When it comes to maiden voyages, the Trump administration’s has been as disastrous as any since that of the Titanic — and one that has revealed some deeply disconcerting disorders in, and troubling truths about, the new national team.
Let’s look at a few:
Increasingly, one is forced to conclude that the new president is either an arrant huckster or a man incapable of forming accurate judgments. That sounds harsh, but how else can you explain his continuing insistence that he would have beaten Hillary Clinton in the popular vote absent massive voter fraud? A huckster might well make a preposterous public assertion to delude a gullible base. But why would even a confirmed flimflam artist repeat that claim in private, to people who know better, as Trump did last week at his reception for congressional leaders?
Here’s what makes his reality-warping propensity more worrisome:
In the early going, the Trump administration’s moves are being driven by an axis of pugnacious partisan provocateurs less interested in governing than in the appearance of action. Foremost among them is erstwhile Breitbartian Stephen Bannon, who has emerged as Trump’s alter ego and closest adviser. Bannon has an ally in Stephen Miller, a young right-wing fringe figure who now has a central White House role. Their interest is not in well-designed policy but in executive orders Trump can later point to as fulfilling his campaign promises, even if they ultimately serve only as pyrotechnic distractions that disguise the later resolution of the matter at hand.
Thus we see the ill-conceived Muslim travel ban put together by a secretive group that bypassed the normal policy-making channels and protocols — a team that, disturbingly, had the power to override Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly on crucial aspects of that plan. That also explains the executive order to push forward with construction of a border barrier — and the Three Stooges struggle to point to something that might fool the economically illiterate into thinking Mexico will pay for it.
Trump, incredibly, has now given Bannon status as a principal on the National Security Council, while demoting the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to occasional participants. Ordinarily, one might look to the national security adviser to be a buffer separating policy from politics, but not angry, alarmist Michael Flynn.
So what does that mean? Secretary of Defense James Mattis could soon become the most instrumental person in Washington — from the viewpoint of rational decision-making in the international realm, that is. Unlike so many on Trump’s team, Mattis seems to be a smart, seasoned, knowledgeable professional. And he’s one of very few members of the administration to whom Trump will actually defer. The president has now said several times that though he believes in waterboarding, he will leave that up to Mattis, who doesn’t think torture is effective.
Mattis, who was kept out of the loop on the Muslim ban, will have to assert himself. He has leverage, however; losing him would be an early disaster for the storm-tossed administration.
We’ve also learned some important lessons about Republicans in Congress. To wit: The real GOP leaders are John McCain and Lindsey Graham. As we saw on the Muslim ban, those two are willing to speak out — and aren’t daunted by a Trump twitter tantrum attack. Contrast that with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, whose comments fairly define mealy-mouthed.
Sadly, one can’t put an optimistic spin on any of this. These are bad omens for benighted times.