Is Donald Trump “deconstructing the administrative state,” as Steve Bannon and his allies claim, or is he helping to bring down his own administration? We know that Trump is angry about many things, but is much of what upsets him of his own making?
Let’s start with Trump’s view of Vladimir Putin and Russia. During the campaign, Trump repeatedly praised Putin, whom he often said he admired as a leader who got things done. If Putin had done bad things like murder journalists, well, we aren’t so innocent ourselves. At one point, Trump publicly addressed Putin directly, saying it would be a good thing if he disclosed Hillary Clinton’s 35,000 deleted e-mails. If this was meant to be a joke, it was not funny. It was apparent that the Russian government wanted Trump to win and was trying to damage Clinton.
Through WikiLeaks, they released embarrassing e-mails hacked from the DNC and from John Podesta, chairman of Clinton’s presidential campaign. It was somewhat suspicious that although it was thought that Russia also had hacked the RNC, nothing was released from that source or from any other Republican outlet. After the election, multiple U.S. intelligence agencies reported that the Russians had indeed hacked our electoral process to try to influence the outcome. Given the times and Clinton’s deeply flawed campaign, Trump probably would have won the election without their help — but Russia’s efforts didn’t hurt.
Reports are that the Russians enthusiastically celebrated Trump’s victory, anticipating a friendly reset with the United States. Now, however, Trump’s very public and unexplained love for Putin, together with Russia’s actions to influence our election, has created an atmosphere inhospitable for achieving it. In retrospect, Putin probably feels it would have been better if Trump had not so enthusiastically appeared to push a pro-Russian agenda.
Putin has recently instructed the Russian media to pay less attention to Trump and to make their coverage of him less favorable, as a Bloomberg news story explained:
The Kremlin ordered state media to cut back on their fawning coverage of President Donald Trump, reflecting a growing concern among senior Russian officials that the new U.S. administration will be less friendly than first thought, three people familiar with the matter said.
It was, as the story put it, “a stark turnaround from just a few weeks ago.” The Russians were upset, it seems, at a tweet Trump posted in which he seemed to imply that Russia’s seizure of Ukraine took place because Obama was too soft on Putin.
Turning to the president’s appointments at home, Trump earned high marks for the foreign policy and national security team he has put in place. Most commentators and liberal journalists had to acknowledge that the president had appointed knowledgeable and worthy men, including Rex Tillerson as secretary of State, Gen. James Mattis as secretary of Defense, and Gen. John F. Kelly as director of Homeland Security. The same bipartisan support was exhibited for Mike Pompeo, new head of the CIA, Nikki Haley as U.S. ambassador to the UN, and Lt. General H.R. McMaster as head of the National Security Council, replacing Gen. Mike Flynn.
But no sooner had Trump made these well-received appointments did it became clear that in many of the departments, especially at State, all was not well. The president and his White House advisers would not approve their choices for deputies and staff. Tillerson’s choice of Elliott Abrams as his deputy was turned down by Trump because Abrams had been critical of him during the campaign. Mattis experienced a similar rejection. Moreover, most of the other slots at State remain unfilled, and The Atlantic magazine correspondent Julia Ioffe reported almost no activity in the department and the lowest morale ever by its employees. Secretary Tillerson, as well as State, seems to have been demoted. He has been excluded from major meetings with foreign leaders and his department’s budget is slated to be slashed.
Instead, it seems members of Trump’s inner circle are conducting the country’s foreign policy from the White House, with son-in-law Jared Kushner seemingly functioning in the role usually conducted by the secretary of State.
Trump administration people say so few slots are being filled because so many of the foreign policy community publicly opposed Trump during the campaign, with 122 foreign policy and national security experts signing a letter critical of Trump written by Eliot A. Cohen and Brian McGrath in March.
Many of them, as well as other critics, are offering their service to the administration, but Trump will not consider them; he doesn’t take criticism well. There are not many experienced hands out there who supported Trump, so they are looking to hire inexperienced and relatively young Trump loyalists to fill them, but these appointees don’t know the ropes. Trump’s explanation to Fox News — “In many cases we don’t want to fill those jobs. What do all these people do? You don’t need all those jobs” — is clearly inaccurate. While it is most likely true that some of the jobs now unfilled are not necessary for a department to function and for diplomacy to work, many of them must be filled. Tillerson is flying almost solo without deputies or assistants to help him or his agency do its job.
Part of the president’s problem is that he wants to handle everything by himself, especially when getting out his message, which he feels is being mishandled. This accounts for his well-known dissatisfaction with Sean Spicer, who came to the job from the RNC with Reince Priebus’ recommendation. Trump was reportedly angry at Melissa McCarthy’s savage portrayal of him in two Saturday Night Live skits, and supposedly told people they had chosen a woman to portray Spicer because the press secretary was not strong enough and appeared too feminine. Part of the messaging problem is that Spicer and Kellyanne Conway are put on the spot without correct information, making them say things that later need to be explained and taken back. It is difficult to convey a message when you haven’t been informed of what that message is.
Conservatives rightfully point out that the national media and its reporters and TV newscasters are overwhelmingly on the liberal and left side, and often, their bias appears in stories that seem to skirt the difference between reportage and editorials. But it is something else altogether to proclaim, as Trump has, that the press “is the enemy of the people.” To take that stance, and to leave out of a press briefing reporters from CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other outlets Trump thinks are opposed to him will not earn him the kind of coverage he desires.
Vice President Mike Pence often seems to reinterpret Trump’s statements. A few days ago at the annual Gridiron dinner in New York City, Pence said:
The president and I support the freedom of the press, enshrined in the First Amendment. For my part, I’ve long been an advocate of a free and independent press — I worked as a commentator in the ’90s; I co-founded the World Press Freedom Caucus with Congressman Adam Schiff, who’s here tonight; and I authored the federal Media Shield statute.
Then, Pence went on to criticize the press, telling those present:
In this day and age of a breathless news cycle, we sure could use more responsible, considered journalism in America.
Pence knows when to praise the press and how to criticize them at the same time. For Trump to be effective and to succeed with his agenda, he must fight his own instincts to circle the wagons and retaliate against those who criticize him. He must stop relying solely on his inner circle — particularly Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Michael Anton — for advice. Someone should also take his cell phone away so he can’t continue to be his own worst enemy.