J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at the initial stages of the appointments for President-elect Trump’s administration – and is rather less than cheered by what he has seen so far.
Film buffs remain in awe of Robert Wiene’s great classic silent film, made way back in 1920, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Critic Roger Ebert once labelled this flick as “the first true horror film” which, echoing the terrors of authoritarian governments, posits the director of a mental facility who uses his patients to commit crimes on the director’s behalf.
Now, please, let’s be very, very careful right around here. We are not saying Donald Trump is a criminally insane director of a mental hospital who turns his patients into unwitting criminals. Nor are we trying to imply that his initial picks for his senior advisers and his cabinet appointees are all, so far, hapless mental patients. At least not until these people actually do something to fully earn such distinctions.
Still, even in the best of interpretations, it would be a hard case – and a real uphill climb – to argue that the president-elect has, so far, made just the kinds of choices that will reassure a thoroughly jittery and divided nation about his good sense, his steadiness of purpose and his clear understanding of the overarching national interest. Nor has the evidence come out that would demonstrate his ability to separate his harshest partisan intentions (and maybe his personal business needs) from the needs of a government that, as the Constitution says, is expressly designed “to promote the general welfare” of an entire nation.
The first two names appointed to the senior-most levels of the White House staff – Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon – and then his selections of Senator Jeff Sessions, retired General Mike Flynn and Congressman Mike Pompeo, have done relatively little to reassure a great many people, and aspects of these names will unnerve many others. The question, going forward, must now be: Is this the way it will go, all the way down, right down to the head, say, of the smallest independent agency in the US government? Or, are these initial appointments just meant to be a sop to those wild people over on the alt-right, before some other more magnanimous direction eventually is unveiled among later picks?
To be fair, any incoming, new president gets a rather wide open field in appointing his personal White House staff – and even his cabinet.
(Cabinet positions and a number of other equivalent-level appointments require the Senate “to advise and consent” – a constitutional provision that means hearings before the appropriate committee, a recommendation from that committee, and then a vote on the appointment by the whole Senate. Some appointments become contentious, although most get through the process with nothing much more than some ruffled, affronted dignity. Usually.)
This is different, say, than the way things are done in a parliamentary democracy such as Britain, Australia, Canada or South Africa. In such nations, an incoming, new majority party already has shadow ministers for all the key positions who step right into their jobs when the parliamentary majority shifts in their party’s favour. In the American system, a newly elected president gets to pick his own names to nominate – largely from wherever the president thinks is helpful – and then tries to get the Senate to agree.
In the case of a US president, his (or her, someday) choices are largely subject to the landscape of the various support bases within his party or aligned to it such that he believes he must assuage them with appointments. He also wants to support his own individual ideas about the broad directions of government policy going forward, and sometimes, even, he is concerned with the levels of competence and relevant experience of those whom he will appoint.
It is crucial, however, for a president-elect and his transition team to get on with the task at hand without delay. There is only a two-and-a-half-month period between the election and the president’s taking office to get at least part of a cabinet nominated and actually scheduled for confirmation hearings by the Senate, and to get as many other names as possible moving forward in the process as well.
In the present era, before announcing names, the transition team helping the president-elect must engage in a thorough vetting of potential appointees. This includes financial records, personal circumstances such as any criminal charges or unpleasant legal disputes in their past (even driving while intoxicated charges or the hiring of a foreign-born housekeeper or child minder whose visa status may be problematic), as well as a career’s worth of public statements. Naturally, too, there will be a discreet examination of whether a prospective appointee’s views are in line with the new president’s ideas – and if, say, they ever taught in a university, whether their courses veered into an ideological never-never-land that would embarrass the new administration or the appointee.
In total, a president gets to pick around 4,100 political appointees to run a federal bureaucracy of over 4-million career civil servants. While many of these appointees are distinctly lower level folks – commissioners of interesting but obscure bodies such as the US-Japan Friendship Commission or the US Migratory Bird Commission – the incoming president should have named at least a hundred or so of his top appointees by the time he is actually inaugurated on 20 January.
In broad aspect, a new president can elect a number of different-style precedents as a cabinet is shaped. He can follow a model like Abraham Lincoln’s, for example. When Lincoln was elected in 1860, he realised his recently established Republican Party was now, for the first time, headed into control of government.
Accordingly, there were several strong factions within the party and a number of senior figures (including some suddenly party-less, former Whig Party leaders who had recently joined with the Republicans) who felt themselves more qualified and experienced to be in charge than the newly elected president. Lincoln’s cabinet became known as the “team of rivals” in which he kept powerful, opinionated figures like William Seward and Edwin Stanton in full-time harness within the cabinet, as opposed to allowing them to scheme as the heads of factions against the president from their own support bases. Soon enough, they had bought into the Lincoln mystique and became some of his strongest defenders.
In a different kind of approach, when Dwight Eisenhower became president in 1953, he created the kind of structure around the cabinet that substantially mimicked his experience at the top echelons of command of a massive military force. His model was to establish a complex staffing structure that emanated from the White House outward to the cabinet to keep things running smoothly. The purpose of all these co-ordinating mechanisms was to consider and staff out issues, and then formulate comprehensive plans for his review, under a near-hierarchical structure in which Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was the body’s “primus inter pares” – first among equals.
Eisenhower’s successor, John F Kennedy, had a rather different model. His was a more fluid system than Eisenhower’s, but with the additional idea that reached beyond his intra-party support bases in filling some key slots. He picked a numbers-crunching, largely non-partisan technocrat in the person of Robert McNamara, drawn from the automobile industry at the peak of its glory, to run the vast Defence Department. He also selected a solidly Republican banker, C Douglas Dillon, to serve as Treasury Secretary, as a safe emissary to Wall Street and the banking community from Kennedy’s rambunctious “New Frontier”, especially given the challenge of the president’s nascent Keynesian economic ideas.
So far, at least, the general Trumpian attitude seems to have been to go with the hard edges of two of his deepest support bases – the alt-right and the hard conservatives in the GOP. While he picked Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican National Committee as his White House chief of staff, it needs to be understood that the head of the RNC does not have the same kind of power or influence as, say, the secretary general of the ANC.
Priebus’s task at the RNC was to make all those trains run on time for the political campaigns, and to try to work in co-ordination with a presidential candidate’s own election campaign machinery. In addition, it was his job to manage the mechanisms to get out the vote and carry out the massive data capture of millions of voter views and preferences, and – crucially – to keep that contribution money machine ticking over. For America, the party largely becomes the presidential nominee’s tools, rather than the other way around. A party head has little say over the behaviour of individual congressmen and senators, for example.
Priebus comes firmly from the small-government, cut-taxes, hack-away-at–social-welfare-programmes, build-up-defence, support-business, appoint-original-intent-justices-Paul-Ryan wing of the Republican Party, rather than the nationalist-populist “revolutionary” ideologues of the alt-right. Accordingly, Priebus will be one of Trump’s emissaries to the GOP’s congressional caucus, but not its master. His position will not, largely, be to set the new administration’s ideological agenda. That task will largely be left to the actual president-elect – and his Svengali of a White House counsellor.
Accordingly, Priebus’s pick should prove to be a smart move, if Trump is even a bit lucky. Priebus is someone who understands how Washington runs, by virtue of having been a creature of it for years, because he is a man who understands the various warring strands within the GOP and who, nevertheless, remains sufficiently malleable that he will largely follow his new leader without public dissent. With this appointment he will drink the Trumpian Kool-Aid and keep that smile on his countenance.
By contrast, because of his government-wide vantage point, Steve Bannon is going to be the whip cracker, keeping the ideological shock troops in line on issues of importance to the Trumpian coalition, even as Bannon will have wide-ranging authority to poke into every government department and programme to ensure that they do not move away from the themes and issues of importance to the White House. Bannon is a tough, smart man who helped lead Trump to victory in November and who had previously made his money on Wall Street at Goldman Sachs, then in the film and television industries, and who then stroked his ideological needs while running Breitbart News.
In a way, with Trump as the big picture guy, as he likes to describe himself, Bannon will have something of a free rein to articulate the issues, wield the whip, and keep everyone on the right side of things. A phone call in which Bannon’s PA or the White House telephone operator tells the recipient of the call, “Good afternoon. Mr Bannon of the White House would like to speak to…” will quickly become the most feared phone call in the city.
Then, in his subsequent nominations, Donald Trump picked retired General Michael Flynn as his National Security Advisor, Senator Jeff Sessions as his Attorney General and Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo to head the CIA. All three of these men come from the conservative, even extreme versions of the Republican Party.
Flynn was regarded as the best intelligence officer in the military, even if his management style was so roundly criticised that he was ultimately removed as the head of the Defence Intelligence Agency (the military’s version of the CIA). In recent years he has achieved a rather startling public reputation as a harsh critic of Islam, arguing that the entirety of that civilisation is an inimical radical political force bent on the destruction of Judeo-Christian civilization – and thus the US right along with it.
The problem with his appointment – aside from his over-the-edge political thinking – is that this job has two key components. The first is to keep the president well apprised of the most important international security developments affecting the nation. The second is to serve as a careful, accurate conduit of the ideas of the entire national security team, and then, via his staff, to provide careful analyses of the recommended course of action, going forward.
Almost regardless of the people appointed as the secretaries of state and defence, along with other officials, Flynn seems set for some epic clashes over lines of authority, as well as the content of the advice given the president – especially when one of the major players feels his ideas were left out of the final memo.
Sessions, meanwhile, has some significant baggage over his racial attitudes, as well as things like using the term “un-American” to describe the NAACP and the ACLU. This is the man who will oversee a department in which one of its important tasks is to administer the legal sanctions that are part of American civil rights legislation. There will be some fireworks in the Senate – at least on the part of Democrats – when his name is brought forward to the appropriate committee, especially since he was once refused a federal judgeship by virtue of his attitudes.
Commenting on Congressman Mike Pompeo’s nomination as head of the CIA, the New York Times noted, Pompeo “was once pointedly asked why his committee’s inquiry into the 2012 attacks on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, had dragged on longer than the Watergate investigation. He did not flinch. ‘This is worse, in some ways,’ he said, during an appearance on Meet the Press in late 2015. A sharp, pugnacious Kansas congressman and former Army tank officer with degrees from West Point and Harvard, Mr Pompeo was often an unyielding critic of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accusing her of orchestrating a wide-ranging cover-up of the Benghazi attacks…. If confirmed by the Senate, Mr Pompeo would become one of the most overtly partisan figures to take over the CIA — a spy agency that, at least publicly, is supposed to operate above politics and avoid a direct role in policy-making.”
Watch for more than a few fireworks being set off in the Senate over this one, too, before Pompeo is ultimately confirmed for the CIA’s directorship.
Taken together – Flynn, Sessions and Pompeo – are poised to be in the lead for a charge back towards more aggressive interrogation methods, increased incarceration of would-be terror suspects at Guantanamo, and some apocalyptic rhetoric about the Manichean “clash of civilisations” between the West and the rest.
Or, as Politico noted on Sunday about this cheering prospect, “Last February Mike Flynn, the incoming national security adviser to President-elect Donald Trump, tweeted: ‘Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.’ He urged his tweeps to ‘please forward’ a Muslim-bashing video by one I.Q. al-Rassooli, a Britain-based, Iraqi-born polemicist who argues that Islam is less a religion than a cult in perpetual war with the West, that the Prophet Muhammad ‘committed crimes against humanity on a massive scale’ and the Koran is ‘a rambling, incoherent, jumbled scripture of hatred and enmity that no true God would have ever revealed to anyone.’
“Two years ago, in 2014, Steve Bannon, President-elect Trump’s incoming chief strategist, told an interviewer that ‘the Judeo-Christian West’ is ‘in the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict … an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism’ – an enemy that, unless harsher measures are taken, ‘will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.’ ”
Given this kind of policy direction, it becomes increasingly important to see which individuals will be nominated as secretaries of state and secretary of defence – and if they will form any kind of balance on this Trumpian “Gang of Three” (or four, if you count Bannon as a charter member). At this point, some are pointing to the apparently warm and fuzzy meeting between Donald Trump and 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney (who had earlier this year called Trump a “con”) as the harbinger of Romney’s appointment as secretary of state. But then there was also Trump’s fulsome praise of retired Marine General James Mattis as an indication that he is up for the Pentagon (although he would need a special waiver for this by virtue of his recent military service and the need for civilian control of the military).
While Romney’s views are relatively well known, with regard to General Mattis, the AFP reported over the weekend, “‘General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who is being considered for Secretary of Defence, was very impressive yesterday. A true General’s General!’” Trump said on Twitter.
“The 66-year-old Mattis, who called Trump ‘the real deal’ after their meeting Saturday, is a retired Marine Corps general who led the US Central Command from 2010-2013, overseeing the US withdrawal from Iraq and a surge in Afghanistan.
“A colourful combat commander and voracious reader, he has been quoted as saying, ‘Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.’” Hmm. Sounds just perfect for managing a massive military and civilian bureaucracy and handling delicate diplomatic discussions with allies around the globe.
The Trump administration is obviously still a work in progress, but its appointments, so far, its hectoring responses to booing crowds, and its annoyance over a rather polite razzing a cast member of Hamilton gave the vice president-elect as an encore when Mike Pence went to see the hit show, may not fill us with enormous joy so far about the Trump administration’s support for differences of opinion and its understanding of the need to govern an entire nation and not just one ideological strand. DM
Photo: US President-elect Donald Trump (L) hugs Chairman of the Republican National Committee Reince Priebus (R) on stage during his 2016 US presidential Election Night event at the New York Hilton Midtown in New York, New York, USA, 08 November 2016. US businessman Republican Donald Trump has won the US presidential election. Americans voted on Election Day to choose the 45th President of the United States of America to serve from 2017 through 2020. EPA/SHAWN THEW
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