Political Animal Blog

How Chaos is Being Used to Empower Ideologues

Yesterday Donald Trump said that his administration is running like a fine-tuned machine. Based on what we all know, that was a completely delusional statement. Let’s take a look at what is actually happening with the foreign policy apparatus and see how chaos is being used to empower ideologues.

Even before Michael Flynn resigned, the New York Times reported that the National Security Council was in turmoil.

These are chaotic and anxious days inside the National Security Council, the traditional center of management for a president’s dealings with an uncertain world.

Three weeks into the Trump administration, council staff members get up in the morning, read President Trump’s Twitter posts and struggle to make policy to fit them. Most are kept in the dark about what Mr. Trump tells foreign leaders in his phone calls.

Yesterday we learned that Trump’s pick to replace Flynn, retired Navy Vice Adm. Robert Harward, turned down the job after negotiations that would have allowed him to be in charge of staffing failed. Here’s how one of Harward’s confidants characterized the situation to Jake Tapper.

Beyond the NSC, the State Department has traditionally played a crucial role in establishing foreign policy. A few weeks ago we learned that the entire senior management team there either resigned or were fired. Apparently the purge continues.

While Rex Tillerson is on his first overseas trip as Secretary of State, his aides laid off staff at the State Department on Thursday.

Much of seventh-floor staff, who work for the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources and the Counselor offices, were told today that their services were no longer needed.

These staffers in particular are often the conduit between the secretary’s office to the country bureaus, where the regional expertise is centered. Inside the State Department, some officials fear that this is a politically-minded purge that cuts out much-needed expertise from the policy-making, rather than simply reorganizing the bureaucracy.

As Julian Borger reports, even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is being left out of the loop.

Since starting the job two weeks ago, Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil executive, has soothed nerves at the state department by consulting widely with regional and country experts, but it has been hard to disguise the gap between the department headquarters at Washington’s Foggy Bottom and the White House where far-reaching foreign policy decisions are being made.

Senior state department officials who would normally be called to the White House for their views on key policy issues, are not being asked their opinion. They have resorted to asking foreign diplomats, who now have better access to President Trump’s immediate circle of advisers, what new decisions are imminent.

As has been reported, Tillerson was not consulted about the president’s travel ban and apparently there was not a single State Department official included in the White House meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week. In summary:

There are clear signals being sent that many key foreign policy portfolios will be controlled directly by the White House, rather than through the professional diplomats.

Thomas Countryman, former assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, absolutely nailed what is going on.

My nagging suspicion is that the White House is very happy to have a vacuum in the under-secretary and assistant secretary levels, not only at state but across government agencies, because it relieves them of even feeling an obligation to consult with experts before they take a new direction.

With both the NSC and the State Department in chaos and out of the loop, who’s in charge of foreign policy? No surprises there. It’s the same guy that got himself a seat at the NSC table with an executive order the president didn’t even read.

The NSC itself is being bypassed on key decisions by a small group of highly ideological advisers around Trump led by his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, a former Breitbart News executive with ties to the far right.

This is why, for Steve Bannon, chaos is a feature – not a bug. While everyone else is either running around putting out fires or left out of the loop entirely, he is operating quietly behind the scenes, pulling the strings to implement an ideologically-driven foreign policy that is uncorrupted by pesky things like facts and expertise.

Beyond Russia, Trump’s Business Ties in China Raise Questions

While most of us have been focused on Trump’s ties to Russia, there was an interesting development with his business interests in China.

The government of China awarded U.S. President Donald Trump valuable rights to his own name this week, in the form of a 10-year trademark for construction services.

The registration became official on Feb. 14 and was published in a trademark registration announcement on the website of China’s Trademark Office on Wednesday…

The registration this week came as a surprise win for Trump after a decade of trying — and failing — to wrest the rights to his name back from a man named Dong Wei. The abrupt turn in Trump’s bureaucratic fortunes once he declared his candidacy has raised questions about the extent to which his political status may be helping his family business.

Trump’s relationship with China raises a lot of questions. While he spent much of his campaign attacking the country for their trading practices and his chief strategist assumes we will go to war in the South China Sea, the Trump Organization makes a lot of its apparel and home products in that country.

But even more important are the questions raised by this statement from the Steele dossier.

Commenting on the negative media publicity surrounding alleged Russian interference in the U.S. election campaign in support of Trump, Source E said he understood that the Republican candidate and his team were relatively relaxed about this because it deflected media and the Democrats’ attention away from Trump’s business dealings in China and other emerging markets. Unlike in Russia, these were substantial and involved the payment of large bribes and kickbacks which, were they to become public, would be potentially very damaging to their campaign.

We now know that “Source E” in those documents is Sergei Millian, a nationalized American citizen who ran the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce and once claimed to be an “exclusive” broker for the Trump Organization’s real-estate dealings in Russia. In addition we also know this about Millian:

Millian, on his LinkedIn page, says he is the Vice President of the World Chinese Merchants Union Association. He wrote last April that he traveled to Beijing to meet with a Chinese official and the Russian ambassador to the Republic of San Marino. The dossier claims Source E — allegedly Millian — had knowledge of Trump’s business dealings in China.

Recently David Corn wrote a profile of Millian, suggesting that “investigators on the Trump-Russia beat should talk to this man.” I agree. To the extent that the Steele dossier is correct, he seems to be the link not only to Trump’s ties with Russia, but the president’s business dealings in China – which were even more of a concern to Trump and his team.

How the Opposition Can Wound Trump

I teach a class at Yale on the classic books of presidential campaign reporting, books like Teddy White’s The Making of the President. As you can imagine, my students are exceedingly bright, highly informed, and savvy. But they don’t know much.

By that, I mean they don’t know much about how normal people think about politics. I know that I’m suggesting that my students aren’t normal. They are normal in the sense that they are smart young adults with all the concerns smart young adults have. But they aren’t normal in another sense. They are elite.

To get to Yale, they have gone through years of indoctrination making them suitable to Yale. I don’t mean brainwashing. I mean they know deep in their bones that they are required to make arguments based on facts and come to conclusions through reasoning. They must master and pledge allegiance to logic.

As you can imagine, my students find Trump supporters confounding. This is not an ideological reaction: I have liberal, libertarian, civic republican, and conservative students. They have been shocked by Trump’s election, because to them he is so transparently unfit to lead anything, much less the US government.

They know he’s unfit, because they know something about politics and policy, and knowing something about politics and policy means they know when the president is demonstrating some kind of allergy to falsifiable objective reality independent of his insecure ego.

My students, in other words, privilege knowledge, because to them, knowledge is how they will command and control their destinies.

What they don’t know is that most people don’t know much about politics, don’t know much about policy, don’t care to understand the details that make up the foundation any position, and don’t think they need to care about understanding those details, because knowledge is not what they trust most in the world.

What they trust is character.

Before I continue, let me say one more thing. After I strive mightily to get my students to understand how normal people perceive politics, they often come to an unfair conclusion—that the people who support Donald Trump are racist and stupid.

That’s probably true for a good number of the president’s supporters, but it’s certainly not true for a great many more. The reason is simple: politics is about conflict. Most people, whether normal or elite, really try to avoid conflict. It’s okay to not know much about politics, and not to care to know, because people just want to get along. No one should be faulted for that.

Besides, life is hard. There are so many things to worry about—jobs, kids, finances, health, so very many things—that Washington politics is the last thing most want to think about. I often tell my students that most people have something better to do.

The reason I’m going into the weeds like this is to get readers of the Washington Monthly and anyone who believes Donald Trump is a singular threat to democracy to understand how and why his supporters very much like what the president is doing, even though it makes no sense to the readers of the Washington Monthly and anyone who believes Donald Trump is a singular threat to democracy. In understanding how and why these people very much like what the president is doing, we can devise an effective strategy for the battles ahead.

There’s a reason why Donald Trump is reportedly fond of watching himself on TV with the sound turned off. It’s not only because he’s a narcissist, though narcissism surely plays a part. It’s also because he is trying to experience what most normal people experience when they watch the president on TV, and that means a majority of people since most still get their news about what’s happening in Washington from TV, despite the ubiquity of digital. Remember, they don’t know enough to know he’s lying. What they can see is Trump’s performance: the expressions of strength, the wit and charm (which are evident), and the braggadocio.

Yesterday’s press conference was in fact a hot mess, but imagine watching it with the sound turned off so you don’t know what the president is saying. Imagine watching the president’s gestures, his expression, his sparring with the press. That’s probably a close approximation of what his supporters experience when they watch the president on TV. That’s the extent to which most people assess the president’s policy views. It is style’s mastery over substance.

Which brings me back to character. That is something people can judge, because they trust their ability to size up the president. That trust, of course, is misplaced, because Trump is in fact a serial liar, but remember, most people, especially Trump supporters, don’t know enough about politics or care enough to know much about politics, so they don’t know he’s lying.

What they can see is how he looks. And this is key.

I really want you to understand the connection between Trump’s appearance and the trust his supporters place in him. What the Democratic opposition needs to do is undermine that trust. Part of doing that is pointing out every time Trump lies. (The Washington press corps is doing that.) But the opposition must also attack the president where it really hurts him—by appealing to logic and reason, but not only logic and reason. The opposition must wound the president by focusing on his weakness.

Fact is, the president is weak. We saw that yesterday. When confronted with the fact that he did not win a bigger electoral victory than anyone since Reagan, he immediately backed down, spluttering something about how he had been given that information so it’s not his fault. Some have implied he will never accept the truth, so don’t bother. But that’s an argument of logic and reason. What happened in that brief exchange needs to happen a million times over in order to reveal that the president is weak and that in that weakness his supporters have misplaced their trust.

So, say it with me: The president is weak.

Say it again. Over and over. Then when the president really does demonstrate weakness, as he did when confronted by the reporter about his fake electoral landslide, the president will have substantiated the opposition’s charge of weakness.

That will hurt.

Trump ran on strength. Only he was strong enough to solve our problems. And people believed him. They still believe him. But if the opposition can establish an image of weakness, it will come close to breaking trust in him.

The Method to Trump’s Madness

It’s true that most of the media was aghast at Trump’s performance in the press conference yesterday. But that’s not how it’s playing in the right wing media. Take a look at some of these headlines:

Rush Limbaugh: Trump Triumphs Over Press
Roger Simon: The Media Bulls Have Met Their Matador in Trump
Alexis Simendinger: Defending Rocky Start, Trump Regains His Mojo

As Michale Goodwin writes, that’s how Trump’s performance yesterday is playing among his supporters.

Trump’s detractors immediately panned the show as madness, but they missed the method behind it and proved they still don’t understand his appeal. Facing his first crisis in the Oval Office, he was unbowed in demonstrating his bare-knuckled intention to fight back.

He did it his way. Certainly no other president, and few politicians at any level in any time, would dare put on a show like that.

In front of cameras, and using the assembled press corps as props, he conducted a televised revival meeting to remind his supporters that he is still the man they elected…

Trump, first, last and always, matches the mood of the discontented. Like them, he is a bull looking for a china shop. That’s his ace in the hole and he played it almost to perfection.

According to this account from the New York Times, that’s exactly what the president thought he needed.

For days, a frustrated and simmering president fumed inside the West Wing residence about what aides said he saw as his staff’s inadequate defense and the ineffectiveness of his own tweets. Over the objections of some top advisers who wanted to steer him away from confrontation, Mr. Trump demanded to face the media, determined to reject the narrative that his administration is sinking into chaos, scandal and incompetence…

He attempted to reassert his command of “dishonest” journalists at a time when the news media is questioning his capacity to lead. It all made the brooding boss feel better, people close to Mr. Trump said.

In addition to the press conference, Trump has planned round two for tomorrow.

The key there is to notice that Trump needs to connect with “his people.”

Yesterday when I noted the criteria for assessing Narcissistic Personality Disorder, one that had not obviously been exhibited during the press conference was, “requires constant admiration.” Obviously Trump was able to satisfy that need when he was running for president, but the office itself comes with constant scrutiny and the kind of critiques his ego isn’t able to withstand. Getting back in touch with his supporters via the press conference yesterday and a campaign rally tomorrow is the method to Trump’s madness we’re seeing on display.