Ethics & Public Policy Center

Another Warning Sign

Published in National Review Online on March 2, 2018


Regarding Thursday’s presidential announcement of tariffs on steel and aluminum, the Associated Press reports:

White House aides spent Wednesday night and Thursday morning scrambling to steer the president away from an announcement on an unfinished policy, with even Kelly in the dark about Trump’s plans. Aides believed they had succeeded in getting Trump to back down and hoped to keep television cameras away from an event with industry executives so the president couldn’t make a surprise announcement. But Trump summoned reporters into the Cabinet Room anyway and declared that the U.S. would levy penalties of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum imports.

This is, in a word, bonkers. And it is bonkers in a way that highlights a key problem this White House has not been able to overcome. There is often a lot of distance between what this president wants to do at any given time and what his senior aides and his administration more generally want to do. The shenanigans that administration officials sometimes pull in order to overcome that fact are not only irregular but at times highly inappropriate. Yet at times (including some of the same times) they may also be necessary and unavoidable, given some of what the president says and does.

The AP’s report shows both sides of this coin. If the president wants to levy tariffs (and whatever you think of the policy, it’s certainly within his power and it’s something he actually ran on in 2016) should they really be treating him like this to keep him from getting his way? At the same time, the president’s own behavior often makes it impossible for the people who work for him to do their jobs and facilitate an orderly process by which he might make and they might implement his decisions.

Basically any senior White House official you might talk to has a story about how he or she kept the president from making some terrible mistake by some act of manipulation. Many Republican members of Congress do too. And to hear them tell it is often to be left grateful they acted as they did (though of course people are always heroes in their own stories). But those stories also describe profound dysfunction around the American presidency, and at times highly inappropriate behavior by unelected appointees in the employ of an elected president.

To say the White House has not been able to overcome this problem is an understatement. In some important respects it has gotten worse. And in fact it seems like the Trump White House is going through an especially dysfunctional phase just now. The Wednesday session with members of Congress on gun policy was also a complete staffing fiasco and created immense confusion about the president’s intentions. Trump’s Twitter confrontation with his attorney general, the resignation of his communications director and close aide, the departure of his staff secretary amid charges of domestic abuse, tension with his national-security adviser, and the ongoing internal battles over the roles of his daughter and son-in-law — to name just a few of the rings of this circus just now — seem to be leaving him unusually isolated and frustrated. And a number of his remaining senior aides are deeply frustrated too.

All of this makes for high drama and no doubt also great fun for political journalists. But it should leave us with a long-term worry and a near-term worry. The longer-term worry is about the effects of all this on the executive branch and the distinct role of the president. I’ve taken up that question here before. The nearer-term worry is about the ability of this president and the people around him to handle the most challenging parts of the job. If a genuine crisis arose, a serious and unexpected emergency foreign or domestic, it is far from clear that the White House would be prepared hold up under it.

There are serious professionals on this White House team, at the NSC and elsewhere. But a White House dealing with an intense crisis needs to rely on established patterns of mutual trust and respect and familiar procedures for handling and channeling information, putting options before the president, and keeping things calm and organized. More than a year in, this White House lacks almost all of that. Confronted with a serious crisis, their system could easily crumple.

What’s going on here is not entertainment. It’s deadly serious, and it needs to be seen as a bright, blaring warning.

Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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