Can’t anybody here play this game?
The Trump administration, if you haven’t noticed, is undergoing one of its frequent paroxysms of incompetence.
On the border, the administration holds hundreds of migrant children in deplorable conditions: filthy, frightened and hungry. The president ordered and then called off a massive immigration raid, and, in the middle of the chaos, the administration’s top border security official resigned Tuesday.
Overseas, the administration is stumbling toward war with Iran, ordering and then canceling an attack. Iran on Tuesday said the White House is “afflicted by mental retardation,” and Trump responded by threatening Iran with “obliteration.”
Here in Washington, Trump just appointed a new press secretary for the third time and a White House communications director for the seventh time. He refuses to say whether he has confidence in his FBI director, his third, and he’s publicly feuding with the Federal Reserve chairman he appointed over whether Trump can fire him. Meantime, Trump is defying a Trump-appointed watchdog who called for the firing of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway for illegal political activities, and he’s brushing off the latest credible accusation of sexual misconduct by saying the accuser is “not my type.” And Trump’s protocol chief is quitting on the eve of the Group of 20 summit, Bloomberg News reported Tuesday, amid allegations that he carried a whip in the office.
The chaos takes on many forms, but most of it stems from a single cause: Trump’s determination to run the country like “The Apprentice.”
The common thread to the mayhem and bungling is Trump’s insistence on staffing his government with officials serving in temporary, “acting” roles at the pleasure of the president and without the stature or protection of Senate confirmation. This allows Trump to demand absolute subservience from appointees. Because he can replace them at will, they don’t contradict him. But this tentative status also means they lack authority within their agencies and the stature to stand up to Trump when he’s wrong.
It’s no mere coincidence that the border debacle is the work of Trump’s Homeland Security Department, where every major border- and immigration-related agency is led by an “acting” official. Trump’s acting commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, John Sanders, just resigned after only two months on the job. The Post’s Nick Miroff and Josh Dawsey report that he will be replaced by the current acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Mark Morgan (who got the job after praising Trump’s policies on Fox News). Morgan, in turn, has only been on the job for a couple of months since Trump fired yet another acting director of ICE. Trump had also ousted his DHS secretary and his head of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and he has tabbed an “immigration czar” who has not yet accepted the job.
It’s no mere coincidence, either, that the Iran debacle is occurring at a time when the Pentagon has been leaderless since Jim Mattis resigned as defense secretary in December. Patrick Shanahan had been the longest-serving “acting” defense secretary in history until last week, when Trump named another acting secretary, Mark Esper. Both men were reportedly with Trump when he ordered the Iran attack, which he later canceled after learning about possible casualties. It’s hard to imagine Trump ordering up a military attack on Mattis’s watch without first getting a casualty estimate.
And it’s no mere coincidence that the man at the fulcrum of chaotic White House decision-making, chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, also serves in “acting” status. Politico’s Nancy Cook reports that Trump is tiring of Mulvaney (he had the nerve to cough during a Trump TV interview), though he might not yet replace him with a fourth chief of staff, because he likes Mulvaney’s “hands-off approach” to Trump’s “whims and decision-making style.” If he weren’t “hands-off,” he’d be fired.
Trump is unabashed in his preference for this “Apprentice”-style, “you’re fired” leadership. It’s a theme of a new book about Trump’s Cabinet, “The Best People,” by Yahoo News national correspondent Alexander Nazaryan. Of his fondness for acting officials, Trump told Nazaryan: “It gives me a lot of leeway. It gives me great flexibility. I do like it. It’s such a big deal to get people approved nowadays. . . . We have actings, and we’re seeing how we like them.”
In other words, the administration is run by people on perpetual tryout, perpetual probation, unable to make long-term plans or to command the respect of those they (nominally) lead. The Federal Aviation Administration, which botched its handling of the Boeing 737 Max crashes, has been led by acting officials. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which bungled the recall of Fisher-Price’s Rock ’n Play bassinet, has been run by an acting chairwoman. (She announced last week she will step down at the end of her term in October.)
Now, Trump’s “actings” are causing babies to go hungry, and they may soon bumble us into war with Iran. But that’s okay, because Trump likes the “flexibility.”
Collaborators sense the sinking ship.
Yoo said that the Supreme Court has made it “clear” that the president cannot appoint a “principal officer” without getting them confirmed by the Senate.
“The Constitution says that principal officers must go through appointment with the advice and consent of the Senate. In Morrison v. Olson, the Supreme Court made clear that the attorney general is a principal officer. Therefore, Whittaker cannot serve as acting attorney general despite the Vacancies Act (which does provide for him to be acting AG) — the statute is unconstitutional when applied in this way.”
This same argument was made by constitutional lawyer David Rivkin, attorneys Neal Katyal and George Conway, husband of presidential Kellyanne Conway, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote in 2016 that even a temporary appointment of a principal officer that is not confirmed by the Senate would be unconstitutional.
No matter how much the president loves them, the government can only enforce nondisclosure agreements for classified information.Part of the outrage on the president’s part seems to be over Manigault Newman breaking what Trump saw as a promise not to talk about her time working for him. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told ABC News: “We have confidentiality agreements in the West Wing — absolutely we do.” And Manigault Newman claims in her book that Trump’s reelection campaign offered her a $15,000-a-month salary in exchange for signing a confidentiality agreement... I have reviewed one document that is purportedly a version of the White House NDA. It appeared to be nothing more than a Trump Organization document that was modified to apply to White House staff — in fact, it still had a provision that in any litigated dispute, the parties agreed that New York state law would apply, language that no standard federal document would ever have used... It was also publicly reported that one early draft of a White House NDA contained a provision that imposed a $10 million fine to be paid to the federal government if the signatory shared confidential information... While the term “confidential” in D.C. parlance is part of the national security classification framework, in these NDAs, it referred to potentially derogatory and unclassified information pertaining to the president... These NDAs also ignored earlier guidance from the Office of Management and Budget that any NDAs should contain whistleblower protection provisions, clauses that would be contrary to the clear message desired by this administration... his campaign entity, Donald J. Trump for President Inc., rather than the U.S. government, has reportedly filed for arbitration against Manigault Newman seeking millions for a violation of a 2016 NDA... The NDA allegedly required her to keep proprietary information about the president, his companies or his family confidential and to never “disparage” the Trump family “during the term of your service and at all times thereafter.” This clause is in direct conflict with the legal precedents governing federal employees, but how an arbitration body will interpret constitutional questions is anyone’s guess... In an April 2016 interview with The Washington Post, the future president said he supported making federal employees sign NDAs.“I think they should,” Trump said. “. . . When people are chosen by a man to go into government at high levels, and then they leave government and they write a book about a man and say a lot of things that were really guarded and personal, I don’t like that.”
.. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy said the “very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings.”