WASHINGTON ― As President Donald Trump entered his second 100 days in office, he described an example of his common-sense leadership: New U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, he decreed, would not use high-tech electromagnetic catapults that only “Albert Einstein” could understand, but would go back to old-fashioned steam power.
“You’re going to goddamned steam,” he told Time magazine.
So what did the Navy do with this plain-spoken directive from the commander-in-chief?
When Trump visited Norfolk, Virginia, some weeks later to commission the new supercarrier Gerald Ford, she was outfitted with high-tech electromagnetic catapults to launch planes off the deck. So will every other new carrier in that class. In fact, the Navy didn’t even bother asking for a study to explore the costs of retrofitting the Gerald Ford to use steam.
It seemed less an act of defiance than an assumption that Trump couldn’t possibly be serious about ordering an expensive and time-consuming redesign of a major weapons system with very little background knowledge ― and in the context of a media interview.
“They ignored it,” Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University, said with a laugh. “The United States federal government is now just shrugging at and ignoring some of his statements.”
It’s a shrug that is becoming more common in the Trump presidency. Agency heads and lower-level bureaucrats appear to have concluded that the combination of Trump’s impulsive nature and short attention span means that the president’s sometimes random commands can – and should – be safely ignored.
“His attention span is so short that what he said one hour, he doesn’t even remember the next hour,” Brinkley said.
That “ignore-what-he-says” attitude may become particularly important as the U.S. deals with a nuclear-armed North Korea. Just hours after Trump’s ad-libbed “fire and fury” statement on Tuesday appeared to escalate the conflict, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave far more measured remarks to reporters traveling with him.
“We have a very active, ongoing diplomatic effort, most of which is behind the scenes because that’s where diplomacy is most effective, Tillerson said Wednesday as his Air Force jet flew homeward high over the Indonesian island of Borneo. “I think what the president was just reaffirming is the United States has the capability to fully defend itself with any attack, will defend our allies, and we will do so. So the American people should sleep well at night.”
About That Transgender Military Ban...
Just six months into his term, Trump is finding resistance to his ideas not only from a Republican Congress ― which is ignoring his insistence that it return immediately to a health care bill before doing anything else ― but from some of his own executive agencies.
“I’m not talking about so-called ‘deep state’ bureaucrats,” wrote Jack Goldsmith, a former Justice Department and Defense Department lawyer in the George W. Bush administration. “I’m talking about senior officials in the Justice Department and the military and intelligence and foreign affairs agencies. And they are not just ignoring or contradicting him in private. They are doing so in public for all the world to see.”
Trump’s White House did not respond to queries about the aircraft catapult, or more generally about administration officials ignoring his directives.
But examples are rapidly accumulating.
Trump frequently calls the idea of Russian interference on his behalf in last year’s election a “hoax” invented by Democrats. Leaders of the U.S. intelligence agencies, including those appointed by Trump, like Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, say the intelligence community’s analysis that Russia tried to help Trump win is correct.
Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, angered the president by recusing himself from the FBI’s investigation of possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. More recently, Sessions has resisted Trump’s public ridicule and shaming, and has refused to resign his post – and in so doing has protected the special counsel now running that investigation, as Trump cannot independently fire that person.
Sessions’ deputy, Rod Rosenstein, rejected Trump’s recent call for a renewed investigation into Trump’s Democratic opponent last year, Hillary Clinton. “The president has not directed us to investigate particular people. That wouldn’t be right. That’s not the way we operate,” Rosenstein told Fox News.
Vice President Mike Pence, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Defense Secretary James Mattis frequently deliver foreign policy statements at odds with Trump’s comments. Pence and Mattis guaranteed NATO allies of the United States’ commitment to the treaty obligations, even while Trump was projecting ambivalence. Haley reaffirmed U.S. commitment to a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine right after Trump said he didn’t really care how it sorted out.
Mattis’ Defense Department, meanwhile, seems to have taken the lead in flouting Trump. Mattis personally said torture doesn’t work, although Trump insisted it does. He stated that the United States would not be seizing oil from Iraq, even after Trump suggested it was still an option.
More recently, apart from disregarding the presidential command for steam, Mattis’ Pentagon has ignored Trump’s tweets last month banning transgender people from the military. “What you saw in the form of a tweet was representative of an announcement. That doesn’t result in any immediate policy changes for us. We will await formal direction,” said Pentagon spokesman and Navy Capt. Jeff Davis.
Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft went one step further, saying recently he would not carry out the directive, period. “Very small numbers, but all of them are doing meaningful Coast Guard work today,” he said.
Norm Ornstein, with the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said experts in the various agencies are left with no choice when presented with unreasonable demands. “We’ve never had a president like this. We’ve never had a president with no knowledge base. Who’s not interested in developing a knowledge base. With no impulse control,” Ornstein said.
In the case of the aircraft carrier catapult, the electromagnetic version has been under development for years. It can launch everything from lightweight drones to heavy fighters while adjusting the acceleration force applied, easing stress on the airframes. It will require far less maintenance than steam, which the Navy has relied on for more than a half-century.
Trump did not appear to understand these benefits when he spoke to Time’s reporters. “Digital. They have digital,” he said, apparently describing how the electromagnetic catapult is computer-controlled. “What is digital? And it’s very complicated. You have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out.”
Angry Presidents, ‘Crazy Orders’
Trump, of course, is not the first president to deal with an executive branch that does not bend to his every whim.
Harry Truman reportedly laughed that successor Dwight Eisenhower, who during World War II had commanded all Allied forces in northwest Europe, was used to people following his orders, but that’s not how it worked with the presidency.
More recently, and perhaps more on point, Richard Nixon would routinely order his top White House aides to carry out bizarre and sometimes illegal orders, including at one point the bombing of the Brookings Institution to create a diversion allowing the theft of damaging documents. The aides, including some who history painted as villains following the Watergate investigation, protected the country by ignoring those orders, Ornstein said.
“It’s not the first time we’ve seen crazy orders given by a president angry that things didn’t work the way the president wanted them to,” Ornstein said.
Brinkley, the presidential historian, said Nixon’s top aides and Cabinet members actually took things a step further in his final year, as the Watergate probe and impeachment drew closer. Worried about his mental stability and his alcohol consumption, they essentially set up a system that required sign-off by the chief of staff and the defense secretary for the authorization of military strikes, he said.
“It was sort of extralegal,” Brinkley said, but operated on the premise that the United States was too important to let Nixon destroy it. “The whole issue became containing Nixon.”
Brinkley said Trump’s presidency has close parallels with the Nixon era. Now, like then, career public servants and military leaders appear to be siding with the law and the Constitution against Trump’s impulses.
“His tweets are just being seen as a weird aberration of popular culture, not to be taken as directives,” Brinkley said. “It’s unfortunate when a president behaves that way, but anyone in the military and the CIA have to understand what’s rational and what’s not rational. They’ve got to keep the world’s largest economy and the only real superpower safe.”