World, Politics

On the ropes again: Trump’s three weeks of chaos

By J Brooks Spector 13 February 2017

After three weeks of Donald Trump as president, it is time to consider if his personality holds a lock on his behaviour. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a fearful look.

One thing we have now learned from Donald Trump’s three-week run as the American president is that he is no manager of large, complex enterprises. He may be – at least by his own evaluation – the consummate dealmaker, a real Manhattan macher of the first order; but a consummate manager of multitudes of people, projects, plans, budgets, and ideas he is – definitively – not.

And at 70 years of age, he is unlikely to change. His habits are the habits of a lifetime. Worse, his White House and administration seem to be infested with the kind of backbiting and conniving (including well-placed leaks designed to wound a colleague) that might have been at home in one of the Italian Borgia courts half a millennium ago. But, unlike the Borgias, the continuing ineptitude and randomness of the Trumpian White House is becoming its very own national security risk. By contrast, the Borgias generally were efficient. Bloodthirsty, amoral even, but ruthlessly efficient.

Let’s examine some examples. We now understand that the prime mover (and probably its primary drafter) of the executive order that banned Syrians, refugees and inhabitants from seven predominately Muslim nations (but not those where actual terrorists have departed for the US in recent years) was 31-year-old wunderkind aide, Stephen Miller, a right-wing ideologue and soul-mate of that other Stephen, Stephen Bannon.

But consultation with career officials and experts in the various affected departments of the federal government, let alone Trump’s newly ensconced – or within days of being confirmed – cabinet officials at Homeland Security, Justice, State and Defence, were all effectively ignored in this process. The predictable result was a manifestly agitprop document that kept returning to the events of 9/11 as justification for this meat-axe approach. Not surprisingly, it caused consternation globally, and was quickly and noisily opposed by protesters around the country. Almost immediately, various state attorneys-general, and then a clutch of federal district court judges, and – finally – a three-member panel of federal appellate judges ordered that this executive order be stayed in its execution.

While the three-judge appellate panel did not rule on the executive order’s ultimate constitutionality, as The New York Times noted after the unanimous decision was announced late last week,

A federal appeals panel has maintained the freeze on President Trump’s controversial immigration order, meaning previously barred refugees and citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries can continue entering the United States.

In a unanimous 29-page opinion, three judges from the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit flatly rejected the government’s argument that suspension of the order should be lifted immediately for national security reasons, and they forcefully asserted their ability to serve as a check on the president’s power.

The judges wrote that any suggestion that they could not ‘runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy’. The judges did not declare outright that the ban was meant to disfavour Muslims — essentially saying it was too early for them to render a judgment on that question. But their ruling is undeniably a blow to the government and means the travel ban will remain off for the foreseeable future.”

When the initial ruling was released, Donald Trump resorted to his favourite communication tool, the ungrammatical, syntactically challenging, misspelled Twitter rant, to denounce the federal judge as a “so-called judge”. Among other comments, he told his readers that the judge’s decision was opening the gates of America to hordes of evil, malevolent aliens – aliens likely to be terrorists. In effect, the president was arguing that should something terrible happen in America now, it would all be the fault of Judge James Robart in Seattle, along with that nasty, unAmerican appeals panel.

This kind of language, in turn, provoked Trump’s own nominee for the vacancy on the Supreme Court, federal judge Neil Gorsuch, to call such adolescent name calling both “disheartening” and “demoralising” when he was in conversation with Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, a meeting witnessed by numerous others. (Gorsuch has been making the rounds of senators, trying to encourage them to support him for this nomination.)

That revelation, in turn, provoked Trump to insist Gorsuch’s remarks were aimed at an entirely different target, certainly not the president, and then Trump used his bully pulpit to rat out Blumenthal for exaggerating his military record of 40 years ago. This kind of bullying behaviour was apparently learned decades ago in the same teenage boys’ locker room where Trump also learned how to talk dirty about women.

As things stand now, the Trump administration is mulling over how to proceed in responding to the disaster they have brought upon themselves. One school of thought is that they will fight these rulings in federal courts across the country and then, ultimately, on to the Supreme Court, where that panel will almost certainly underscore the point that the courts are clearly entitled to carry out the judicial review of executive actions. The other approach – perhaps carried out simultaneously – will be to issue a new executive order that presumably would take cognisance of judicial opinions so far, and attempt to refocus the ruling more tightly somehow. The point, of course, is that the Trump White House is now taking a hard lesson (but will they learn it?) about the heft of the federal judiciary equivalent to the presidency under the country’s constitution – and that the nation will not be ruled by fiat from a White House running rampant ideologically.

Meanwhile, General (retired) Michael Flynn, the new national security adviser, is taking some increasingly nasty knocks about his relationship with the Russian ambassador – and how playing fast and loose with the truth may well have serious repercussions for his circumstances. Flynn already has been outed as having had a particularly close set of ties to various Russian officials and institutions. In the interregnum between Trump’s election and inauguration, Flynn, it is now becoming clearer, had substantive conversations with the Russian ambassador, rumoured to be about the relaxation of economic sanctions by the incoming Trump administration.

If true, this would be a violation of the centuries-old Logan Act that forbids private freebooting foreign policy efforts. But, more important, if true, such actions will have cut off several of his colleagues in the administration, right at the knees. Included in that would be the vice president, who took Flynn at his word and similarly insisted the adviser’s phone calls were mere exchanges of pleasantries and good wishes for the festive season. The problem is that telephonic conversations into and out of the Russian Embassy are monitored, just as these were, presumably.

As foreign affairs specialist David Ignatius wrote in The Washington Post the other day,

Michael Flynn’s real problem isn’t the Logan Act, an obscure and probably unenforceable 1799 statute that bars private meddling in foreign policy disputes. It’s whether President Trump’s national security adviser sought to hide from his colleagues and the nation a pre-inauguration discussion with the Russian government about sanctions that the Obama administration was imposing.

“ ‘It’s far less significant if he violated the Logan Act and far more significant if he wilfully misled this country,’ said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, in a telephone interview late Friday. ‘Why would he conceal the nature of the call unless he was conscious of wrongdoing?’

Schiff said the FBI and congressional intelligence committees should investigate whether Flynn discussed with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December the imminent imposition of sanctions, and whether he encrypted any of those communications in what might have been an effort to avoid monitoring. Schiff said that if some conversations were recorded by US intelligence agencies, ‘we should be able to rapidly tell if Gen. Flynn was being truthful’ when he told Vice President Pence and other colleagues that sanctions weren’t discussed.

The Flynn-Kislyak contacts gained new attention when The Post reported Thursday that the FBI was continuing to examine Flynn’s communications with the Russian official, and that the two men had discussed US sanctions, contrary to the Trump team’s denials.

The crucial question is what Flynn and Kislyak discussed. The Flynn associate told me initially that the two explored timing of a future conversation between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. A Trump campaign spokesman told me several hours later that Kislyak had also told Flynn that a Trump representative should attend a peace conference on Syria that would take place after the inauguration in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Various Trump team members said Flynn hadn’t talked to Kislyak about the sanctions that were being announced near-simultaneously with the communications, whichever date you choose. That’s apparently what Flynn told Pence, too. But this denial became inoperative Thursday, when a spokesman said Flynn ‘indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up’.”

Flynn’s credibility is thus already in danger of evaporating, and we’re just three weeks into this new administration. And there are so many other issues his judgment will be important to bring to bear in the future, such as North Korea, let alone Russia.

Meanwhile, the weighty matter of Ivanka Trump’s fashion business became an important topic of comments from the president as well as his senior aide, Kellyanne Conway, once again throwing this administration into confusion and on the “all hands on deck” attack over a gnat bite. It demonstrated the president’s “take no prisoners vindictiveness” that provokes his responses, and the ease with which Conway managed to transgress federal ethics standards, all on her own, during her spirited and aggressive public comments about this critical national issue.

In brief, the story goes that Ivanka Trump, first daughter and informal adviser to her father the president, has been running a profitable fashion business – flogging jewellery, dresses, shoes, and handbags made in low wage economies in Asia. And, of course, none of this success has had the slightest thing to do with her surname or her father’s business weight. Now, it turns out that the high-end department store chain, Nordstrom, announced that because of falling sales of Trump products, they were no longer going to stock the Ivanka Trump brand.

That announcement – presumably a straightforward business decision based on the kinds of calculations the rag trade makes all the time – provoked the president to denounce Nordstrom for its cowardly decision, posting both on his private page and on the White House’s official social media page, the message: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person — always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”

Okay, this is pretty bizarre and distinctly unpresidential, castigating anyone brave enough to cut ties with a part of the Trump family business empire. (Yes, the example of President Truman calling out the music critic of a Washington newspaper for a less than overwhelming review of Truman’s daughter’s musical efforts has been cited as a retort to those who have criticised Trump for defending his daughter’s business, but Truman took it on the chin for dragging the White House into such a small bore squabble, and he never did it again – in public.)

Then, Kellyanne Conway went on a cable news channel to denounce Nordstrom’s decision still further, and to urge viewers to buy Ivanka’s goodies online instead in solidarity with that poor mistreated, next generation Trumpian entrepreneur. Beyond distasteful, this kind of bald-faced advertising is a rather clear violation of federal ethics regulations that prevent anyone in government employ from promoting private commercial enterprises.

Chastened, the White House announced later that Conway had been counselled, whatever that means. But the larger question of mixing public and private interest continues to dog this administration, especially since the president has refused to sever ties with his privately held companies. In fact, he continues to receive revenue from them, despite announcing that his two sons and a trusted business associate would help run the sprawling empire. True, we have not quite reached Louis XIV’s “l’etat c’est moi” territory, but we’re moving dangerously close, and the chances of business interests and risks clouding government decisions remain an ever-present danger with this administration.

All of these problems point to the larger texture of the Trump administration’s inability to focus with any degree of effectiveness on the kinds of sustained programmes and policies that build a real presidential legacy. Publications as mainstream as Time are already running articles about what American legal scholars say about the grounds for an impeachment of the president, after just three weeks in office. A clearly exasperated Ross Douthat, one of the New York Times’ in-house social and political conservatives, in a weekend column entitled, “Can This Presidency Be Saved?” wrote,

The peak of Donald Trump’s presidency, so far and perhaps forever, happened before he became the president. It was the deal he struck with Carrier, the Indiana air-conditioning company, to keep a factory open and jobs in the United States. No moment was so triumphantly Trumpian; nothing has gone as well for him since.

Was the Carrier deal sound economic policy, a sober and restrained use of the presidency’s powers? Not precisely. But it featured Trump following through on his most basic campaign promise: the pledge, delivered in rallies across the country’s stagnant reaches, that he would focus on good-paying jobs for people both parties seemed to have forgotten.

It was the message that helped win him the Midwest, and with it the Electoral College…. And it’s a message that’s basically disappeared — and with it, the president’s brief uptick in popularity — during Trump’s stumbling, staggering, infighting first few weeks in office.

As a result, right now his presidency is in danger of being very swiftly Carterised — ending up so unpopular, ineffectual and fractious that even with Congress controlled by its own party, it can’t get anything of substance done. The war with liberals and the media may keep his base loyal and his approval ratings from bottoming out. But it does nothing to drive any kind of agenda, or pressure Congress to enact one. And the more the Trump White House remains mired in its own melodramas, the more plausible it becomes that the Trump-era House and Senate set a record for risk avoidance and legislative inactivity.”

Douthat points to the president’s insatiable Twitter habit, as well as the unpleasant influence of Stephen Bannon. In the latter case, Douthat argues that “instead of spearheading a domestic agenda oriented around these insights, instead of demanding (or making sure his boss demands) an infrastructure bill and a working-class tax cut from Congress the day before yesterday, Bannon has seemingly set out to consolidate power over national security policy — an arena where his ideas are undercooked and his lack of expertise is conspicuous”. And the “White House run this way will be politically impotent long before it reaches its first midterm”.

So there is no necessary reason why he could not wake up tomorrow and decide to show a broad deference to Rex Tillerson and James Mattis on foreign policy, while letting Jeff Sessions and James Kelly between them hash out an immigration enforcement agenda. There will be time to reshape the world order if his approval ratings ever edge back over 45 percent; for now, he could shelve plans for big-league disruptions and Nixon-to-China strokes of genius and simply take crises as they come.

Which in turn would free him — and, yes, Steve Bannon, too — to pick a few policy themes and hammer them. And not the hardest policies, either: Let Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell figure out how to get an Obamacare replacement through Congress and tell Tom Price to prop the system up if they can’t. From the White House, the message should be simple, boring, popular. We want a big infrastructure bill. A middle-class tax cut. Corporate tax reform. Infrastructure. Tax cuts for workers and parents. A better tax code for business.”

But not a war with the judiciary, CNN, Nordstrom, or Bannon’s fantasies about Islam, Douthat concludes.

But then, such a recipe for success runs right into Donald Trump’s personality and managerial “style” – something perfected over half a century, and the reluctance of anybody, ever, to turn him away from his kind of destructive narcissism. This tendency is only magnified by his presence in the White House, what with its ever-present military aide with the launch codes “football”, the ability to summon the leaders of entire industries to meetings, and pick up the phone and speak with whoever he wants to, whenever he wishes, along with all the other tools of presidential practice.

Sadly, no one should expect this will change any time soon, so all seven billion-plus of us are stuck with him, unless he so sufficiently traduces the law and customs of his country that, in the end, there is no other choice but to end his spree at this gaming table. DM

Photo: National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (C) and Senior Counselor to the President Steve Bannon (R), sit nearby as US President Donald J. Trump (L) speaks on the phone with Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull in the Oval Office in Washington, DC, USA, 28 January 2017. The call was one of five calls with foreign leaders scheduled for 28 January. EPA/PETE MAROVICH / POOL

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