The Institutional and Personal Limits to Trump’s Malevolence

Three weeks into the Trump administration, it’s clear that Steve Bannon’s battle plan was to flood us with executive orders the president signed as an indication that this administration was going to change things. But a perusal of these orders indicates that most of them haven’t really done that much. Other than the travel ban and the directive changing priorities for deporting undocumented immigrants, they’ve been more about stating intent and setting up studies/commissions/reviews. As we saw last week, the courts have stayed the travel ban.

I say that because, while these last few weeks have been politically chaotic, it’s not because the Trump administration has actually accomplished anything. Both Trump and his spokespeople have lied a lot about everything from the size of the inaugural crowd to accusations of massive voter fraud. But due to both institutional and personal limits, they haven’t really done much.

Beyond executive orders, the president has to rely on Congress for actual changes. Both Trump and Congressional leaders made clear that their first priority was to repeal Obamacare. If you remember, there was a time that the president insisted that be accomplished in the first week. Now he’s saying it might not happen until next year.

This is perhaps where the resistance has been the most effective. Pushback on Republican legislators has been enormous and pretty much eliminated the possibility of the original plan to repeal and delay a replacement. As a result, Republicans are facing the impossible task of designing their alternative while assuring their constituents that they won’t lose their coverage.

As Stan Collender reports, getting stuck on plans to repeal/replace/repair Obamacare is putting Ryan’s whole grand plan about Obamacare and tax cuts in the first year in jeopardy because of a reliance on the use of reconciliation as a means to bypass the need for 60 votes in the Senate. So what will Congress actually accomplish this session? Unless they come up with a plan B – not much.

The area where presidents can act without Congress is in the arena of foreign policy. This is where the kind of reporting we saw yesterday from the NYT about the National Security Council is alarming. But as Obama said when leaving the stage, “reality has a way of catching up to you.” Just last week we saw Trump affirm his support of the One China policy in a phone call with President Xi and top administration officials are assuring our European partners that they are “committed to full implementation of the Iran nuclear deal.”

It is in the president’s role as administrator of the federal bureaucracy that the Trump administration will have the ability to do the most damage domestically. As has been noted often, many of his cabinet members have a history of undermining the very departments they are being tasked with leading. That is why career civil servants who work in them are facing a “sense of dread.”

One area where we’re seeing these dangers play out is in the deportation raids that started last week. While ICE officials have made statements that the raids are simply business as usual, over the weekend the president spilled the beans about what is actually underway.

While it is important to keep our eye on the dangers posed by Donald Trump’s presidency, it is also critical that we acknowledge the limits he faces. Beyond the institutional, Matthew Miller did an excellent job of summing up the personal.

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.

Like 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.

A theme I keep coming back to is the need to recognize that Donald Trump and his administration are the most malevolent and incompetent we’ve ever seen in this country’s history. There are times when the combination of those two attributes increase the threat we face. But we’ve already seen times when their incompetence undermines their malevolent intent. When I’m tempted to panic, I find some solace in that.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.