All the president’s incompetence: Unnerving early signs from the Trump administration

January 30, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 30, 2017

There’s a classic joke in which two women are dining at a restaurant. (A version of it appears in Woody Allen’s 1977 movie Annie Hall.) One lady says, “The food at this place is really terrible.” The other lady replies, “I know, and such small portions!”

I couldn’t help but be reminded of this while reading an otherwise sobering essay Saturday night about an executive order that President Donald Trump issued on Friday during a visit to the Pentagon. The document, as much of the world now knows, was designed to bar entry to travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries for three months and to suspend all refugee admissions for six months. It quickly attracted a great deal of outrage, much of it associated with the hashtag #MuslimBan, and led to a series of judicial defeats for the fledgling administration as the ACLU and other civil-rights lawyers filed lawsuits in various federal district courts.

Reports emerged that the executive order had been drafted virtually in secret, without input from the federal lawyers or agencies that normally would vet such administrative initiatives. Informal Trump advisor Rudy Giuliani told Fox News that the president had asked him and a panel of attorneys, including former George W. Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey and at least one sitting Republican congressman (from Texas, natch) to design a Muslim ban that could pass legal muster.

The challenge there, of course, is that the First Amendment (among other things) bars the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, Trump wanted his advisors to craft an executive order that violated a key tenet of the foundational document of the United States of America, which for generations has proudly declared itself “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Back to Benjamin Wittes’s excoriation of the executive order, the essay which prompted me to recall the aforementioned old joke with a rueful chuckle over the weekend. Wittes, a scholar of government, analyzed the order from a number of perspectives, including constitutional and immigration law. He also discussed the usual process by which national-security initiatives are made.

Wittes has two main theses: First, that the executive order is incredibly malevolent; and second, that it was created with “astonishing incompetence [in] its drafting and construction.”

Normally, of course, an administration acting incompetently or ham-handedly would be a positive for the president’s foes. But there’s good cause to be concerned by the way in which this document came to be.

There’s ample evidence that Stephen Bannon, the former Breitbart executive who is one of Trump’s key political advisors, bypassed normally government functions in order to enact the Muslim ban. My jaw practically dropped when I saw the New York Times report that the newly confirmed secretary of homeland security was receiving his first full briefing on the order at the very moment that Trump was signing it into being. The Times’s Michael Shear and Ron Nixon added:

The global confusion that has since erupted is the story of a White House that rushed to enact, with little regard for basic governing, a core campaign promise that Mr. Trump made to his most fervent supporters. In his first week in office, Mr. Trump signed other executive actions with little or no legal review, but his order barring refugees has had the most explosive implications.

Passengers were barred from flights to the United States, customs and border control officials got instructions at 3 a.m. Saturday and some arrived at their posts later that morning still not knowing how to carry out the president’s orders.

“The details of it were not thought through,” said Stephen Heifetz, who served in the Justice and Homeland Security Departments, as well as the C.I.A., under the previous three presidents. “It is not surprising there was mass confusion, and I expect the confusion and chaos will continue for some time.”

We’ve previously seen a president and his key advisors circumvent normal governmental procedures in their haste to take action; one major consequence was the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a catastrophic war premised largely upon questionable intelligence that Vice President Dick Cheney and his cronies forced through bureaucratic channels to the dismay of many a veteran government servant.

In Donald Trump, we now have a president who is serving in public office for the first time in his life. He has few if any core beliefs; he appears to be primarily motivated by self-aggrandizing and self-enrichment; he seems to be extraordinarily susceptible to suggestion. (Take note of how the president’s belief in the effectiveness of torture seems to vary depending on how recently he’s discussed the subject with James Mattis, the retired Marine general who recently became the secretary of defense.) The novice president delights in trampling political and international norms, he has openly embraced Russia and its thuggish dictator, and he appears to be bent on either abandoning key American military alliances or extorting payments from its partners. He is widely portrayed as intellectually incurious and undisciplined.

A famous computer-programming maxim is widely known as GIGO. That’s shorthand for “garbage in, garbage out.” The lesson here is simple: If a computer’s programmers are sloppy, if their work is chaotic, then the quality of its output will match that of its input.

The application to our current presidential administration is equally clear. If Trump, Bannon and the rest of the president’s inner circle continue to govern in the way we’ve seen over this administration’s first 11 days, eliminating legal reviews and procedural safeguards, then we’re likely to see key institutions in one of the most significant nations on the face of the Earth reduced — metaphorically if not literally — to useless piles of rubble.

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