Saturday, April 8, 2017
Chaos in the White House
Imagine that you are a foreign affairs analyst for a major international power assigned to collate and summarize U.S. policies and directives for your Foreign Ministry boss. What do you look at? Who is in charge? Which cabinet-level officer’s words do you follow and take seriously? As the National Archives have notified the president, they would like to keep a running historical file of his tweets, but exactly how do such analysts record, analyze and summarize those 140-max word ramblings of the 45th president of the United States?
While the president always doubles down on his obvious misstatements, in other ways – like in the arena of trade agreements and his possible two-China statements – he backs off quietly. What about major policy decisions, like Trump’s travel ban, that are announced without much in the way of a consensus across his most important cabinet members… many of whom had no idea that the ban was coming? How do you account for such inconsistencies, far more than we have witnessed in any modern president? As Congress pushes back, as a disjointed Republican Party factures and as a hapless and seemingly vectorless Democratic Party founders in the background, how do you explain the entire American political scene to your bosses?
As internecine battles within the White House escalate, as executive roles shuffle and are changed almost at a whim, as inner-circle players have their roles constantly redefined (officially and unofficially), as Trump family members start performing tasks normally implemented by Senate-approved cabinet-level appointees and as others simply leave or are asked to leave, what do you follow? Whose statements and actions matter? Fear and loathing seem to define job security at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Demoralization rules. Even as Donald Trump’s popularity ratings sink to their lowest level since the Inauguration.
To most of the world, Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, the most trusted people in that inner circle, seem have risen to become the only people who seem to have immutable Trump-power other than the president himself. Jared Kushner jetted to Iraq on a fact-finding mission and was the only White House player China’s President Xi Jinping trusted to coordinate his visit. Uber-advisor, Stephen Bannon was supposed to be the most senior policy-wonk other than Trump himself, but on April 5th, he was summarily removed from his role within the super-important National Security Council. Huh? There is one word that summarizes the White House today: chaos.
The January 31st Washington Post (Chris Cillizza) started playing with this chaos theory, apparently a hallmark of Trump’s own “keep them off-balance” business management style (i.e., very intentional):
“The story details the infighting and blame game among Trump's top advisers and includes some eye-popping lines.
· ‘Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly fumed privately to associates over the weekend because they had been caught unaware by a travel ban [the first ban] that was drafted and set into action largely in secret by the White House, according to three people who have spoken with them.’
· ‘The problem they’ve got is this is an off-Broadway performance of a show that is now the number one hit on Broadway,’ said former House speaker Newt Gingrich of the Trump administration. (Sidebar: Gingrich is an informal adviser to Trump!)
· ‘A little bit of under-competence and a slight amount of insecurity can breed some paranoia and backstabbing,’ one White House official said of White House chief of staff Reince Priebus. ‘We have to get Reince to relax into the job and become more competent, because he’s seeing shadows where there are no shadows.’
“Any one of those lines is problematic in a normal White House. The quote from an anonymous White House official about Priebus who, let me emphasize, is the White House chief of staff, is stunning. If that line was used in ‘House of Cards,’ I would roll my eyes and say it would never happen in real life.”
The February 17th CNN.com, explains why our European allies are busy designing their world that will be vastly less dependent on the United States at any level: “Watching from Europe, it's hard to tell if we are playing audience to a farce, a tragedy, or both unfolding simultaneously in the White House.
“Given how critical any details emanating from the White House are to assuage European worries about President Donald Trump's intended relationship with Russia, this should not be a laughing matter. But it's pretty hard not to grimace and grin.”
Indeed, this semblance of instability has undermined America’s influence and credibility worldwide. Donald Trump may love this “keep-em-guessing” management strategy in his business world, but this approach to political governance continues to marginalize our value to the rest of the world. Going it alone will get very risky and even more expensive to us all.
The April 3rd CNN.com explains: “Trump's tendency toward chaos -- creating it if it didn't exist or reveling in it when it did -- served him well as a candidate. It kept his opponents -- in both the Republican primary and the general election -- off balance. Hillary Clinton learned the hard way how challenging it is to run against someone whose only guiding light is unpredictability. Because Trump never did anything by the book, it was incredibly tough for Clinton to ever get her feet under her; she was forever second- and third-guessing what to do and when to do it.
“And, because the American public tends not to pay terribly close attention to the nitty-gritty of a campaign, Trump's one-liner confectionaries were a perfect fit. People ate them up because, well, it was more fun than what the other candidates were saying. Would you rather watch Trump attack ‘Lyin' Ted’ Cruz or ‘Little’ Marco Rubio or spectate a dry policy discussion about tax reform? Be honest.
“The problem for Trump is that while his embrace of chaos fit a campaign perfectly, it's turned out to be far less beneficial for him since he's entered the White House. The presidency tends to reward discipline and strategic planning. For the first few years, you are really running a race against yourself: How much can you get done of your agenda before the concerns of Congress turn toward their awaiting fate in the midterm elections?...
“A quick bit of math yields this: Less than 3 percent of the total days he has spent in the White House have been good ones for Trump. (It's 2.7 percent, to be exact.) That's horrible in a vacuum. It's even worse when you consider that Trump is now three-quarters of the way through his first 100 days, the period that new presidents view as their best chance to get major things done legislatively.
“A course correction is clearly needed. But, this is Donald Trump we're talking about. To make a course correction, you would first have to admit a mistake in navigation has been made. And he doesn't admit to making mistakes. Not ever… For Republicans, that means one very simple thing: Buckle up, because the ride is going to get even bumpier.” Even major policies shift by the moment.
Lots of Trump one liners and past tweets from his pre-presidency period – Like these: "What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict? Obama needs Congressional approval." or "The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!" – continuing literally days before his ordered missile strike on the Syrian airfield that launched the sarin gas attacks against Assad’s own people, make it clear that regime change and attacks on Syria’s incumbent leadership were not in the cards. Whether you agree with the airstrike or not, which has supporters and detractors from both sides of the aisle, his April 6th deployment of cruise missiles against that site was a 180 reversal in those previous positions and a rather clear slap in the face of his Russian allies.
Inconsistency, doubling down on mistakes but then reversing behavior, and fomenting internecine battles within his senior staff are throwing even his own party for a loop. Bet the GOP is really grateful that the Democrats don’t seem to have much to offer other than becoming the party of “no.” Chaos theory is not a good philosophy for governing a nation of 330 million people.
I’m Peter Dekom, and as this battle of wills progresses, as “swamp draining” morphs into “global credibility draining,” we all need to be aware that some of this damage may well be irreversible… because the world may not trust that this will never happen again even after Trump and his administration leave office.