Hubris, Distrust, Disorder

Why the Trump administration keeps screwing up.

Steve Bannon, Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor to U.S. President Donald Trump attends the swearing in ceremony for Nikki Haley as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations January 25, 2017 in Washington, DC.

President Trump recently gave his chief strategist Steve Bannon a seat on the National Security Council. Above, Bannon on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

In their early weeks and months in office, presidents and their advisers tend to commit the same structure and process errors, hobbling their administrations until they stop making such rookie mistakes. Nearly every major action by the Trump administration since Inauguration Day has shown both the naiveté and inexperience of the new president’s team, with its poor work product reflecting hasty drafting by a small political team that’s disconnected from the realities of implementation. You can see these errors in Trump’s federal hiring freeze, his ban on new refugee admissions, his border wall plan, and his shake-up of the National Security Council. In time, mistakes will undermine each of these orders, making it unlikely that Trump’s vision is ever implemented.

The Trump administration’s early errors fit into three broad categories. The first cardinal sin is a penchant for keeping the circle too small. A mixture of hubris and distrust is usually to blame for this error. Every White House team comes in with a healthy dose of ego, fueled by the thrill of winning America’s greatest competition. Alongside such hubris, most new White House teams also bring with them significant skepticism—even distrust or disdain—of the government they’ve inherited. This is particularly true for presidential teams that oust the opposition party.

In their early days, presidential teams tend to rely too heavily on their political advisers, who are often close political allies from the campaign, even to some extent excluding their Cabinet secretaries. Career staff, uniformed military experts, and outside experts rarely find a seat at the table. The results are telling: a hiring freeze order that failed to define its exceptions; an immigrant ban that failed to address concerns about legal permanent residents (among other things). Each of these defects would likely have been cured by better coordination with the agencies and experts involved with implementation. Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s hubris and distrust kept it from reaching out beyond a small cadre of right-hand men and women (but mostly men). Worse, early reports suggest the Trump team is actively working to exclude the right people from its decisions and conceal the paper trail, too.

The corollary to keeping the decision circle too small is putting the wrong people inside it. Presidents enter office feeling comfortable with the advisers who got them to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. So it is with President Trump and his political adviser Steve Bannon. However, inviting the wrong people to National Security Council meetings can have a toxic effect on the decision-making that occurs there and undermine national security almost as much as excluding the right people (like the director of the CIA, who was added back to these meetings after public clamor). Congress codified the NSC structure, in part, to ensure that good and bad presidents alike would get sound, professional advice when making the most consequential decisions about our nation’s security. It’s likely not illegal to add or subtract advisers from this council—but it’s certainly imprudent to do so on a whim or in the absence of some compelling reason.

Similarly, relying too heavily on one small group of advisers, to the exclusion of others, can lead to major policy blunders. The Bush administration’s 2001 order establishing military commissions illustrates this error well; a larger, more diverse circle could have anticipated the problems that led that order to be held unlawful by the Supreme Court five years later.

The second cardinal sin of governance committed by the Trump administration relates to pursuing change for its own sake. Again, most recent administrations (on both sides of the aisle) have made this mistake. The Bush administration’s “anything but Clinton” attitude in 2001 was rivaled by the Obama administration’s “anything but Bush” attitude in 2009. However, as I learned while serving as a midlevel political appointee in the early Obama administration, this posture often doesn’t square with the reality of governance. Administrations tend to move toward the middle over time, particularly in the national security field. As my friend Jack Goldsmith writes in Power and Constraint, the Bush administration ended in 2009 in a vastly different place on national security issues than in 2001 or even in 2003 at the start of the Iraq war. In Obama’s White House, we similarly learned to temper our enthusiasm for change, taking time to understand how and why the bureaucracy landed where it did on any particular issue.

This second sin has resulted in unforced errors by the Trump administration. Instead of understanding the federal trends of hiring and outsourcing and crafting a smart human capital strategy, President Trump took a machete to the federal workforce with his hiring freeze. Rather than appreciate how the national security structure had evolved under President Obama, National Security Adviser Mike Flynn promptly authored a new order to change the structure of NSC meetings and committees, including the addition of chief political strategist Bannon to the mix.

The third and final sin on display in Trump’s orders is perhaps the most fatal. Presidents often speak in lofty terms about what they want to accomplish domestically and abroad. However, without people, resources, and programs, these lofty goals will go unaccomplished. No president can succeed by simply articulating his desired ends. He must also marshal ways and means to get there.

Trump’s orders on repealing the Affordable Care Act and building a border wall illustrate this conundrum. The health care order repeats a certain caveat again and again: “to the maximum extent permitted by law.” This phrase is a legal concession that President Trump cannot do what he actually wants (repeal and replace the ACA) without congressional action. The border wall order contains the same caveat but adds another one that is even more important: “This order shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.” This second caveat reflects longstanding federal law restricting agencies and employees from doing anything for which the Congress has not specifically appropriated funds.

Simply and bluntly, there will be no ACA repeal or border wall without congressional action. President Trump can speak loudly about these goals, as he did during the campaign, and attempt to rally public support for them using all the levers at his disposal. He can issue orders that command his staff to study the problem or seek to affect these issues on the margins through federal appointments or regulatory processes. However, there is a limit to what presidents can do in our system of government, especially on issues where Congress plays an important policy and appropriations role (like health care, border security, and immigration). Unless and until he can persuade Congress to give him ways and means, Trump’s huge promises will go unfulfilled.

To some extent, these errors are the second- and third-order effects of a deeply flawed transition effort that resembled a Shakespearean play more than an orderly transfer of power. A good transition would have already identified and hired key political appointees to embed throughout the federal structure, giving the Trump team people to trust in the agencies, partly solving the first error. A solid transition team would also have done better staff work to identify problems in need of solutions, as well as resources and programs capable of solving those problems. Unfortunately, President Trump’s transition team was too slow, and too consumed by infighting, to deliver.

If you oppose the Trump administration’s policies, as I do, you might applaud these errors and hope the administration continues to stumble. But such schadenfreude is myopic and selfish. There will eventually come a crisis that threatens us all, at home or abroad, and that requires the members of the Trump administration to stop committing rookie mistakes and play at a big-league level. They would do well to check their hubris and distrust at the door and to start working with the government and Congress they used to criticize.