The Presidential Power Amateur Hour

Well, we now have a preliminary finding from the grand experiment on what governance looks like if you get rid of government professionals: amateurish. And that may be the good news. It’s possible the only thing keeping the league of extraordinary lightweights running the executive office from doing lasting damage to the republic is their own mumping incompetence.

The president’s executive order limiting immigration was a case study in how not to formulate and roll out a policy. It goes without saying that it had little input from issue-relevant experts, because what the hell would those pointy-headed, smug elitists have to contribute? Nobody likes a lawyer, so it wasn’t properly legally vetted. It effectively had no agency review. Congressional leaders in the president’s own party were blindsided by the executive order. The head of the Department of Homeland Security had little clue it was coming. The Department of Justice was caught off guard. The people implementing it weren’t sure exactly who was and wasn’t supposed to be allowed in. A series of judges more or less immediately ruled at least parts of the order legally unenforceable and the acting attorney general said she wouldn’t defend it.

The political fallout from this strength-five Charlie Foxtrot ranged from astonishing to cosmically jaw dropping. Politics is renowned for playing Tinder to unlikely bedfellows, but, honestly, watching Michael Moore, Dick Cheney and the pope swipe right and snuggle up together under the same side of the policy blankie? Seeing hard-core conservative partisans like Bill Kristol and the Koch brothers—the freakin’ Koch brothers—lining up with the American Civil Liberties Union to condemn what was going on? Even the heads of long-term political cynics like me were getting some serious Meadowlark Lemon spin on.

And speaking of the ACLU, Trumps order prompted 356,306 people to fork over $24 million—six times the organization’s average annual donation—in two days. And protestors were already having to fight through the phalanx of lawyers descending on airports to offer pro bono legal services.

That was just on the domestic front. The executive order gave America’s international relationships another big step towards Charlie Sheen levels of irreconcilable differences. Angela Merkel felt the need to inform Trump of the Geneva Convention and the legal obligation its signatories (which include the United States) have to refugees fleeing war zones. Let that sink in. A German head of state feeling compelled to clue in the leader of the free world on the Geneva Convention. Trump might not be an iron chancellor, but he’s lead candidate for irony chancellor. Across the channel a petition calling to rescind an invite for an official visit to the United Kingdom—America’s oldest and bestest buddy—went super-viral. In a matter of hours, more than a million Brits signed on, and you could watch it jump by thousands in real time. These were reactions, keep in mind, from America’s close allies. Those wishing us ill just quietly wet themselves with glee.

So, on the down side, the executive order as written was a ham-fisted legal mess; as no effort was made to lay the necessary administrative groundwork, its implementation was a giant cluster; politically it made the president’s administration look like bumpkins and bumblers and his party as well as Congress look like afterthoughts; it provided a big boost to the nascent national movement coalescing in opposition to his policy agenda; and it created a big enough war chest for a group to lay legal siege to whatever he does for years. Oh, and national security and terrorism experts of all partisan and ideological persuasions said it probably will do little to achieve its stated goal of increasing the safety of US citizens, and will almost certainly do exactly the opposite. Their verdict was that it’s basically an “Uncle Sam says screw you” recruiting campaign for ISIS. Yay.

Are there any positives to find in this whole sorry mess? Well, the figures are still a bit murky, but last weekend roughly speaking somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people were either denied entry to the United States or preventing from boarding a flight to the United States. These included scientists, students, filmmakers, families fleeing oppression and war, and others who had risked their lives working for the American military. No one could come up with even an alternative fact suggesting any of them was a suspected terrorist. There wasn’t even a hint that someone in the bunch was the sort of bastard who’d cheat at Scrabble and fib on their tax returns. I suppose no one has comprehensively ruled out that one of the detained toddlers wasn’t the next budding Osama bin Laden, so, who knows, maybe we did dodge a bullet.  And, well, that’s about it. By any normal political or policy calculus this was a calamity that incurred huge costs with trifling payoffs. This wasn’t breaking eggs for an omelet, it was torching the hen house to boil one.

What was the president’s reaction to this? Trump fired the acting attorney general, dropped tweet-bombs on Lindsay Graham and John McCain, and took a quick taste of Chuck Schumer’s tears and declared them delicious.  He declared the immigration ban was “working out very nicely,” and blamed any notion that anything was amiss on the press, AKA the “opposition party.” Apparently they’re bouncing off the springy platforms of alternative facts in the West Wing and catapulting themselves into alternative universes.

The eye-watering winds of political chaos seeded by the immigration executive order says something pretty fundamental about the basic level of governing competence of the Trump administration: They haven’t got any. Look, people can disagree about the right approach to immigration and there are reasonable arguments about reforming refugee policies, and as polling has consistently shown that Americans want tougher immigration rules there’s a fair enough expectation that government will respond to those preferences. As a candidate Donald Trump repeatedly promised to clamp down on immigrants and refugees and spoke of stuff like “extreme vetting.” It’s no surprise, then, that a Trump administration moved quickly on immigration—as a general principle, most of us are in favor of elected officials actually following through on campaign promises.

What is surprising, or at least hard for professional political observers like me to wrap their heads around, is the accompanying ration of eye-popping and mean-spirited incompetence. Even in pursuit of contentious policy objectives, you really don’t have to piss off/offend/humiliate every possible person, country, or cause possible, nor is there any requirement that said pursuit demands basic expectations about good law, good process, good politics and even common decency be crapped on. The whole sorry performance suggests the Trump administration is either alarmingly unprepared for delivering competent governance or, even worse, it just likes doing this sort of thing. Either way, America’s credibility and prestige was just needlessly sullied. That cack-handed executive order carpet bombed not just the country’s interests, but—and surely some grown up in reasonable proximity to this embarrassing fumble gets this—the interests of the Trump administration itself. All governments do dumb things, but this represents Defcon Four levels of ineptitude.

And, unfortunately, it tells everybody—Russia, China, Europe, lefties, righties and everyone in between—exactly who is running the United States government: Amateurs.