It’s with a whiff of desperation that President Trump insists these days that he’s the chief executive Washington needs, the decisive dealmaker who, as he said during the campaign, “alone can fix it.” What America has seen so far is an inept White House led by a celebrity apprentice.
This president did not inherit “a mess” from Barack Obama, as he likes to say, but a nation recovered from recession and with strong alliances abroad. Mr. Trump is well on his way to creating a mess of his own, weakening national security and even risking the delivery of basic government services. Most of the top thousand jobs in the administration remain vacant. Career public servants are clashing with inexperienced “beachhead” teams appointed by the White House to run federal agencies until permanent staff members arrive.
Mr. Trump lost his national security adviser this week in a scandal involving ties to Russian intelligence. Robert Harward, a retired vice admiral, refused the job on Thursday, rattled by a dysfunctional National Security Council and a president who has alienated Mexico, Australia and even the British royal family, while cozying up to Moscow.
When Mr. Trump’s assistants can keep the edge of panic out of their voices, they insist that Mr. Trump has gotten more done in the early going than most presidents. And Mr. Trump is so adept at creating smoke that Americans might be forgiven for thinking that’s true. But at this point in the Obama presidency, which did inherit a mess, Congress had passed laws aimed at dragging the economy back from the brink of depression while committing $800 billion in Recovery Act spending to projects ranging from housing to roads to advanced energy technologies.
Mr. Trump’s vaunted $1 trillion infrastructure spending program, by contrast, doesn’t yet exist, because the president confuses executive orders with achievements. Orders are dashed off without input from Congress and the government officials who would implement them. The White House is a toxic mix of ideology, inexperience and rivalries; insiders say tantrums are nearly as common as the spelling errors in the press office’s news releases. Steve Bannon writes the president’s script, and Reince Priebus, the embattled chief of staff, crashes meetings to which he has not been invited.
Mr. Trump complains about the slow pace of congressional confirmation of his appointees, but the obstacle is at his end. His staff doesn’t bother to vet nominees in advance. His pick for labor secretary failed in part because no one in authority seemed to know that the nominee had employed an undocumented immigrant and had been accused of abusing his ex-wife.
“Everything he rolls out is done so badly,” Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian, marveled recently. “They’re just releasing comments, tweets and policies willy-nilly.”
If there is any upside here, it is that the administration’s ineptitude has so far spared the nation from a wholesale dismantling of major laws, including the Affordable Care Act, though he may yet kill the law through malign neglect. In the meantime, however, as Mr. Harward’s retreat on Thursday suggests, the chaos carries other risks. A Navy SEAL turned corporate executive, Mr. Harward cited family and financial considerations for refusing the national security job, but privately he was reported to be worried about the effect of a mercurial president on national security decision making. As Gen. Tony Thomas, head of the military’s Special Operations Command, said this week: “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon, because we’re a nation at war.”
The most damaging downside to the administration’s stumbles could be an exodus of talent from the broader government; scientists, lawyers and policy specialists at the Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, are openly disheartened at the prospect of working for Scott Pruitt, whose nomination as the agency’s new boss was approved by the Senate on Friday. And if others follow Mr. Hayward’s lead, capable people may be reluctant to come on board and fix things. That would leave the White House further isolated, particularly on foreign policy.
Indeed, unless Mr. Trump can bring some semblance of order to his official household and governing style, the only element of his famous campaign pledge that may prove accurate is the “alone” part.