Divert, distort, distract: An early controversy sets the tone for Trump’s reign

February 1, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 1, 2017

As the ghastly mess that was the drafting and rollout of the new executive order limiting the entry of refugees and travelers from seven majority-Muslim nations became fully apparent over the weekend, I wondered about this episode’s implications for the remaining 207 weeks of President Trump’s administration.

As noted Monday afternoon, the incompetence displayed by the newly installed executive and his crew was deeply troubling. But that wasn’t the only striking thing about the incident; indeed, I think many of the patterns that we saw over the past few days will recur time and again over the coming three years, 11 months and change.

Consider the following:

The administration bypassed normal government operating procedures. As discussed yesterday, a number of lawyers and agencies weren’t consulted about the travel ban. Trump, a business executive unused to working within governmental constraints, loves to make his own rules, even when he’s been warned that there are very good reasons for following established procedure.

The administration got help from congressional employees while keeping Republican lawmakers in the dark. On Monday evening, Politico reported that top Trump aides had recruited senior congressional staffers to help draft the order without informing any actual members of Congress; indeed, the staffers were required to sign nondisclosure agreements. Competent, transparent administrations don’t work that way; but of course, Trump’s crew has not yet developed a feel nor show an inclination for working conventionally and has never displayed any desire to be transparent.

Top Trump aides overruled a more permissive interpretation of the travel ban produced by federal lawyers. As CNN reported on Monday:

DHS arrived at the legal interpretation that the executive order restrictions applying to seven countries … did not apply to people with lawful permanent residence, generally referred to as green card holders.

The White House overruled that guidance overnight, according to officials familiar with the rollout. That order came from the President’s inner circle, led by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon.

Bannon is a former executive at Breitbart, the far-right news outlet that is widely viewed as a platform for white nationalism; Miller, who first gained national prominence by promoting “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week,” was mentored at Duke University by Richard Spencer, now a leading neo-Nazi. I suspect that we’re going to see many more instances of Bannon and other top Trump appointees countermanding veteran government officials in order to impose the harshest possible restrictions.

• Trump’s executive order was strangely targeted. As government scholar Benjamin Wittes wrote in a lengthy and quite cogent analysis at Lawfare, “the document is both wildly over-inclusive and wildly under-inclusive.” He continued:

On the over-inclusive side, it will keep tens of thousands of innocent refugees who have been subject to unspeakable violence outside of the protection of the United States on the vanishingly small chance that these people might be terrorists… It will prevent untold numbers of people about whom there is no whiff of suspicion from coming here as students, as professionals, as tourists. It overtly treats members of a particular religion differently from other people.

On the underinclusive side, the order wouldn’t have blocked the entry of many of the people responsible for the worst recent terrorist attacks. There is, in fact, simply no rational relationship between cutting off visits from the particular countries that Trump targets (Muslim countries that don’t happen to be close U.S. allies) and any expected counterterrorism goods. … Of the San Bernardino attackers (both of Pakistani origin, one a U.S. citizen and the other a lawful permanent resident), the Orlando shooter (a U.S. citizen whose parents were born in Afghanistan), and the Boston marathon bombers (one a naturalized U.S. citizen, one a green card holder who arrived in Massachusetts from Kyrgyzstan), none came from countries listed in the order.

• The order exempted nations where Trump has business ties. Trump’s controversial executive order, which invokes the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks repeatedly, temporarily banned travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Trump either has business interests or has pursued deals in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Azerbaijan. None of the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were from any of the countries subject to the travel ban; 18 were from the countries where Trump does business. (The 19th was from Lebanon.) While there’s no credible evidence that the ban was crafted with Trump’s financial ties in mind, this can hardly reassure Americans or ethics experts who warned that the president would suffer from perceived or actual conflicts of interest by failing to divest himself fully from his businesses.

• The controversy overshadowed a less flashy but potentially more important news story. On Saturday, Trump signed an executive order reshuffling the National Security Council. The changes included giving Bannon a permanent seat on the NSC’s “principals committee” while indicating that the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would attend the group’s gatherings only “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.” Susan Rice, President Obama’s last National Security Advisor, tweeted that the move was “stone cold crazy,” adding this rhetorical question: “Who needs military advice or intell [sic] to make policy on ISIL, Syria, Afghanistan, DPRK?” Robert Gates, whose tenure as defense secretary bridged the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, told Time, “I did object to political advisers attending NSC meetings, but that concern pales in importance to my concern over restrictions on the attendance at NSC meetings of the Chairman and the DNI.”

• Republicans generally gave Trump and his aides cover for their controversial actions. Few Republicans went on the record to decry the travel ban in which the order was created. What few critical comments were publicly aired by GOP officials focused on the clumsy rollout and the administration’s lack of consultation with lawmakers. “I think it’s regrettable that there was some confusion on the rollout with this,” the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), said at a news conference Tuesday. “No one wanted to see people with green cards or special immigrant visas like translators get caught up in all of this.”

Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, first learned of the travel ban from a reporter. According to the Associated Press, Corker said that the administration understands “that this was not handled in the most productive manner. My guess is next time they attempt to do something that is far-reaching like this, there’ll be a lot more communication.’’

• Trump attempted to gaslight the public about what it had plainly seen. On Monday morning, the president sent a series of tweets essentially blaming “big problems at airports” on a Delta computer outage and protesters. (The tweets also included a snide reference to tears that Sen. Chuck Schumer [D-N.Y.], a descendant of Holocaust survivors, shed while denouncing the travel ban.) The problem with Trump’s assertion, of course was that Delta’s computer issues cropped up Sunday evening, a day after massive crowds of protestors spontaneously appeared at airports around the country to protest Trump’s Islamophobic executive order.

• Trump’s surrogates attempted to gaslight the public about what was occurring. White House press secretary Sean Spicer insisted that the controversial executive order was neither a Muslim ban nor a travel ban, even though Trump had used the word to describe the action — and even though Spicer himself had described the order as a “90-day ban” during an appearance on a Sunday-morning interview show.

• Innocent people suffered and possibly died because of Trumpian malice. A Detroit businessman who was visiting Iraq with his family blames Trump’s executive order for the death of his mother. Mike Hager says that his mother, a longtime American resident, fell ill during the trip but wasn’t allowed aboard a return flight to the United States. Hager, a U.S. citizen and former military interpreter, believes that his mother would still be alive if she’d been able to return home to Michigan to obtain medical treatment.

Some doubts have been raised about Hager’s claims, but there has been ample evidence that completely innocent people and businesses are suddenly facing immense and arbitrary obstacles because of the order. In one case, an Iranian biologist who was about to begin a fellowship in Boston studying how genes interact with tuberculosis was barred from boarding a flight to America; in another, a Sudanese-born physician was deported Saturday, mere minutes before a District Court judge in New York stayed the travel ban. Countless foreign professionals, staff members and students at American businesses and universities have been cautioned not to return home lest they be prevented from returning.

• Trump deliberately changed the conversation. Initially, the president had intended to reveal his first Supreme Court nomination on Thursday. That plan changed on Monday, when Trump said that he would name his choice in a televised prime-time announcement on Tuesday. Discussion of Trump’s selection, Neil Gorsuch, a U.S. Appeals Court judge for the 10th Circuit, and whether or how Democrats should oppose this or any other Trump SCOTUS nomination, has understandably sapped a lot of oxygen from conversations over the potentially unconstitutional travel ban.

This pattern of diversion, distortion and distraction is hardly unique, either to Trump or to politicians in general. We saw his campaign operate this exact same way, and other administrations — usually to a much lesser extent, and with varying degrees of deliberation — employ the same sets of tools. What’s truly extraordinary here is that the fledgling administration has triggered such an enormous controversy so early in its tenure.

Alas, I expect to see plenty more imbroglios play out in very similar fashion as long as Trump occupies the Oval Office. As I wrote in December, both the nation and the world are in for a bumpy few years.


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