What a Failed Trump Administration Looks Like

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times:

I still have trouble seeing how the Trump administration survives a full term. Judging by his Thursday press conference, President Trump’s mental state is like a train that long ago left freewheeling and iconoclastic, has raced through indulgent, chaotic and unnerving, and is now careening past unhinged, unmoored and unglued.

Trump’s White House staff is at war with itself. His poll ratings are falling at unprecedented speed. His policy agenda is stalled. F.B.I. investigations are just beginning. This does not feel like a sustainable operation.

On the other hand, I have trouble seeing exactly how this administration ends. Many of the institutions that would normally ease out or remove a failing president no longer exist.

There are no longer moral arbiters in Congress like Howard Baker and Sam Ervin to lead a resignation or impeachment process. There is no longer a single media establishment that shapes how the country sees the president. This is no longer a country in which everybody experiences the same reality.

Everything about Trump that appalls 65 percent of America strengthens him with the other 35 percent, and he can ride that group for a while. Even after these horrible four weeks, Republicans on Capitol Hill are not close to abandoning their man.

The likelihood is this: We’re going to have an administration that has morally and politically collapsed, without actually going away.

What does that look like?

First, it means an administration that is passive, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing. To get anything done, a president depends on the vast machinery of the U.S. government. But Trump doesn’t mesh with that machinery. He is personality-based while it is rule-based. Furthermore, he’s declared war on it. And when you declare war on the establishment, it declares war on you.

The Civil Service has a thousand ways to ignore or sit on any presidential order. The court system has given itself carte blanche to overturn any Trump initiative, even on the flimsiest legal grounds. The intelligence community has only just begun to undermine this president.

President Trump can push all the pretty buttons on the command deck of the Starship Enterprise, but don’t expect anything to actually happen, because they are not attached.

Second, this will probably become a more insular administration. Usually when administrations stumble, they fire a few people and bring in the grown-ups — the James Baker or the David Gergen types. But Trump is anti-grown-up, so it’s hard to imagine Chief of Staff Haley Barbour. Instead, the circle of trust seems to be shrinking to his daughter, her husband and Stephen Bannon.

Bannon has a coherent worldview, which is a huge advantage when all is chaos. It’s interesting how many of Bannon’s rivals have woken up with knives in their backs. Michael Flynn is gone. Reince Priebus has been unmanned by a thousand White House leaks. Rex Tillerson had the potential to be an effective secretary of state, but Bannon neutered him last week by denying him the ability to even select his own deputy.

In an administration in which “promoted beyond his capacity” takes on new meaning, Bannon looms. With each passing day, Trump talks more like Bannon without the background reading.

Third, we are about to enter a decentralized world. For the past 70 years most nations have instinctively looked to the U.S. for leadership, either to follow or oppose. But in capitals around the world, intelligence agencies are drafting memos with advice on how to play Donald Trump.

The first conclusion is obvious. This administration is more like a medieval monarchy than a modern nation-state. It’s more “The Madness of King George” than “The Missiles of October.” The key currency is not power, it’s flattery.

The corollary is that Trump is ripe to be played. Give the boy a lollipop and he won’t notice if you steal his lunch. The Japanese gave Trump a new jobs announcement he could take to the Midwest, and in return they got presidential attention and coddling that other governments would have died for.

If you want to roll the Trump administration, you’ve got to get in line. The Israelis got a possible one-state solution. The Chinese got Trump to flip-flop on the “One China” policy. The Europeans got him to do a 180 on undoing the Iran nuclear deal.

More here.

Trump and Staff Rethink Tactics After Stumbles

Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman, writing in the New York Times:

President Trump loves to set the day’s narrative at dawn, but the deeper story of his White House is best told at night.

Aides confer in the dark because they cannot figure out how to operate the light switches in the cabinet room. Visitors conclude their meetings and then wander around, testing doorknobs until finding one that leads to an exit. In a darkened, mostly empty West Wing, Mr. Trump’s provocative chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, finishes another 16-hour day planning new lines of attack.

Usually around 6:30 p.m., or sometimes later, Mr. Trump retires upstairs to the residence to recharge, vent and intermittently use Twitter. With his wife, Melania, and young son, Barron, staying in New York, he is almost always by himself, sometimes in the protective presence of his imposing longtime aide and former security chief, Keith Schiller. When Mr. Trump is not watching television in his bathrobe or on his phone reaching out to old campaign hands and advisers, he will sometimes set off to explore the unfamiliar surroundings of his new home.

During his first two dizzying weeks in office, Mr. Trump, an outsider president working with a surprisingly small crew of no more than a half-dozen empowered aides with virtually no familiarity with the workings of the White House or federal government, sent shock waves at home and overseas with a succession of executive orders designed to fulfill campaign promises and taunt foreign leaders.

“We are moving big and we are moving fast,” Mr. Bannon said, when asked about the upheaval of the first two weeks. “We didn’t come here to do small things.”

But one thing has become apparent to both his allies and his opponents: When it comes to governing, speed does not always guarantee success.

The bungled rollout of his executive order barring immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, a flurry of other miscues and embarrassments, and an approval rating lower than that of any comparable first-term president in the history of polling have Mr. Trump and his top staff rethinking an improvisational approach to governing that mirrors his chaotic presidential campaign, administration officials and Trump insiders said.

Chris Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and an old friend of the president’s, said: “I think, in his mind, the success of this is going to be the poll numbers. If they continue to be weak or go lower, then somebody’s going to have to bear some responsibility for that.”

“I personally think that they’re missing the big picture here,” Mr. Ruddy said of Mr. Trump’s staff. “Now he’s so caught up, the administration is so caught up in turmoil, perceived chaos, that the Democrats smell blood, the protesters, the media smell blood.”

One former staff member likened the aggressive approach of the first two weeks to D-Day, but said the president’s team had stormed the beaches without any plan for a longer war.

Clashes among staff are common in the opening days of every administration, but they have seldom been so public and so pronounced this early. “This is a president who came to Washington vowing to shake up the establishment, and this is what it looks like. It’s going to be a little sloppy, there are going to be conflicts,” said Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s first press secretary.

All this is happening as Mr. Trump, a man of flexible ideology but fixed habits, adjusts to a new job, life and city.

Cloistered in the White House, he now has little access to his fans and supporters — an important source of feedback and validation — and feels increasingly pinched by the pressures of the job and the constant presence of protests, one of the reasons he was forced to scrap a planned trip to Milwaukee last week. For a sense of what is happening outside, he watches cable, both at night and during the day — too much in the eyes of some aides — often offering a bitter play-by-play of critics like CNN’s Don Lemon.

Until the past few days, Mr. Trump was telling his friends and advisers that he believed the opening stages of his presidency were going well. “Did you hear that, this guy thinks it’s been terrible!” Mr. Trump said mockingly to other aides when one dissenting view was voiced last week during a West Wing meeting.

But his opinion has begun to change with a relentless parade of bad headlines.

Mr. Trump got away from the White House this weekend for the first time since his inauguration, spending it in Palm Beach, Fla., at his private club, Mar-a-Lago, posting Twitter messages angrily — and in personal terms — about the federal judge who put a nationwide halt on the travel ban. Mr. Bannon and Reince Priebus, the two clashing power centers, traveled with him.

By then, the president, for whom chains of command and policy minutiae rarely meant much, was demanding that Mr. Priebus begin to put in effect a much more conventional White House protocol that had been taken for granted in previous administrations: From now on, Mr. Trump would be looped in on the drafting of executive orders much earlier in the process.

Another change will be a new set of checks on the previously unfettered power enjoyed by Mr. Bannon and the White House policy director, Stephen Miller, who oversees the implementation of the orders and who received the brunt of the internal and public criticism for the rollout of the travel ban.

Mr. Priebus has told Mr. Trump and Mr. Bannon that the administration needs to rethink its policy and communications operation in the wake of embarrassing revelations that key details of the orders were withheld from agencies, White House staff and Republican congressional leaders like Speaker Paul D. Ryan.

Mr. Priebus has also created a 10-point checklist for the release of any new initiatives that includes signoff from the communications department and the White House staff secretary, Robert Porter, according to several aides familiar with the process.

The entire article is worth a full and careful read.

The Republican Fausts

David Brooks, writing in The New York Times:

Many Republican members of Congress have made a Faustian bargain with Donald Trump. They don’t particularly admire him as a man, they don’t trust him as an administrator, they don’t agree with him on major issues, but they respect the grip he has on their voters, they hope he’ll sign their legislation and they certainly don’t want to be seen siding with the inflamed progressives or the hyperventilating media.

Their position was at least comprehensible: How many times in a lifetime does your party control all levers of power? When that happens you’re willing to tolerate a little Trumpian circus behavior in order to get things done.

But if the last 10 days have made anything clear, it’s this: The Republican Fausts are in an untenable position. The deal they’ve struck with the devil comes at too high a price. It really will cost them their soul.

In the first place, the Trump administration is not a Republican administration; it is an ethnic nationalist administration. Trump insulted both parties equally in his Inaugural Address. The Bannonites are utterly crushing the Republican regulars when it comes to actual policy making.

The administration has swung sharply antitrade. Trump’s economic instincts are corporatist, not free market. If Barack Obama tried to lead from behind, Trump’s foreign policy involves actively running away from global engagement. Outspoken critics of Paul Ryan are being given White House jobs, and at the same time, if Reince Priebus has a pulse it is not externally evident.

Second, even if Trump’s ideology were not noxious, his incompetence is a threat to all around him. To say that it is amateur hour at the White House is to slander amateurs. The recent executive orders were drafted and signed without any normal agency review or even semicoherent legal advice, filled with elemental errors that any nursery school student would have caught.

It seems that the Trump administration is less a government than a small clique of bloggers and tweeters who are incommunicado with the people who actually help them get things done. Things will get really hairy when the world’s problems are incoming.

More here.

Possible retreat on aspects of Trump’s immigration order

Via The New York Times:

A top White House official appeared to reverse a key part of President Trump’s immigration order on Sunday, saying that people from the affected countries who hold green cards will not be prevented from returning to the United States.

But the official, Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, also said that border agents had “discretionary authority” to detain and question suspicious travelers from certain countries. That statement seemed to add to the uncertainty over how the executive order will be interpreted and enforced in the days ahead.

Mr. Priebus defended Mr. Trump’s order on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program, saying it had been carried out smoothly and was protecting Americans from terrorist threats. On Saturday, a day after the order was issued, airports were marked by scenes of confusion and protest as officials tried to interpret the order, including how to handle green card holders.

On Sunday, Mr. Priebus appeared to announce a dramatic change in those policies, saying that “as far as green card holders, moving forward, it doesn’t affect them.”

Around the globe on Saturday, legal residents of the United States who hold valid green cards and approved visas were blocked from boarding planes overseas or detained for hours in American airports.

More here.

Clearly, the Trump Administration screwed up, big time.  The entire world is watching and waiting.

Paul Ryan flips on Muslim ban

Via The Washington Post:

“This is not conservatism.”

In just four words, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan made clear in December 2015 that then-candidate Donald Trump’s suggestion to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States has no place in the Republican Party.

A little more than a year later, President Trump has signed an executive ordertemporarily halting admission of all refugees — with an indefinite pause on Syrian refugees — and a pause on all visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 120 days. Trump has promised priority for Christians. The order is meant to give U.S. agencies more time to come up with a more stringent vetting system.

Ryan (R-Wis.) appears to have a completely different perspective on Trump’s executive order. Here’s what he said in a statement released Friday (my emphasis added in bold):

Our number one responsibility is to protect the homeland. We are a compassionate nation, and I support the refugee resettlement program, but it’s time to reevaluate and strengthen the visa vetting process. This is why we passed bipartisan legislation in the wake of the Paris attacks to pause the intake of refugees. President Trump is right to make sure we are doing everything possible to know exactly who is entering our country.

Some recent historical context here: When Trump proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country, he had been leading the GOP presidential primary for four consecutive months and counting. When he suggested the ban, Republican leaders already wary of Trump’s penchant for controversy quickly pushed to distance themselves and their party from his more controversial proposals.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus (now Trump’s chief of staff) said: “I don’t agree.” He added: “We need to aggressively take on radical Islamic terrorism but not at the expense of our American values.

“Trump is wrong,” tweeted then-Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.).

Much more here.

The Washington Post Editorial Board slams Trump

The Washington Post has been extremely effective in covering Donald Trump’s numerous outrages. Here is an excerpt from the Washington Post Editorial Board from yesterday:

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan correctly described Donald Trump’s 2005 taped sexually predatory conversation as “sickening,” but anyone interested in the health of the Republican Party should focus on the next part of Mr. Ryan’s statement. The sentence that counts — the statement that reveals the amoral, abject corruption at the heart of the Republican Party in this sad season — is this: “I hope Mr. Trump treats this situation with the seriousness it deserves and works to demonstrate to the country that he has greater respect for women than this clip suggests.”

Thus did the Republican Party once again initiate the same pathetic little dance it has performed with its party’s nominee from the beginning. Claim the moral high ground; insist on improvement, as if improvement were a relevant concept in this situation; and then, when nothing improves, pronounce yourself satisfied nonetheless. It’s true that this time some Republicans are jumping ship, including (finally) former presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Sen. John Thune (S.D.), part of the GOP Senate leadership. But vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Republican Chairman Reince Priebus and most other office-holders continue to join Mr. Ryan in pretending that Mr. Trump is not what we all know him to be. Are they fooling themselves, or just fearful of offending the Trump supporters whose votes they need in other races? Either way, the effect is the same.

Let’s ponder Mr. Ryan’s advice that Mr. Trump demonstrate a “greater respect for women than this clip suggests.” Certainly, that should not be difficult. What the clip shows is disgusting: an insecure braggart who, at the age of nearly 60, needs to boast of how he uses his celebrity to prey on women, and all the better if he can break his vows of marriage or theirs. Mr. Trump could be a caveman in one of those “Mad Men”-era cartoons dragging a woman back to his lair by her hair and still demonstrate a “greater respect for women than this clip suggests.” The idea that some pronouncement, any pronouncement, from Mr. Trump now could or should reassure voters is ludicrous.

Much, much more here.

Tensions are high between Trump campaign and RNC

Via The New York Times:

The Republican National Committee had high hopes that Donald J. Trump would deliver a compassionate and measured speech about immigration on Wednesday, and prepared to lavish praise on the candidate on the party’s Twitter account.

So when Mr. Trump instead offered a fiery denunciation of migrant criminals and suggested deporting Hillary Clinton, Reince Priebus, the party chairman, signaled that aides should scrap the plan, and the committee made no statement at all.

The evening tore a painful new wound in Mr. Trump’s relationship with the Republican National Committee, imperiling his most important remaining political alliance.

Mr. Priebus and his organization have been steadfastly supportive of Mr. Trump, defending him in public and spending millions of dollars to aid him. But the collaboration between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Mr. Priebus’s committee has grown strained over the last month, according to six senior Republicans with detailed knowledge of both groups, some of whom asked to speak anonymously for fear of exacerbating tensions.

There is no prospect of a full public breach between the Trump campaign and the R.N.C. because both sides rely on a joint fund-raising arrangement crucial to their election efforts.

But tensions have grown to such a point that they threaten to diminish the party’s ability to work smoothly with Mr. Trump during the most critical post-Labor Day phase of the race, when the committee traditionally helps supervise an extensive voter turnout effort.

Sucks to be Trump. He continues his erratic campaign behaviors, and eventually the RNC will have to act.

Political quote of the day

Our job as a national party is to elect Republicans, and it generally means House, Senate, presidential. We’re viewed at in a presidential year as the presidential committee that is responsible for helping elect the president, but at the same time, we have a responsibility to help pay for the ground operation in every targeted U.S. Senate races and the targeted Congressional races as well, so it is our job to do all three.

However, I think that we have become, unfortunately, a midterm party that doesn’t lose and a presidential party that’s had a really hard time winning. We’re seeing more and more that if you don’t hold the White House, it’s very difficult to govern in this country — especially in Washington D.C.

So I think that — I do think that we’re cooked as a party for quite a while as a party if we don’t win in 2016. So I do think that it’s going to be hard to dig out of something like that.I don’t anticipate that. I think … history is on our side.

— Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus (via The Washington Examiner)