After 70 days, Washington observers of President Donald Trump’s administration are divided over whether they want him to succeed or fail. But voices often converge after hearing from people who have direct experience of seeing Trump in action in business before he came to Washington. Those discussions paint a very unflattering picture of the president – he is possibly less informed, less interested in substance, more in need of winning (and making others lose), and less open to inputs that defy or counter his prejudices than had been feared.
A tale about his reaction to General James Jones’ presentation on the Mexico border wall is instructive. Apparently, the idea presented was to build a transparent wall so that US border personnel could see into Mexico. Trump’s reaction was reportedly furious: no transparent, ‘plastic wall’! It must be a concrete and steel ‘great wall’ and it had to be six feet higher than ‘Bibi’s wall’ (the wall built by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu along Israel’s southern border). One is reminded of Renaissance Italians erecting rival towers in San Gimignano.
The odds of Trump changing, at age 70 – stopping the indiscipline, introducing an element of grace and gravitas into his style (recognising that you show respect and civility to the German chancellor, not decline to shake her hand), realizing that governing is different from beating someone in a real estate deal, hiring a serious chief of staff (hugely important to have someone credible in this position) – are slim. Yes, Trump is capable of surprises and has no fixed ideology or policy commitments apart from campaign rhetoric. He often stuns his own people by shifting ground while they are trying to advance his stated agendas. But he continues to surround himself with White House personnel who mostly lack governing experience and appear at times to parrot his divisive, self-destructive and often outlandish behaviour.
A president who grasps what it takes to succeed would try to stitch together this deeply polarized and angry country, conveying a steady sense of constructive confidence, showing a measure of capability to get things done that are actually good for – and popular with – average people, not just well-oiled lobbies. Instead, the White House drumbeat has been one of attacking the media, refusing to staff expeditiously the major executive branch departments, dismantling his predecessor’s legacies and then failing – conspicuously – to put credible programmes and policies in their place.
Barring a major restructuring of the White House operation, the salvation for this presidency would have to come from one of four sources:
Creative new programs emerge from the Trump family business cabal, for example from son-in-law Jared Kushner’s corporate-inspired ‘innovation panel’ or Steve Bannon’s ‘strategic initiatives group’. Do not hold your breath. One possibility is a lurch toward the center on a legislative issue such as infrastructure or tax reform. But to make this work would require that the president actually read his briefings, grasp policy details and become a credible messenger with the public and with Congress. These are not in the president’s playbook so far.
A second scenario would see Congress become serious about its oversight responsibility and dig into the links between the Trump entourage and various figures in Moscow and Ankara, resulting in a major, escalating scandal that spins beyond the capacity of the current inner circle to contain. (The Michael Flynn case has special potential, featuring the then national security adviser-designate possibly serving as an unregistered paid agent for foreign powers.
A third possibility is that one or more Cabinet members is snagged in ethical scandals and forced to resign. Or that a major Cabinet figure, or National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, suddenly departs. Resignations using the ‘power of exit’ could send shockwaves. Alternatively, working with senior Republican figures in Congress, the combination of Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and McMaster may succeed in forcing real policy analysis on an issue (e.g. US-China) that makes clear the need to restore Cabinet government and stop this crazed effort to ‘deconstruct the administrative state’.
A fourth scenario is that the outside world imposes a clarifying crisis on Washington and forces a restructure. There is no shortage of possibilities.
As for the Democrats in Congress (and their networks across the country), they have little motivation to help Trump at this point, while he is spiralling down into a weaker position. If the president actually contributes to blowing up the health exchanges or messes with the current health care system in other ways, he will be creating another political dust up that he will lose. (NB: healthcare accounts for about one-sixth of the US economy. In a normal world, there could be negotiated revisions and improvements of the current system. But it will take time to get there; we do not live in normal times.)
Democrats face real obstacles and challenges of their own: deciding how much of the Trump agenda to block; whether to try to block his Supreme Court nominee for the ‘stolen seat’ after Republicans refused to even hold hearings on Barack Obama’s centrist nominee Merrick Garland last year; and whether to engage with the GOP when Trump is forced to move toward the middle on taxes or healthcare. Party factions are now in the enviable position of watching Trump’s efforts flounder, but they agree on little else, and are likely to make it very hard for Congressional Democratic leaders to act pragmatically.
Dr Chester Crocker was an Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. He is the James R Schlesinger Professor of Strategic Studies at Georgetown University. He was chairman and member of the board of the United States Institute for Peace between 1992 and 2011 in Washington, DC. He is a founding member of the Global Leadership Foundation and a member of the World Bank’s Independent Advisory Board on governance and corruption.
Dr Chester Crocker