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.”
The administration’s chaotic reversals on Obamacare could deprive millions of coverage.
Meanwhile, the administration’s latest budget, released in mid-March, stands behind legislation known as “Graham-Cassidy,” which was pushed by Republicans in 2017 but never won enough support to be brought to a vote.
The Trojan horse of health care reform, the proposal provides for relatively small initial cuts in federal funding and then huge reductions starting in 2027.
According to a Brookings Institution report, Graham-Cassidy would cost 32 million Americans their health insurance by 2027, just as full repeal would. That’s Donald Trump’s idea of a “beautiful,” “terrific” and “unbelievable” health care plan.
.. The administration’s recent decision to submit a brief in a Texas case asking the court to declare all of Obamacare unconstitutional was well publicized.
Slipping by almost unnoticed was Mr. Trump’s instruction last June to the Justice Department, which was defending the A.C.A., to argue instead that certain key provisions — notably, the requirement that Americans with pre-existing conditions be treated equally — be declared unconstitutional.
A win by Mr. Trump in this case could mean that nearly 20 million Americans would lose insurance, according to the Urban Institute.
His poll numbers were plummeting. His FBI director was decrying the dysfunction. The nation’s air travel was in chaos. Federal workers were lining up at food banks. Economic growth was at risk of flatlining, and even some Republican senators were in open revolt.
So on Friday, the 35th day of a government shutdown that he said he was proud to instigate, President Trump finally folded. After vowing for weeks that he would keep the government closed unless he secured billions in funding for his promised border wall, Trump agreed to reopen it.
He got $0 instead.
Trump’s capitulation to Democrats marked a humiliating low point in a polarizing presidency and sparked an immediate backlash among some conservative allies, who cast him as a wimp.
Elected as a self-proclaimed master dealmaker and business wizard who would bend Washington to his will and stand firm on his campaign promises — chief among them the wall — Trump risks being exposed as ineffective.
“He was the prisoner of his own impulse and it turned into a catastrophe for him,” said David Axelrod, who was a White House adviser to President Barack Obama. “The House of Representatives has power and authority — and now a speaker who knows how to use it — so that has to become part of his calculation or he’ll get embarrassed again.”
.. This account of Trump’s stymied pursuit of border wall funding is based on interviews with more than a dozen senior administration officials, Trump confidants and others briefed on internal discussions, many of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Trump repeatedly predicted to advisers that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would cave and surmised that she had a problem with the more liberal members of her caucus. But she held firm, and her members stayed united.
“Why are they always so loyal?” Trump asked in one staff meeting, complaining that Democrats so often stick together while Republicans sometimes break apart, according to attendees.
As for their negotiations, Trump and Pelosi had not spoken since their Jan. 9 session in which the president stormed out of the White House Situation Room. In a private meeting with some columnists earlier this week, Pelosi was asked why she thought Trump had not created a more potent nickname for her than “Nancy.” She replied, according to a senior Democratic aide, “Some people think that’s because he understands the power of the speaker.”
Trump and his advisers misunderstood the will of Democrats to oppose wall funding. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, emerged as the most powerful White House adviser during the shutdown and told colleagues that Trump’s plan for $5.7 billion in wall funding would get Democratic votes in the Senate on Thursday, astonishing Capitol Hill leaders and other White House aides.
Kushner, who Trump jokingly says is to the “left,” pitched a broader immigration deal and had faith that he could negotiate a grand bargain in the coming weeks, according to people familiar with his discussions. He pitched a big deal to Latino groups this week and also with members of the Koch network, the people said.
Trump, who fretted about the shutdown’s impact on the economy and his personal popularity, cast about for blame and pointed fingers at his staff — including Kushner — for failing to resolve the impasse, according to aides.
At a meeting Wednesday with conservative groups, the president accused former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) of having “screwed him” by not securing border wall money when Republicans had the majority, according to one attendee, Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. He said Ryan should have gotten him money before he left but he had no juice and had “gone fishing,” according to two attendees.
Ryan had warned the president against a shutdown and told him it would be politically disastrous, according to a person familiar with their conversations.
All the while, Trump vowed he would never capitulate to Democrats. At the Wednesday meeting, “he said there would be no caving,” Krikorian said. “Everybody who spoke up applauded him for not caving, but warned him that any further movement toward the Democrats’ direction would be a problem.”
White House aides had been monitoring Transportation Security Administration data on airport security delays and staffing levels several times a day. Officials said Thursday that the situation was worsening and would probably force the end of the shutdown.
But events at the Capitol on Thursday are largely what triggered Trump to conclude that he had run out of time and that he had to reopen the government, his aides said.
Trump lost control of his party as fissures emerged among exasperated Republican senators. Six of them voted Thursday for a Democratic spending bill, and others privately voiced frustration with Vice President Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) during a closed-door, contentious luncheon.
“Everyone who saw the floor action realized we were basically at the same place where we began and we needed a different solution,” a White House official said of Thursday’s votes.
McConnell called Trump on Thursday to say that the shutdown could not hold because some of his members were in revolt. The president did not commit to ending it in that call, but he phoned McConnell back that evening to say he had concluded the shutdown had to end, according to a person with knowledge of the conversations.
Under attack from some Republican colleagues, McConnell told senators on Friday that Trump had come up with the idea for a three-week deal — and that the president would be announcing it.
When Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) visited the White House on Thursday, he said Trump was in a “pragmatic” mood, mentioning the failed Senate votes and saying he wanted to make a deal.
Pence and Kushner presented the president with several options that would reopen the government, according to a White House official. They included using his executive authority to declare a national emergency and redirect other public funds for the wall, an option Trump said Friday he was holding in reserve. Trump also briefly considered a commission that would study a wall, according to a senior administration official.
On Thursday night, the president grew annoyed at Mick Mulvaney when the acting White House chief of staff talked with him about policy prescriptions for the next three weeks and what an eventual deal might look like, according to one person familiar with the conversation.
Administration officials began immediately on this next phase; Mulvaney and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen met privately with a handful of Republican senators at Camp David on Friday evening to start discussing what a border security agreement might look like, according to multiple people familiar with the gathering.
Ultimately, aides said, Trump was willing to table debate over wall funding because he is convinced he can win support from some Democratic lawmakers over the next three weeks.
Friday’s agreement allows for a conference committee made up of rank-and-file members from each party to negotiate border security funding, which White House aides said they believe will enable more flexibility than existed during Trump’s stalemate with Pelosi.
.. A senior White House official said the administration’s negotiating team has received “dozens of signals from Democrats that they are willing to give the president wall money,” but declined to name any such lawmakers.
The administration may have been referring to a letter written by freshman Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) and signed by more than 30 House Democrats, which merely called for a vote on Trump’s border security proposal once the government reopens.
But “that vote would obviously fail in the House,” one senior Democratic aide pointed out. “This is just pathetic spin.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said, “The poll numbers tell a very stark story, but it’s only part of the more enduring longer-term effect on the president’s credibility. He essentially held America hostage for a vanity project and a campaign applause line that the American people saw clearly was never worth shutting down the government to achieve.”
Trump’s approval ratings have fallen in most public polls, including a Washington Post-ABC News survey released Friday that found 37 percent approve of his presidency and 58 percent disapprove.
Trump risks further angering independent voters who do not agree with the prolonged shutdown and conservatives who disapprove of him caving after 35 days with no win.
Conservative commentator Ann Coulter, whose criticism of Trump in mid-December helped inspire the president to shut the government in protest over wall funding, registered her disapproval of his Friday decision.
“Good news for George Herbert Walker Bush: As of today, he is no longer the biggest wimp ever to serve as President of the United States,” Coulter tweeted.
For months, Republican senators had been trying to warn Trump against a shutdown. Last June, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the chamber’s point person on Homeland Security funding, met privately with Trump not only to tout their bipartisan border security spending package but also to nudge him away from a confrontation over the wall.
“I just said, ‘Shutdowns are miserable,’ ” Capito said Friday, recounting that Oval Office conversation. “The last one was miserable. And this one was double miserable, and so, you know, maybe you have to live through it to really get the sense of it.”
King faulted the conservative Freedom Caucus, led by Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), both Trump confidants, for steering the president in the wrong direction.
“I hope he ignores them for the next three weeks,” King said. “It’s the charge of the light brigade. It’s the valley of death.”
Mick Mulvaney was a young businessman and budding politician 11 years ago when he became co-owner of a company that wanted to build a strip mall near a busy intersection in this upscale bedroom community outside Charlotte.
All that was needed was money.
The company cobbled together the financing — which included borrowing $1.4 million from a family firm owned by a prominent local businessman named Charles Fonville Sr., according to court records and interviews.
Eventually, the project fell apart. The mall never got built. And Mulvaney moved on, building a political career as a firebrand fiscal hawk and tea party pioneer in Congress who railed against out-of-control government deficits — eventually rising a few weeks ago to be President Trump’s acting chief of staff.
Fonville, however, said his company has not received the $2.5 million with interest that he said it is owed. In explaining the debt to a Senate committee during his 2017 confirmation hearing, Mulvaney cast it as a casualty of a bad real estate deal, saying the sum “will go unpaid.”
Today, their dispute is at the center of a legal battle playing out behind the scenes in South Carolina as Mulvaney guides Trump through a high-stakes budget showdown with congressional Democrats.
.. The fight threatens to tarnish Mulvaney’s image as fiscally responsible, just as he has reached the most influential position of his career.
Fonville’s company has filed a claim in a South Carolina court against two companies in which Mulvaney has an ownership stake, accusing them of
- “intent to deceive,”
- “fraudulent acts” and
- “breach of contract” to avoid repayment. ]
The heart of Fonville’s allegation: When a new Mulvaney-linked company was formed and sought to foreclose on the first company Mulvaney co-owned, it was a maneuver to avoid paying the debt owed to Fonville.
.. Mulvaney was not sued individually, but late last year — while he was running the Office of Management and Budget and carrying out his duties as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — he traveled to Charlotte to be deposed in the case, his attorney said.
.. “I can’t believe he treated me the way he did,” Fonville said during interviews about the case, including one last month as he visited the property that kicked off the dispute. “It is not a small piece of money. You are talking about a couple of million dollars.”
“I have tried to call him,” said Fonville, 83, who said he is a Republican who voted for Trump. “He never called me back. I had thought Mick was an ethical person.”
Mulvaney declined to comment. The White House referred questions to Mulvaney’s lawyer, John R. Buric, who said Mulvaney has done nothing wrong.