About a year ago someone asked me how I would advise Donald Trump to be a more conventional candidate, if I were advising him. After a brief moment to think about the question my response was, “It doesn’t matter, because he is going to do whatever he feels like doing.”
He ran his campaign as an exercise in the confirmation of his gut feelings and he is running the White House the same way. His closest White House advisers are the people who provided logistical support to him during the campaign, including constant affirmation. His choice of cabinet secretaries has been praised by some, but a month in there is no sign he intends to rely on their advice. He picked his appointees in part because he understands that is what is expected of a president and in part as another demonstration of his ability to make good decisions.
“Look at this defense secretary I picked. He’s a general. Look at this U.N. ambassador I have. She looks the part. Look at my secretary of state, his name is Rex. A very good deal maker. Go out Rex and make some deals.”
There is no point in being part of the Trump team unless you have one of two goals. It is worth taking a job in the Trump operation if you want to say you worked in the White House, or the wider administration. You will be able to say you were close to history. The second reason to take such a job is because you believe proximity to power might provide you with some power of your own to influence events. If you take a job with Donald Trump however thinking he is going to rely on you for your sage advice, the evidence so far suggests, that’s a mistake.
In terms of his daily communications, the president is taking advice from no one. He continues to step on his own message. There is no sense he has a leadership vision. While he may have a checklist of campaign promises, and some may argue he has moved on that checklist, there has been no effort to explain where it all goes. The truth is; Trump could theoretically check off every item on his campaign list of things to do by the end of this month. Then what? What is the purpose of the Trump presidency once the checklist is complete except to sit at the White House and wait for Republicans to send him new laws to sign?
If we follow Trump’s logic on what makes a successful presidency, his work is almost done, because when he waves his hand his aides scurry. It is worth noting that the Trump White House moved through its first month without a director of communications. This may mean nothing to the average voter, but to those who understand how to control a leadership message it means there has been no coherent communications strategy except for the White House staff doing its best to enable Trump’s instincts.
The immigration executive order is an example of Trump, and his closed circuit band of body men, ignoring the advice of experts at various federal agencies in favor of blind action. Action is not the same as progress. The immigration order was thrust on Trump’s agencies to carry out without consultation. The weekend of the order, the secretary of Homeland Security must have wondered if he is just a potted plant.
The resignation of Michael Flynn as national security adviser raises many questions about Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign and Russian influence on the Trump team, but what it clearly exposes for all to see is how small the Trump team is. So small that Flynn, with the knowledge of the president, was willing to send Vice President Mike Pence and press secretary Sean Spicer out in public to spread falsehoods about Flynn’s interaction with the Russians during the transition. The Flynn timeline shows the primary goal of Trump’s White House is to maintain the integrity of the mythical bubble Trump inhabits. In Trump’s view, any suggestion that the Russians played a role in his victory is an attempt to de-legitimize his presidency, so such a suggestion must be rejected even if it means misleading the vice president and sending him out to lie on Trump’s behalf.
At the end of last week we began to see the manifestation of this Trump egocentric approach to governing. To begin with, the bureaucracy — the permanent government — that exists from administration to administration, is leaking like an old ship in an effort to expose the fact that no one is really in charge of the executive branch and the nation is in fact in danger. Trump’s predictable response is to go after the leakers instead of asking what he could do to address their concerns by surrounding himself with professionals who actually know how to run the U.S. government.
Those who might be in a position to help have observed the first month and are beginning to understand there is no point in joining the Trump administration, because he will not respect their expertise. After telegraphing his intention to hire retired admiral Robert Harward to replace Flynn, Harward said, “No.” While Harward found a diplomatic way to explain his decision(something Trump would be incapable of doing), it is quite obvious one reason he balked at the assignment was a legitimate concern that he might be national security adviser in title only. For any serious candidate, with an ability to actually help Trump lead, this is a not an opportunity worth pursuing.
For confirmation of this view we can observe Trump’s casual approach to Middle East peace. While his secretary of state was in the air traveling to Europe, Trump was holding a news conference in Washington with the Israeli prime minister. It has been reported Rex Tillerson had no heads up about Trump’s plans to publicly suggest a new path toward a peace agreement, State Department staff learned of the new policy in real time by watching television and inside the White House this was not seen as unusual because “everyone knows” Trump’s son in law is handling Middle East peace.
Trump is delusional. At his news conference last week he described his administration as a fine tuned machine. This can only be true if the designer of the machine is Rube Goldberg. A week ago Trump praised his senior adviser Stephen Miller for Miller’s frightening performance on several national news shows. Miller’s allegiance to Trump and his fundamental view of the world as a never-ending ideological war is tempered only by his obvious twerpism. Having said that, Miller is a top advisor to Trump in a political operation that places loyalty above expertise and this should concern everyone.
The wheels are off the American executive branch of government. They are not coming off, they are off. The only way to salvage the administration is for Trump to suddenly realize he needs help. Beyond the checklist that largely addresses problems the country does not have, if he really intends to drain the swamp and make America great again, he needs competent people to help him make that vision a reality. Until that happens, the Trump administration will continue to bounce along with Trump declaring victory regardless of reality. This is not progress, it is one man’s delusion and that man happens to be the president of the United States.