Published January 30, 2017
Reactions to this weekend’s implementation of President Trump’s executive order regarding immigration have tended to confound the ends and the means of the order—the substantive policy goals and the process involved in developing the policy. Critics have tended to see the shambolic process of crafting and announcing the order as part and parcel of a disordered morality embodied by the policy it sets. Defenders have argued that bold ends call for brash means. Even Trump himself has suggested that the purpose of the policy required that it be a surprise—apparently even to the highest levels of his administration and to the people charged with carrying it out.
These elements have to be untangled. Whatever you think of what this order set out to do (and I think that, as it was formulated, it elevates dubious political symbolism over governing substance and seems likely to undermine the national interest), you have to acknowledge that the order was produced in a way that set up the new president for failure. This should be only more troubling if you are more friendly to the policy involved.
Predictably, some observers have been arguing that this was all done intentionally, to create turmoil and set the Left on fire and render the media ridiculous, and all that. Passing off reckless ineptitude as strategic genius seems to be a coping mechanism for some people on all sides of our politics these days. I hope it’s helping them cope. But what we saw this weekend was rank incompetence creating dangerous chaos. We saw it here on a very small scale, and ultimately a manageable one. But the scale of the challenges confronting the American president isn’t always so manageable. Many of those problems aren’t self-created, like this one was, but instead rush at our government unpredictably and need to be swiftly and ably detected, assessed, and confronted. The last few days need to serve as a bright, blaring warning to the new administration that it is not yet prepared to do its job on this front.
The White House staff exists to bring order and structure to the president’s decision making. That is its purpose. It does this in two directions, in a sense. It is there to shape and channel the intense, unending torrent of events, pressures, and demands that always rush toward the president—to direct it away from the president, organize it into manageable segments, structure it into discrete questions, draw upon and coordinate every possible resource to offer the president a range of answers to these questions, formulate those as options for decision in a way that accounts for the tradeoffs involved, and then channel those back toward the president now that they have been made manageable for him. And it is there to then make sure that the resulting presidential decisions are communicated to the rest of the government and to the public, shaped into policy and strategy, and carried out.
This is most doable in the service of a proactive agenda, like the new president’s immigration agenda. It is most challenging in the service of crisis management and reactive policymaking, like most of what the administration will have to do in the course of the coming years. Gross failure in the former is a sign of trouble about readiness for the latter, to put it mildly.
Among other things, this weekend’s events should clarify for the president’s advisers something specific about the problems they have to fix: They are done a disservice in their efforts to enable the president to do his job by the fact that they do not trust the institutions that are now in their care and service. They share in the alienation that helped bring Trump to power, and they look at the system that exists to inform them and to carry out their decisions as an opposition force to be excluded and isolated. To a lesser extent, this is a problem for every administration, and particularly for Republican administrations. Managing it—so that you can benefit from the expertise and resources of the executive agencies without letting them take over power—is a test of prudence and competence. But the level of secrecy and exclusion involved here was obviously vastly excessive and dangerous.
Other problems were in evidence too, and the administration needs to make sure that its defensiveness in the face of its critics does not blind it to its own shortcomings. It should also be sure it does not partake of the error some of those critics have made by confounding ends and means and so does not take attacks against the process that led to this presidential order as simply attacks against the substance of the order—to be dismissed as a matter of ideological disagreement.
It’s early. And this new president’s team consists of people who haven’t done this sort of thing before. None of us outside critics should imagine we would have done better. It’s always safe to assume a new administration will face a steep learning curve and isn’t ready on day one. But after this weekend, we don’t have to assume it. It’s clear, and we can only hope the new president and his team see it too. The stakes are awfully high.
Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.