It is hard to appreciate the magnitude of the dysfunction in the White House of U.S. President Donald Trump and its implications. Last week, his travails included the defeat of health care reform — his (and his party’s) top legislative priority — along with a Congressional move to limit Trump’s authority to deal with Russia, a rebuke by the Pentagon over a presidential directive to ban transgender people from military service, chaos in the White House staff and an extraordinary introduction by his new communications director. The Trump administration looks weak, chaotic and unfocused. This cannot continue.
Internecine sniping has been a feature of team Trump since he declared his candidacy for president of the United States but last week fighting assumed new levels of intensity. Speculation first swirled around the fate of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Trump said he would not have appointed him if he had known Sessions would recuse himself from the investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign and then proceeded to humiliate him in statements and tweets. Many thought Sessions would resign but he soldiered on, with many of his former Senate colleagues warning Trump that firing Sessions would trigger reprisals.
That was followed by legislation from Congress that would limit the president’s ability to ease sanctions on Russia. House passage by a margin of 419-3 and Senate approval of 98-2 were staggering votes of no-confidence in Trump’s judgment. The White House signaled that it will sign the bill rather than face the prospect of having a veto overridden.
That slap in the face was followed by drama, as the Senate failed to pass any of the Republican health care reform bills that were proposed. The most extraordinary moment was provided by Arizona Sen. John McCain, — who was served one of Trump’s most brutal insults in the election campaign (Trump said he “liked people who weren’t captured,” a denigration of McCain’s years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict) — when he voted against the final option with a decisive thumb’s down gesture, stunning the Senate.
Before the Senate disaster, Trump sought to ban transgender people from serving in the military, but his tweet — the only manifestation of the new policy — was dismissed by the Pentagon as meaningless — a statement that came after Department of Defense officials denied having any input into the decision, which also undercut Trump’s claim that the move was based on military recommendations.
That process validated claims that the White House needed help with communications, and the president moved to fix that problem by hiring Anthony Scaramucci as director of communications, filling a slot that had been vacant since early June. Scaramucci produced headlines — but not of a good kind — with an obscenity-filled rant to a reporter and threats to fire everyone in the White House who he thought was disloyal to the president. The introduction of “the Mooch” (as he is known) was the final straw for White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who promptly resigned. He has been replaced by former U.S. Army Gen. John Kelly, who was serving as homeland security secretary. Kelly — it is hoped — will bring order and discipline to a White House that has neither.
The problem for Kelly is that his chief — Trump — does not want either. He encourages his staff to fight among themselves and to report only to him. That management style may work for a small, family-held corporation but it is a disaster for the head of the U.S. government. Kelly will not succeed if Trump does not give him the authority to impose discipline and the president has shown no willingness to change the essentials of his style.
In the latest twist, the White House on Monday announced the resignation of Scaramucci — only 10 days after he was tapped to the job. It is reported that he was effectively axed by Trump at the request of Kelly.
Trump should be worried about these developments. The failure of health care reform and the passage of the Russia legislation are signs that he has lost leverage and influence in Congress. The sanctions bill in particular shows that even his own party is ready to limit his autonomy and authority even in foreign policy, a traditional presidential prerogative that Republicans have long sought to protect. He has shown no ability to close the deal, the most essential element of his appeal to U.S. voters in last year’s campaign.
This would be amusing if the consequences of dysfunction were not so dangerous. Apart from millions of Americans who must live with anxiety and uncertainty produced by the administration’s back and forth on key issues in their lives, there are real and growing threats to world peace that demand a response — and the White House does not inspire confidence. While this drama was unfolding in Washington, North Korea tested another intercontinental missile, Iran threatened U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf, tensions between the U.S. and Russia are rising — to name just three top concerns. Let us see what the rest of this week brings.