Inside the US Government, the Trump presidency looks much worse

by Rachel Morris / 27 February, 2017

Photo/Getty Images

Rachel Morris reports from Washington DC.

Little more than a month into Donald Trump’s presidency, I’ve been asked, more than once, to participate in a grim bet as to whether he will still be in the White House by 2018. (A grimmer side bet, proposed after his rambling, hostile press conference in mid-February, was whether America will still be around by 2018.)

I’ve learnt not to make big ­predictions where Trump is ­concerned, but the first question isn’t a stupid one. Trump is openly at war. And things are going to get very, very ugly for whoever winds up on the losing side.

Many departments are operating as if they’re under siege from within. Trump has named a number of Cabinet secretaries who have expressed contempt for the agencies they’re supposed to lead. Some high-level officials have been purged for ­criticising Trump; ­communications by lower-level staffers are tightly controlled. Recently, a reporter friend described a panicked call she’d received after emailing a contact in the press office of a major ­department, ­seeking comment on a story. The officer – whose job it is to ­provide information to ­reporters – begged her not to email such requests, in case someone was monitoring her messages.

Meanwhile, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared ­Kushner, and senior adviser Stephen Bannon seem intent on cutting senior experts out of key ­decisions. ­Kushner, according to numerous reports, is operating like a shadow Secretary of State, ­conducting ­foreign policy on the fly. Bannon has set up a new policy group to funnel ­recommendations to the President, undermining the National Security Council. (Bannon’s Strategic Development Group, incidentally, is run by New Zealander Chris Liddell.)

The distrust of traditional experts and ­competing centres of power are largely responsible for the ­chaotic rollout of Trump’s travel ban and raise ­serious questions about how the administration would cope with a crisis. The word from career ­government types is that, no matter how ­dysfunctional this looks from the outside, on the inside it’s much, much worse.

The bitterest – and most dangerous – conflict of all is between Trump and the intelligence community. Trump seemed to enter office believing the presidency functions like a monarchy, or a mid-sized, family-run real-estate concern – the President issues edicts, the President’s will is done. He appears to have no inkling that the ­Government is a Game of Thrones-esque mess of fiefdoms and agendas and that civil servants have considerable power to obstruct a President’s plans. (David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest remains the best account of how White Houses can be completely overwhelmed by greater institutional forces.)

But if Trump didn’t know before, he’s finding out now. His early ­juggernaut momentum has been stalled by damaging leaks about links between his campaign and Russia, which led to the resignation of his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, in a record 24 days.

It’s possible the leaks will trigger an investigation that could ­cripple Trump’s administration even if he isn’t directly implicated in any wrongdoing. Just as likely, though, is that Trump goes after the intelligence community using all the power at his disposal. He’s asked the Justice Department to look into the leaks and enlisted a billionaire pal (with no national security experience) to conduct a “review” of the intelligence services.

When Trump was elected, some people cautioned against panic. America’s institutions, they said, can survive even a dangerously unqualified commander-in-chief. But what if America’s institutions are largely cut out of the ­process of governing? Or if they’re ­hollowed out from the inside, termite-style, when experts are replaced by loyalists? Whether Trump makes it through the year or not, this is a bet that has no winners.

This article was first published in the March 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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