During the last presidential campaign, the Mainstream Media ran so many stories about the Trump campaign being in various stages of “disarray” at various times that some skepticism was in order when such articles resumed popping up following Mr. Trump’s presidential victory and inauguration. In addition, I kept asking myself why any official with any loyalty to Mr. Trump would even speak with mainstream reporters like The New York Times‘ Maggie Haberman, who was so hostile to their boss for so long that she was considered a “surrogate” by top aides to candidate Trump’s main general election rival, Hillary Clinton.
At the same time, as so often remarked, running for office is hardly the same as serving in office, especially when the presidency is involved. And the resignation of an official so high level as national security adviser Michael Flynn after only about three weeks into an administration is a glaring sign that the president is well behind the curve in getting his organizational act together. Unless he raises his game dramatically very soon, his thick teflon coating could start wearing very thin, and even at this early stage, “failed presidency” claims will look disturbingly on target.
But even if the transition to a post-Flynn presidency goes relatively smoothly, and no other fiascoes break out, this latest episode vividly reminds of a big challenge President Trump will keep facing throughout his time in office, and one that I’m not totally confident he’ll solve in a satisfactory way.
Why not? Because he’s never had a large cadre of high-quality advisers capable of staffing even the very top levels of a new administration. Nor is one is likely to appear any time soon. For nationalist critics of recent American trade, broader globalization, and foreign policies have never attracted anywhere near the kind of funding that’s needed to create the kind of counter-establishment that can nurture a big enough core of knowledgeable specialists representing that perspective.
In fact, the nationalists’ performance stands in stark and sad contrast to that of other interests in years past. The leading example is mainstream conservatism – which recognized the need for such institutions to overthrow or at least modify what they saw as a dangerously liberal policy consensus reigning in Washington and in national politics during the post-New Deal decades.
As a result, if Mr. Trump is to halt an powerful downward spiral in his presidency, he may well need to rely even more heavily than at present on cabinet and key sub-cabinet and other aides who hold much more conventional views than his – and those of his base – on key issues like trade and immigration that largely vaulted him into the Oval Office. Just look at the president’s recent summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for evidence of how this dilemma has already affected U.S. policy in ways that Trump backers can’t possibly support.
Precisely because Japan has been a leading predatory trading power for so long, its economy-wide trade barriers and other mercantile practices had drawn Mr. Trump’s ire during the campaign. In addition, Japan was (rightly) portrayed as a classic defense free-rider – a country that was able to skimp on its own military spending because of its guarantee of American protection. And candidate Trump went even further than most critics in questioning the bilateral security relationship, suggesting that because of the mounting nuclear threats from both China and North Korea, Washington’s decades-old promise to defend Japan against any and all attacks posed increasingly alarming nuclear risks to the United States.
Japan clearly was so worried about President Trump’s views that Abe rushed to the United States right after the November vote and became the first foreign leader to meet President-elect Trump in person. Abe’s trip last week, moreover, made him the second foreign leader to see President Trump in person once his term began. (Britain’s Theresa May was the first.)
Judging not only from the official record of the visit, but from the judgment of a group of Japan policy specialists that convened in Washington yesterday, Abe achieved both of his major objectives – and then some. President Trump pledged to continue the policy of defending Japan through thick and thin (“100 percent”), and Abe successfully deflected significant U.S. trade pressure – at least for the time being.
As made clear by Abe’s detailed and decisive statements during his visit, one main reason for his triumph was preparation – always an urgent necessity for Tokyo since, despite all the traditional American establishment boilerplate about interdependence, the United States has always been much more important to Japan than vice versa. But three other main reasons bring us back to the “Flynn problem.”
First, Abe plainly was able to fill a policy vacuum created both by the Trump administration’s growing pains and its thin staffing. Second, the American preparations made for the Abe meetings, including putting together briefing materials, were dominated by holdover bureaucrats who overwhelmingly support the longtime status quo in U.S.-Japan relations. And third, many of the top aides Trump has selected strongly support the status quo, too. These include Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Economic Council Chair Gary Cohn. The former is general recently retired from an American military with a big vested psychological and bureaucratic stake in maintaining massive U.S. forward deployed forces in East Asia. The latter is a former senior executive at Wall Street mainstay Goldman Sachs.
Not that this kind of gloom and doom scenario (from a Trump-ian standpoint) is inevitable. Although high quality nationalist policy specialists are hardly abundant, they can be found. Moreover, it’s possible that President Trump could make clear to his more establishment-oriented advisers that he expects them to reflect his own iconoclastic leanings. In addition, aides that plainly represent his campaign positions (and of course contributed substantially to formulating them) could be given the whip hand bureaucratically, in order to drive this message home.
But of course this approach’s success will depend largely on the establishment figures following this lead – and not walking away from jobs that most of them plainly don’t need financially or or professionally. At the same time, even if Mr. Trump’s more conventionally minded advisers stay on in this atmosphere, would there be enough loyalists, and enough competent loyalists, to discipline them effectively? I don’t know if the aides most strongly supportive of the president’s vision, chiefly White House policy chief Stephen Miller, and chief strategist Steve Bannon, are grappling with these issues. I do know that they’ll need to if the Trump presidency is to achieve its promise.