Ten More Days Without a Functioning Federal Government

Josh Marshall:

One thought I keep returning to: if there were a functioning federal government we’d be seeing regular press conferences updating the public on on-going arrests, health status of the injured, progress of the investigation. As far as I can tell there hasn’t been a single one. Nothing from DOJ, FBI, Capitol Police, the Pentagon. Normally you might expect such information to be channeled through press conferences at the White House. But, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s not clear or perhaps too clear which side the White House is on.

It’s not like we’ve had much in the way of a functioning federal government for the past four years, of course. But now that most of the cabinet has resigned and gone home, political hacks/Trump loyalists are still in charge of most federal agencies, and Trump himself has stopped even going through the motions of being POTUS, which was all he ever did, we’re pretty much just drifting at this point. No one is really in charge of anything in Washington.

You may have missed this — on November 6, while we were distracted, Beijing moved to completely wipe out the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. There were mass raids and arrests. A lot of people will now disappear. Washington, of course, said nothing. One wonders what might have been if we’d had a functioning State Department in recent years, never mind a functioning federal government. Trump was always just faking being tough on China; he never really was. And Mike Pompeo has been more tuned in to domestic politics than anything going on beyond our shores.

Also, one suspects Beijing chose to move during our transitionless transition knowing there would be no response whatsoever from the U.S. Yesterday the State Department posted a tepid joint statement (with Australia, Canada, and the UK) opposing the crackdown, but that’s it in the way of a response from the U.S. And the joint statement doesn’t have Mike Pompeo’s name on it anywhere. It’s possible some assistant to an assistant released it, since no one else was doing anything.

We’ll be very lucky if China is the only foreign power to take advantage of our vulnerable state in the next ten days. And given the lack of cooperation with the transition from the Department of Defense, it may take the Biden Administration longer than usual to get up to speed on national security.

Again, though, we can ask if anyone has really been in charge of much of anything these past four years. Trump is less of a leader than a bullying and abusive head of household. Instead of doing their jobs, family members — people who had to report to him — learned that what they had to do to survive was not piss him off. This is one of the factors that hindered our pandemic response, I’m sure. For example, as I wrote in March, one of the several reasons we fell so far behind in testing is that the FDA sat on its hands and did not give independent labs permission to get to work. This would have been a routine thing to do in previous administrations. It appears Trump Administration officials have been afraid to breathe without  permission from Dear Leader. They didn’t dare even exercise their own authority.

Here’s a prescient column by Michael Gerson from February 2017, the very beginning of the fiasco:

In early January, House Speaker Paul Ryan met on the issue of tax reform with a delegation from the president-elect. Attending were future chief strategist and senior counselor Stephen K. Bannon, future chief of staff Reince Priebus, future senior adviser Jared Kushner, future counselor Kellyanne Conway and future senior policy adviser Stephen Miller. As the meeting began, Ryan pointedly asked, “Who’s in charge?”

Silence. …

… Trump has run a family business but never a large organization. Nor has he seen such an organization as an employee. “Trump,” says another former official, “is ill-suited to appreciate the importance of a coherent chain of command and decision-making process. On the contrary, his instincts run instead toward multiple mini power centers, which rewards competing aggressively for Trump’s favor.”

And while personnel came and went, that pattern didn’t change. This might not have been a total disaster if the person at the head, Trump, knew what he was doing and followed a consistent plan. But Trump is both ignorant and mercurial, and he doesn’t do plans. Schemes and scams, sure, but not not long-term, comprehensive planning. That’s way over his head. So, not only were there no consistent directions or cohesive policies coming from the White House, all the heads of agencies and departments were kept tied up in knots, afraid to act on their own in fear that any action would run afoul of whatever mood Trump was in at the moment.

That’s one reason I haven’t been critical of Joe Biden’s cabinet picks, by the way. Although I’ve seen a lot of grumbling on the Left about people not being progressive enough, what we’re going to need at the beginning is just plain old experience and competence. A lot of the agencies and offices and departments of the federal government are going to have to be rebuilt to make them functional again before anything else much gets done.

There is still a lot of investigating to do to determine why the many law enforcement and security agencies in and around Washington DC so utterly failed to protect the Capitol on Wednesday. I don’t blame the Capitol cops as much as I blame people higher up the security hierarchy who simply did not act to send reinforcents. Whether that was by design or simply because they didn’t want to piss off Daddy, I do not know. But it’s clear that something, probably a lot of somethings, just weren’t working as they were designed to work.

David Ignatius wrote in late December,

Not to be alarmist, but we should recognize that the United States will be in the danger zone until the formal certification of Joe Biden’s election victory on Jan. 6, because potential domestic and foreign turmoil could give President Trump an excuse to cling to power.

This threat, while unlikely to materialize, is concerning senior officials, including Republicans who have supported Trump in the past but believe he is now threatening to overstep the constitutional limits on his power. They described a multifaceted campaign by die-hard Trump supporters to use disruptions at home and perhaps threats abroad to advance his interests.

The big showdown is the Jan. 6 gathering of both houses of Congress to formally count the electoral college vote taken on Dec. 14, which Biden won 306 to 232. The certification should be a pro forma event, but a desperate Trump is demanding that House and Senate Republicans challenge the count and block this final, binding affirmation of Biden’s victory before Inauguration Day.

Trump’s last-ditch campaign will almost certainly fail in Congress. The greater danger is on the streets, where pro-Trump forces are already threatening chaos.

And gee, guess what happened? The only thing Ignatius got wrong is that he assumed we’d be out of danger once the election was finalized. No; we’re still in danger until Joe Biden is inaugurated.

And it’s hard to believe that Trump didn’t pre-emptively move to stop reinforcements from going to the Capitol. His lackeys in the Pentagon, in DHS, were remarkably inactive.. See, for example, This is why the National Guard didn’t respond to the attack on the Capitol at Defense News.

See also:

Elaine Godfey, The Atlantic, It Was Supposed to Be So Much Worse

Kellie Carter Jackson, The Atlantic, The Inaction of Capitol Police Was by Design

New York Times, Trump has not lowered flags in honor of an officer who died from injuries sustained amid the riot.

Washington Post, Capitol siege was planned online. Trump supporters now planning the next one.

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11 thoughts on “Ten More Days Without a Functioning Federal Government

  1. Maha – I find this posting to be one of your best in providing a status of where we are as a country.

    As I write, there are still 238 hours and 10 minutes left before Uncle Joe takes the oath of office.  The tRump fear factor remains as I have little confidence that the Pentagon would actively resist him starting a war against Iran or damaging mischief elsewhere.  This is still the DOD that released their version of what transpired at the Pentagon on Wednesday and their version called it a "First Amendment Protest".

    I fear that there is much more violence coming from the tRump cult before Uncle Joe takes the oath of office and I do not expect it to totally disappear after the 20th.

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  2. The danger from Trump will persist after the 20th, though of reduced power and fading influence. The sooner the lawsuits snare him, the better. Impeaching him to prevent his running ever again would be good, though I doubt that McConnell will cooperate. (On the other hand, Trump _is_ of no more use to him, and Trump _did_ sic an armed mob on him.)

    We are at maximum danger now, like an abused spouse just before leaving the abuser. He will do his worst; we must do our best.

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    • Totally agree the danger will persist.  I fear that a person or small group, will attempt something much more extreme since the very public mob effort failed.

  3. From forces internal and external to the United States and not excluding a runaway pandemic, the next ten days present an extreme danger.  I totally agree with the previous comments.  If one is not anxious, consider getting a reality adjustment scheduled asap.

  4. Again, though, we can ask if anyone has really been in charge of much of anything these past four years. Trump is less of a leader than a bullying and abusive head of household.

    You’re missing the point. You think Trump and his people are there to govern, and handle the matters of state, like any other President. They’re not. Trump is there for himself and himself alone. Ruth Ben-Ghiat explains in this short interview how Trump actually has been extremely busy, cultivating his base, feeding his personality cult.

    • https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/christopherm51/state-department-website-trump-term-ending-employee

      Well, this puts that rumor to bed. One of the reasons to even consider it a possibility is that if Trump gets convicted in the Senate he will not only lose the ability to hold public office. He could also be stripped of his pension, lose his secret service security detail , a million dollar yearly travel allowance, and the prestige that accompanies a former president. When you consider the monetization of those benefits it comes out to a decent piece of change. And knowing how Trump always manages to milk out as much money from the Secret Service coffers as is humanly possible it would make sense that he'd opt for the most financially beneficial deal available to him.

  5. Whenever Congress and the president lock horns over a vital national interest, it is easy to declare "a pox on both their houses" and reflect fondly on those nonexistent days when government worked brilliantly. This time though, the public mood is a little different. Self-defined libertarians, pseudo-anarchists, Tea Partiers and other formerly fringe groups have come into national prominence by openly questioning the federal government's scope and role in America.
    As a thought exercise, then, consider what would happen if there was no federal government anymore. For purposes of this experiment, assume that one day government just disappears – the people still exist and the infrastructure is there, but the laws, rules, systems and policies disappear. Admittedly it is an outlandish scenario, but what would life in the United States look like? 

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