When the Trump administration was being put together there were a whole lot of questions raised about the competency of certain nominees. In some cases there has already been evidence that those concerns were legitimate.
Take Dr. Ben Carson, for example. Dr. Carson is an eminent brain surgeon, but he was put in charge of Housing and Urban Development. Bad choice. Allowing Carson to pontificate about his philosophy of life – worse choice. Carson recently told the world that poverty is a “state of mind,” suggesting that poor people basically will themselves into being poor. There are some such people, much like there are some billionaires and multi-millionaires who inherited a ton of money but believe that they are self-made rich people. Education, housing, medical care, job opportunities – those are the drivers that affect someone’s ability to make a good life for themselves and their families.
Then there is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. For the most part she demonstrates that lots of money and brains don’t always come in one neat package. She doesn’t have a clue about education issues. She is a one-trick pony about school choice. She also seems to believe that the Education Department should not take an interest in students’ civil rights. But then why should she? There is a concerted effort on the part of the Departments of Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, and Justice, plus the Environmental Protection Agency, to reduce or abandon efforts that would protect civil rights.
For those looking sadly or angrily at appointments such as these, there was some hope that there were at least a handful of adults in the room who would temper Donald Trump and keep things on an even keel. That means settling for less than a team composed of the best and brightest, but it was something. But now one might think that when it comes to adult supervision, there is no there, there.
The tempering adults, at least in January, were supposed to be the generals plus the family – a total of five people, or six if you include the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. So how is that working out? Let’s start with the generals.
- Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis. Sold as an experienced leader who is intelligent and not afraid to speak truth to power. Mattis’ public visibility has been limited. He has reportedly had battles with White House staff about the appointment of DOD administrative staff. Does his lack of visibility indicate lack of influence in the administration or just a “nose-to-the-grindstone” approach to his work?
- Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly. Kelly also arrived with the pedigree of a tough military man who knew the government, how administrations function, and where he could contribute to honest policy dialogue. But after the Kushner-Russia-related eruption occurred this past weekend, who was the only person the administration offered up as a spokesperson? There was Secretary Kelly on the Sunday talk shows telling us that he knows Jared (what an honor), and that Jared is a “good guy.” Kelly suggested that there is nothing wrong or unusual about a new administration using “back channels” to communicate with foreign governments. That’s true, although it depends what you are back-channeling about and when you are doing it. We also have this informal rule about only having one president at a time. But Kelly’s carefully chosen words on Sunday did not get into the more damning part of the Kushner story which concerned Kushner’s efforts to conduct his communications in Russian embassies or offices using the Russians’ communications equipment! Sort of like the Clinton server issue, on steroids.
- National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. Of all the three generals, McMaster was supposed to stand out more than the others because he even wrote a book about how the military failed to speak truth to power during the Vietnam War. I quoted a passage from his book in a previous post: “The failings were many and reinforcing; arrogance, weakness, lying in the pursuit of self-interest, and above all, the abdication of responsibility to the American people.” McMaster was trotted out first to try to explain away Trump’s leak of classified information to Russian officials/spies. More recently he also came to Kushner’s defense, choosing his words carefully like Kelly did to discuss “back channels” while ignoring the impropriety or the illegality of using Russian communications equipment in Russian facilities to communicate with the Russians.
Kelly and McMaster were not pushed out as administration spokesmen because Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway were off for the day or just hiding in the bushes. They were used as flacks because someone in the White House decided that they had more credibility than Trump or his regular PR minions. They did have that credibility. They don’t anymore.
Not to rub it in with McMaster, okay to rub it in a little, here’s one more tidbit from his book. He discusses how, in the run-up to approval of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that was later used to justify the escalation of the Vietnam War, the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), General Earle Wheeler, was used as a prop for Defense Secretary Robert McNamara when they appeared before congressional committees to somewhat falsely explain the move toward active engagement: Wheeler “lent indispensable credibility to his defense secretary’s remarks. Congressional faith in the integrity of the military was based, in part, on the expectation that JCS views and recommendations were independent of partisan political concerns…”
And then there are the family members/White House advisors, daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner. They were supposed to be the people who could cool Donald Trump down and maybe suggest some rational policy issues. Ivanka’s issues have primarily been child care credits for people who mostly can afford to pay for it themselves, and bombing a Syrian air base. Her father has taken her advice, although he went easy on Syria, warning the Russians in advance and just nicking the base which returned to full operations in a few days.
Kushner has been presented to the country as Superman. His portfolio includes saving the world while reorganizing the entire federal government in his spare time. Like his father-in-law, he is good at throwing a punch but he can’t take one.
It is easy to characterize Kushner. I’ll just settle here for incompetent, spoiled, not too bright, arrogant, irresponsible, and greedy.
Kushner’s role also leads us to the other suggested adult in the room of the Trump administration, Secretary of State and oil minister Rex Tillerson. Tillerson pops up every now and then, mostly while avoiding questions from NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. Other than that it seems that Tillerson’s role is to hold Kushner’s coat while the latter functions as de facto Secretary of State.
Add to all these enablers the Republican members of Congress, who cower nearly all the time. (Is Chris Collins still in Congress? We haven’t really heard from him on any of this.) The senators and representatives still think that by swallowing Trump’s abuse and transgressions they will magically get the tax cuts they seek while repealing and replacing Obamacare. In their dreams.
Sure, there a are few Republicans who stand up to Trump occasionally. John McCain, for example. Lindsay Graham, who alternates from bold anti-Trump statements to strong loyalty pledges, is another one.
Senator Ben Sasse, Republican from Nebraska, has a new book out about adulthood in America. He has said in interviews that he is not sure Trump could be classified as an adult. It took writing a 300 page book to figure that out?
If it were not for some big issues, like hoping the world doesn’t blow up or that millions of Americans could be forced into sickness and poverty by proposed Trump policies, I guess we could say we’ll just ride things out. Someone I know suggests that people like Kelly and McMaster are going along with being shills just because they know that if they leave the administration what comes next could make things much worse. That could be.
Hoping for a better turn of events may be all we have at this moment in time.