Donald Trump ran for president boasting of his supposedly legendary negotiating and management skills while promising that he alone could fix the problems ailing the country. But three weeks into his presidency, a combination of inexperience, lack of attention to detail and an engaged opposition inside and outside the government have left him as the weakest new president in modern American history.
Trump’s governing style to date can only loosely be called management. He makes decisions quickly, often without consulting relevant experts or even his own appointees. He reads almost nothing, at most a few bullet points—often ripped straight from cable TV—that cannot possibly capture the nuance of complicated policy issues. When his hastily considered decisions backfire in inevitable ways, he doubles down and attacks any critics who point out either the folly or impracticability of his orders.
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As with the bellowing Wizard of Oz, however, those boisterous attacks merely hide the weakness of the man behind the curtain, weakness that has already been exploited by both his staff and outside interests.
For example, when Trump signed an executive order elevating chief strategist Steve Bannon to the National Security Council, national security experts from both parties reacted by slamming the administration for politicizing the council’s decision-making process. After days of controversy, Trump complained to his staff that he did not fully understand the details of the order he himself had signed, according to an account in the New York Times.
During the transition, lobbyists for the government of Taiwan managed to persuade Trump to speak by phone to the country’s president, an unprecedented move that caused the Chinese government to lodge an official protest with the Obama administration. As usual, Trump responded by attacking China on Twitter, creating an international incident for which the incoming administration had no strategic plan.
Had Trump and his team designed the Taiwanese call as part of an overall strategy to rebalance interests with Beijing, it might have made sense. As an impulsive move to satisfy lobbyists for a foreign government, it was a catastrophe, and it ended Thursday in quiet capitulation, when Trump finally expressed support for the One China policy. Somehow, Trump managed to turn a mere restatement of longstanding U.S. policy into a public relations coup for a Chinese government he promised he would bring to heel. Experts now worry that China has taken Trump’s measure, and found him easily cowed. That’s dangerous.
Meanwhile, Trump’s chaotic management has led the courts to dramatically curb his power only three weeks into his administration. The decision by a 9th Circuit panel to uphold the temporary restraining order blocking his immigration ban was notable for its criticism of the administration’s shifting execution of the order, including an after-the-fact attempt by White House counsel Don McGahn to change its meaning.
But it was the panel’s language about the courts’ ability to review Trump’s immigration actions that may have the most lasting effect. Responding to Justice Department claims that the courts could not even review the president’s immigration order, the judges wrote, “there is no precedent to support this claimed unreview ability, which runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy.”
This language echoed court decisions late in the George W. Bush administration, curbing what the judiciary came to believe were overly aggressive claims of executive power by President Bush. Those decisions came after years of executive branch overreach, however. Trump’s first judicial smackdown took less than a month. He may yet win this battle, but the appeals panel concluded that the flawed immigration order, the administration’s far-reaching legal claims and the president’s attacks on the very legitimacy of the courts necessitated a sharp curb of his authority now.
Trump has also found himself increasingly threatened by the federal bureaucracy that nominally reports to him. Surprisingly, however, the repeated leaks about mercurial presidential behavior or unexpected policy shifts have come not primarily from departments focused on traditional liberal priorities such as Labor or the Environmental Protection Agency, but seemingly from the agencies charged with national security, including the National Security Council itself.
Over the past weeks, accounts of the president’s calls with the leaders of Australia, Mexico, Germany, France and Russia have all leaked, usually in embarrassing fashion. Draft executive orders have routinely spilled into the press, generating opposition before the White House can develop plans to explain them to the public.
POLITICO reported on Friday that the president is increasingly vexed by these leaks, and the White House has launched an investigation and is considering how to tighten the chain of information. Yet those steps will not put down the internal rebellion, and will in fact only deprive the president of the seasoned voices that have been so missing during these early weeks.
Trump retains powerful political assets that no previous president has enjoyed. He has an in-house media organ in Breitbart and, increasingly, Fox News that he can use to attack critics and, if necessary, enforce party discipline. Republicans in Congress seem willing to humiliate themselves in the face of his antics for now, as long as he continues to back their policy priorities. Trump’s rolling circus of chaos has also confounded the press, which can barely dig into one major controversy before a new one erupts.
But for all the president’s authoritarian tendencies and unwillingness to respect traditional norms and institutions, his inability to moderate his mouth, effectively manage the government or successfully negotiate with foreign leaders have left his presidency wounded and weakened. He will undoubtedly manage some successes over the coming months, but the character flaws that have been so evident throughout his public life have so far proved largely debilitating inside the Oval Office.
It is now up to Trump to show whether he can change. If not, the courts, the bureaucracy and the warring factions of his own staff will continue to exert more influence over the direction of his administration than he is. The turbulent beginning to his tenure may signal that the defining characteristic of Trump’s presidency will be not the strength he promised, but enduring flaccidity.