Trump Fails Two Tests of Judgment and Competence
Michael Flynn’s resignation as national security adviser has rightly received more attention, but it wasn’t even the first personnel snafu in the administration that week. It wasn’t even the first national-security personnel snafu that week. A few days earlier, President Donald Trump had denied Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s request that Elliott Abrams be nominated to be his deputy.
These two stories tell us a few things about how the Trump administration operates.
Trump wants loyalists. Flynn was selected in large part because he was an early and vociferous Trump backer, and Trump said no to Abrams after learning that the longtime Republican foreign-policy hand had criticized him during the campaign.
Trump was accused of being “thin-skinned” when the Abrams story went public, but it is entirely normal and reasonable for a president to favor people who backed him. Trump has actually been more willing than most presidents to appoint people who said extremely harsh things about him. Rick Perry called Trump a “cancer on conservatism” and “a barking carnival act,” and now he is Trump’s nominee for energy secretary.
There aren’t enough qualified loyalists to staff Trump’s administration. That’s why Trump has had to appoint people who have in the past severely criticized him. It’s also part of the reason he is so short-staffed, especially when it comes to national security. A very high proportion of the Republican foreign-policy intelligentsia opposed him in the primaries and even in the general election, both because he sometimes argued for a more restrained foreign policy than Republicans usually favor and because he seemed like an erratic leader.
The Trump White House uses different criteria for positions that require Senate confirmation and those that don’t. In general, the people Trump is nominating are less controversial and more widely respected than the people he is appointing. Flynn and Stephen Bannon got jobs that don’t require Senate confirmations. Tillerson and Nikki Haley got jobs that do.
Trump’s critics have complained that the Republican Congress is not acting as a check on him, but to some extent it is. The administration seems to know that it can go only so far without losing too many Senate Republicans.
There’s a management problem. Either Trump is being arbitrary about his desire for loyalists, or his underlings are not keeping him adequately informed about the people he is considering. A meeting among Trump, Tillerson and Abrams reportedly went well, and Trump learned only afterward about Abrams’s criticisms of him.
A well-running process would not have allowed this to happen. Even in a factionalized White House, Trump’s aides should have either made it clear to Tillerson that Abrams’s history ruled him out, or informed Trump about that history. Instead the president wasted some valuable time, and Tillerson lost some valuable credibility.
The fact that Flynn had to leave the administration after the shortest tenure as national security adviser in history has far greater repercussions than the fact that Abrams wasn’t allowed to enter it in the first place. Neither story speaks well of the judgment and competence of the people working in this administration, or of the man at its top.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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Ramesh Ponnuru at firstname.lastname@example.org
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