasing obsession with leaks — Trump tweeted about it this morning. That’s a classic White House mistake. Things go wrong, and it triggers people (in the permanent bureaucracy, or from one or another faction within the administration) to talk to the press. A good president will use these leaks as sources of information — who is upset, and why? A poor president will circle the wagons, trying to keep knowledge of what’s happening within the administration within a tighter and tighter circle, which only serves to make those who legitimately are supposed to be part of the policy-making process even more upset, and the policy made without proper inputs even less likely to succeed. Guess which one Trump is choosing? Hey, at least on this he’s making a normal presidenting mistake, albeit one which helped cost Richard Nixon his presidency.
The worst of it, perhaps, is that hardly anything that has happened since Nov. 9 has been truly surprising. Look at the White House. The president of the United States has no government experience and demonstrated during the campaign only a very limited understanding of the U.S. government and public policy. The top players within the White House — Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner — also have no government experience at all. Why should anyone expect that to work?
The Republican Party and conservative media will do their best keeping the Trumpettes propped up for a while. And genuinely dysfunctional organizations can stay in business for a surprisingly long time under some circumstances. I have seen this myself.
Trump actually could have a successful administration if he were surrounded by competent people, and if he allowed those competent people to do their jobs. I’ve seen that, too.
Many years ago I worked as an editor for a small book publisher being run by the founder’s son, and Son was something of a dweeb. He was a nice guy, actually, but not the sharpest tack in the box. Any project he got personally involved with was pretty much screwed. But for the most part (there were a few gawdawful exceptions) the managers and staff were competent people who effeciently turned out salable products. Over time, Son figured out that it was okay if he just stayed out of things and enjoyed his tastefully decorated office. He trusted his people to do their jobs. Many years after I left it, the little company was bought out by a bigger company for a nice sum, and it’s still around.
On the other hand, some years after that I went to work for another small publisher in New Jersey as their production manager. This is something I’d always wanted to do. By then I’d worked as a production manager — one of many — for departments within big corporations, but I thought it would be cool to run the whole show in a small company so that I could set up all the prodedures and do things My Way. I’d had tons of experience by then and knew my stuff, you see.
However, I found myself reporting to a vice president who had no experience in publishing whatsoever. The company specialized in books for lawyers, and this guy was a lawyer who was an old buddy of the owners. And this guy wouldn’t let me do my job. He micromanaged me to death and reversed my decisions. He wouldn’t allow me to follow sensible, cost-effective procedures, mostly because he didn’t understand them. I despaired that he would ever get out of my way long enough to allow any books to be printed and bound, so I left after fewer than six months and took another job with a big corporation.
The little legal book company went belly up at some point; at least, it doesn’t seem to exist any more. I see that their name and logo have been taken over by some law firm headhunters in California.
And then three years after I left the law book ccompany the corporation laid off my division, and after some thrashing around I ended up working for another small company as production manager. This was for the Dragon Lady, an honest-to-gosh sociopath. She had a lot of Trump characteristics, including the lying, the temper, the blatant cheating of vendors and clients, and the narcissism. (I was never in her apartment, but those who were said it was decorated by nude paintings of Herself.)
The Dragon Lady also was a micromanager. She didn’t trust any of us to be able to do anything without her watching. I knew I’d picked the wrong job when she discovered I’d met with one of the vendors to go over bid specifications while she was out of the office, and she hauled me into her office and screamed herself purple for 20 minutes. I’d been meeting with vendors for years and considered it part of the normal functions of a production manager, but the Dragon Lady considered any outside communication without her direct supervision to be something underhanded; to her, it was going behind her back.
And I was stuck in that job for a year and a half before I could find another and bail out. My year and a half was a record, I understand; some of her previous managers had left after a few days. I’d like to be able to say that her business went belly up, but I understand she sold it at a profit.
The moral to all this is that the worst boss, in my experience, is one who doesn’t trust other people to do their jobs; he has to be in complete control, even if he doesn’t know what he’s doing. And that’s usually because untrustworthy people are very distrustful. And when you put such people in charge, expect dysfunction.
I’m saying that if Trump were surrounded by old Washington hands with lots of experience, people who knew how to work the bureaucracy and interact with Congress, he probably could be as outrageous as he wanted to be and still have a successful administration. But he’s surrounded by toadies and True Believer ideologues.
The heart, blood and bones of a big, sprawling bureaucracy are made up of well-internalized procedure and deep institutional memory. Without those, everything falls apart. The people at the head can come and go, and they can change policy and steer the whole shebang into new directions. But if they are disconnected from the levels of bureaucracy below them, or if those levels are gutted out, the beast ain’t goin’ nowhere.
And everything that’s going on tells me the Trumpettes have no appreciation of the beast they are supposed to be heading.
CNN reported yesterday,
According to data
from the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service hosted by The Washington Post, Trump has 14 officials confirmed by the Senate and 20 others are awaiting a vote, out of 696 top leadership positions in the administration.
Not a good sign. And they’re having trouble finding a replacement for Michael Flynn. For example,
… A friend of Harward’s said he was reluctant to take the job because the White House seems so chaotic. Harward called the offer a “s*** sandwich,” the friend said.
A Republican official told CNN that Harward made it a condition of taking the job that he could form his own team. In the end, he didn’t feel that was the case.
And a senior Republican familiar with the process added that “a question of clarity regarding the lines of authority” was central in Harward’s decision.
It’s also said that Harward bailed after seeing Trump’s unhinged press conference this week.
It turns out the cabinet heads are not being allowed to choose their own staffs, even though the White House is struggling to hire staff themselves. I understand a lot of Obama Administration holdovers still are keeping the lights turned on in the White House, so to speak. Some appointees are being un-appointed after back ground checks found they had written something critical about Trump. Only toadies need apply.
And stuff like this happens:
President Donald Trump this week abruptly dropped the nation’s commitment to a two-state solution for Middle East peace — without reviewing the specifics of his new strategy with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
State Department officials and Tillerson’s top aides learned about the president’s comments in real time, according to two sources with knowledge of the situation. Tillerson himself was in the air when Trump announced the change in the longstanding U.S. position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the White House, there was little thought about notifying the nation’s top diplomat because, as one senior staffer put it, “everyone knows Jared [Kushner] is running point on the Israel stuff.”
Jared Kushner being the 30-something trust fund brat who bought the once-respected New York Observer and turned it into a vapid tabloid-shopper before killing the print edition completely. He’s in charge of Israel stuff, not the State Department.
If Tillerson has any self-respect, he’ll resign before the year is out.
Update: See Trump, an Outsider Demanding Loyalty, Struggles to Fill Top Posts
It is not just the State Department that has no deputy secretary, much less Trump-appointed under secretaries or assistant secretaries. Neither do the Treasury Department, the Education Department or any of the other cabinet departments. Only three of the 15 have even named a nominee for deputy secretary. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has a deputy only because he kept the one left over from President Barack Obama’s administration.
That does not even begin to cover the rest of the more than 4,000 appointments that a president typically makes. In some cases, the Trump administration is even going in reverse. A senior political appointee at the housing department, who had already started the job, was fired this past week and marched out of the building when someone discovered his previous statements critical of Mr. Trump. The State Department laid off six top career officials in recent days, apparently out of questions about their loyalty to Mr. Trump.