Published June 22, 2018
Congressional Republicans are apoplectic about President Trump’s handling of the family separation question this month, and of immigration generally. They’re openly angry at him, personally, in a way I for one have not seen expressed so far in his presidency—though they have certainly had plenty of cause for it from day one.
It would be nice to be able to say that the anger has come out now because Trump’s lackadaisical cruelty in this latest episode has struck a moral nerve. But the more likely cause is that Trump has created an unusually complicated political problem for Republicans in Congress in the summer of an election year, and he keeps finding ways to make it worse.
There is no question, of course, that the administration’s handling of this situation has been exceptionally incompetent and self-destructive—a practical expression, in this sense, of the president’s own character and personality and to a degree that has so far largely (though not entirely of course) been avoided through epic acts of restraint and misdirection by others around him. Those restraints are weakening at this point, so that more time in office is not making the administration more competent and responsible but less so. Even apart from the substantive or moral questions at issue in this situation, it is the latest of many warning signs about the degree to which the White House in particular is unprepared for a serious crisis not largely of its own making.
We have seen that in recent days not only in the amazingly confusing and counterproductive role the president has played in the legislative process but also, and more so, in the extraordinary failure of interagency coordination in the executive branch. The executive order signed on Wednesday was produced with reckless haste, and the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security—which were involved in its drafting—disagree about the practical meaning of its most basic provisions. They have completely different understandings of what it requires them to do, and they are for now each acting on its different understanding while their differences remain unresolved. This will get worked out, but that it has happened reveals a very dangerous weakness. Averting this kind of failure of coordination is the very purpose of the White House policy process, and the scope of the failure in this instance needs to serve as a warning. Its implications after all are far more than political, and reach well beyond the particular issue at stake in this particular fiasco.
There is, of course, a political cost, and it’s easy to see in this case. The administration has pursued an inhumane policy course supposedly in the name of lawfulness and then backed down from it in a panic, and so it has ended up with all the downsides of the various approaches it could have pursued and none of the upsides. They get the blame for being callous without the benefits of looking strong, and then they get the blame for looking weak without the praise for being compassionate. It’s a fiasco that has to be racked up in part to incompetence, but it is also of course another reflection of the president’s own character. It is what happens, in other words, when you actually are both callous and weak (as callous people often are).
It would be nice, at least for the duration of this presidency, if concerns about character really were just esthetic or stylistic, as some of the president’s defenders wish they were. But they are substantive concerns of the most fundamental sort, and times do come when their implications are simply inescapable.
This episode has been such a time, but it has also been a warning about how grave such a time could be if the country were confronted with a truly dangerous crisis not caused or driven largely by the president himself. The lack of habits of coordination and organized decision-making, the proclivity to make snap decisions and then reverse them, and simply the way in which the work of the White House unavoidably reflects the president’s broken personality could all too quickly become practical threats to the country’s well-being. And the commitment among key White House staffers to combat these problems as much as possible is plainly fraying and weakening.
Americans are a lucky people. We could avoid real trouble in the next few years, and so we might benefit from some of the good things the administration is doing while avoiding truly paying a horrible price for the president’s character. It’s possible. But that’s a lot to rest on luck.
— Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.