NEW YORK – Losing a national security adviser to scandal within the first month of a new presidency, with Michael Flynn resigning late Monday, isn’t just unprecedented; it’s one of those events that would have Spock telling Kirk that the readings are off the charts and make no sense.
Which is also the case with Donald Trump’s approval ratings — they’re not just the worst ever at this point, but in territory that’s unimaginable had any previous major party nominee won election. Barry Goldwater, George McGovern, Walter Mondale — odds are that had some weird fluke happened and they had won, they would still have been doing much better by that measure than Trump.
The president himself is beset by up to three separate scandals: One about Russian interference in the U.S. election along with contacts between his campaign and transition team with the Kremlin; one about conflicts of interest and “emoluments”; and perhaps one about the president himself as a security risk.
Nor is there any particular reason to expect things to get better, at least not without massive outside interference. And not just because the Russia scandal is hardly over just because Flynn is gone. The factionalized, inept White House remains just as dysfunctional as ever. Executive branch nominations have slowed to a crawl, with just one submitted since Feb. 1 — balanced by the withdrawal of the former selection for secretary of the army, Vincent Viola. They can’t find anyone willing to handle communications. Did you know they still don’t appear to have formally submitted the nomination of Sonny Perdue, the choice for agriculture secretary, to the Senate? Did they just forget? Who knows?
Then there’s an increasing obsession with leaks — Trump tweeted about it Tuesday morning, Washington time. That’s a classic White House mistake. Things go wrong, and it triggers people (in the permanent bureaucracy, or from one or another faction within the administration) to talk to the press. A good president will use these leaks as sources of information — who is upset, and why? A poor president will circle the wagons, trying to keep knowledge of what’s happening within the administration within a tighter and tighter circle, which only serves to make those who legitimately are supposed to be part of the policymaking process even more upset, and the policy made without proper inputs even less likely to succeed. Guess which one Trump is choosing? Hey, at least on this he’s making a normal “presidenting” mistake, albeit one which helped cost Richard Nixon his presidency.
The worst of it, perhaps, is that hardly anything that has happened since Nov. 9 has been truly surprising. Look at the White House. The president of the United States has no government experience and demonstrated during the campaign only a very limited understanding of the U.S. government and public policy. The top players within the White House — Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner — also have no government experience at all. Why should anyone expect that to work?
Of course they’re stymied by the basic tasks of governing. Of course a president who hires based on whether they look right for the job — what I call the “cut of their jib” test — is going to wind up with wildly inappropriate staffing choices. Of course a president who hasn’t even minimally reached out to the majority who didn’t vote for him is going to have lousy approval ratings.
I know I sound like a broken record, but the way out of the worst of this is obvious: Congressional Republicans need to use their leverage to insist the president hire a real chief of staff to clean house — including removing Bannon — and run the administration properly. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen any hint of it so far. Instead of floating names such as Rob Portman, Mitch Daniels or Lamar Alexander, some Republicans are apparently trying to rally around Priebus, who may not be as objectionable as Bannon but doesn’t have the capacity to get the administration on track. If the Russia scandal is, as NBC’s “First Read” said, “arguably the biggest scandal involving a foreign government since Iran-Contra,” then the solution is the same as it was then: Investigate the scandal to be sure, but meanwhile get a steady hand in the White House to make up for the president’s shortcomings.
If Republicans don’t demand a new version of Howard Baker (who fixed what was broken in the Ronald Reagan White House back then), they’ll only have themselves to blame for the next scandal, and the next one, and the one after that. Which, at this rate, might not even get us to Memorial Day.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.