The White House has become a reality show.
A president gets the advice he deserves. For those who have studied presidential politics and behavior over the past half century, this is both a blessing and a curse.
While there has been no shortage of sharp elbows over the years, nothing comes close to the erratic dysfunction of the current Trump White House. Even though General John Kelly has taken the position of Chief of Staff to replace the beleaguered Reince Priebus, the person who needs to change the most remains the current President of the United States. So long as he retains his Twitter account and the emotional intelligence of a two-year-old, Donald Trump will quickly tire of General Kelly, just as he has tired of every non-family member of the Trump White House.
Jimmy Carter used to say, “If you want to see how I will behave as President, watch me closely as a candidate.” Carter’s strengths as a detail driven candidate soon became liabilities as he dealt with the awesome power of the Presidency. Some say that he peaked after winning the Pennsylvania Primary in 1976 but slowly began to slide downward until barely winning the race against Gerald Ford in the fall. Carter had the bad fortune to lead the country during the late 1970’s, when a whole host of storms rattled the American economy. Four years later, he was out the door and Republicans ran against “The Carter Years” until the election of Bill Clinton in 1992.
When Donald Trump announced his presidential run in front of a group of cheering attendees who were paid to appear, the same rule applied. Trump ran as if he was the villain of his own reality show to conventional viewers, but to those who voted for him in primaries as well as the General Election, he parroted a litany of grievances that excited his base. Yet his campaign itself was manned by a confusing collection of alt-right bomb-throwing White Nationalists along with those who occupied the outer edge of the lunatic fringe. Buoyed on by Trump’s own personal branding, he appeared to defy gravity to win the nomination as well as the general election to knit together a diverse coalition of those left behind from the economic recovery of the Obama years.
Had Donald Trump built out more of a conventional looking cabinet and a White House staff, he might have been seen as a mild eccentric who chose to mature upon taking the Oath of Office. However, following the Carter admonition, Trump’s erratic behavior as candidate only accelerated as president. The adults of both Bush White Houses moved on to the private sector or retired and a new batch of extremists who would never get a presidential hall pass now found themselves in pivotal positions of real power in the Trump White House.
Worse, Trump’s predilection to pit White House staff members and Cabinet level officers against each other for little more than his own amusement has sucked up valuable time and energy. Soon traditionalists like Reince Priebus or Sean Spicer found themselves in a death match against Steve Bannon or Steven Miller. Political players like Steve Bannon invited themselves to the foreign policy table, a place where they certainly did not belong. Even in his latest battles with both Priebus and Spicer, members of the Trump family watched quietly as brash newcomers like Anthony Scaramucci publicly fought with other White Houses staff in an unprecedentedly toxic atmosphere. As the disputes sucked up the oxygen of the Trump Administration, the President seemed disappointed that Priebus chose not to fight back against the attacks from “The Mooch.”
Earlier in the week, Trump excoriated his own Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, because he had to legally recuse himself when it came to the Russian investigation. Then there was a speech in front of the Boy Scouts and members of law enforcement that was officially rebuked afterward by both organizations. Finally, there was the spectacular flameout of Anthony Scaramucci himself, who after knocking Priebus out his position, his world came crashing down around him after series of inexplicable conversations with Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker and Chris Cuomo of CNN.
However, by endlessly promoting foolishness and chaos around him, Trump offered little clue about the meat and potatoes of his job, legislating the nation’s business. He was unable to differentiate between Medicare and Medicaid. When it came to moving legislators to his side on the issue, his grasp of simple issues seemed lost on members of his own party. The failure of last week’s “Skinny Repeal” was placed at Trump’s front doorstep. The person who cast the critical vote, John McCain, was the man he had defamed two years earlier by suggesting that he was not a war hero. Only Donald Trump could find a way to screw things up where he had workable political majorities in both houses as his own signature health care initiative went down to a humiliating defeat. With that, a worried nation heaved a sigh of relief.
There are serious consequences here. Because our allied relationships with Atlantic and Pacific partners are in tatters, the basic global equation that beat back the old Soviet Union and won the Cold War is being called into question. As Trump pounded out the first of three tweets that “banned” members of the Trans community from serving in the military, AP reported that there was a 9-minute gap between the first and second tweet. Military planners at the Pentagon were deeply concerned that an imminent attack was planned for North Korea but had to wait until Trump finished the second tweet to better understand what he was talking about at a time when most people were still asleep. Because of the global nature of Twitter, leaders in North Korea were also monitoring Donald Trump’s tweets. Based on their own hair trigger immaturity as a nuclear country, they might launch their own nuclear or conventional attack on the United States or South Korea as a pre-emptive measure. By misinterpreting a 140-character tweet, North Korea could plunge an entire region into incalculable madness.
All throughout his life, Donald Trump had built a certain level of success by humiliating those around him through the press or in person, lying to a point where it becomes pathological, and creating a comet’s tail of chaos in his personal and business life. A new Chief of Staff won’t amount to any real change in how Donald Trump operates. The hard work of governing is not some reality show. Wandering off script to regale Boy Scouts about William Levitt’s yacht-based orgies is wholly unpresidential.
Not caring about legislative detail makes you look foolish while arguments are being presented and makes you look ignorant when you lose.
During The Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when the world looked deep into the nuclear abyss, the members of ExComm—a loose group of top policymakers--debated for the better part of 13 days how they should address the crisis and removed nuclear tipped missiles only 90 miles off American shores. There were no poison pen articles detailing White House spats between members of the Kennedy White House. Nobody threw “shade” at each other in the political gossip columns of the Washington Post or Los Angeles Times.
Were there rivalries? Of course. However, the people around that table knew that their lives—and perhaps the lives of 100 million were on the line. It took every ounce of brainpower, combined with a major helping of blind luck to get out of a dangerous situation in one piece.
Today the critical positions of US foreign and domestic policy resemble a ghost ship. Out of the 1,100 positions requiring Senate confirmation, only 255 have been nominated. Of that group, 51 people have been confirmed—in a Senate controlled by Republicans. As we look to the growing concerns along the Korean peninsula, no U.S. Ambassador to South Korea has been chosen and critical East Asian staff positions in the White House remain unfilled. As we giggled about the jockeying between players like the late-great Reince Priebus and the quickly departed Anthony Scaramucci, the real danger lies with the saber rattling over North Korea, where nobody is answering the phone at The White House.
If the Trump White House screws up North Korea as badly as they have screwed up their presidential term thus far, nobody will be left standing to worry too much about healthcare.