Michael Flynn’s resignation as Donald Trump’s national security advisor is surely the worst example of mismanagement in the new administration. But it’s far from the only one.
Flynn, a former Defense Intelligence Agency director who maintained during last year’s presidential campaign that Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state was enough to warrant her arrest, needed to step down on Monday after it was revealed he had possibly discussed policy with the Russian ambassador to the United States — and obfuscated the contents of that conversation — before Trump was sworn in. If that’s the case, he may have broken the law.
Various commentators have pointed out that Flynn’s resignation is probably for the best, whatever the truth of his dealings with the Russians.
As Walter Russell Mead puts it in The American Interest, the position of national security advisor requires a cold-blooded calculator, not a passionate advocate; a dispassionate traffic cop more than a bureaucratic street fighter like Flynn.
Something was going to blow, as an emotional and hard-charging square peg struggled to fit within the confines of a round hole. Everyone, including General Flynn, should be happy that the struggle ended sooner rather than later.
But it only solves one problem. Flynn’s resignation does little to calm nerves in the White House while the National Security Council remains as dysfunctional as it has been since the start of the Trump Administration.
CNN reports that people in the White House are walking on eggshells:
Multiple Trump sources describe aides as worried that on any given day they could get fired because of a leak or because another White House staffer may be out to get them.
The Washington Post writes that the upheaval officials had optimistically dismissed as growing pains is now embedding itself as standard operating procedure:
The chaos and competing factions that were a Trump trademark in business and campaigning now are starting to define his presidency, according to interviews with a dozen White House officials as well as other Republicans.
The National Security Council appears to be the worst of it.
Before Flynn stepped down, The New York Times reported that a number of career staffers had refused to work for Trump, leaving a larger-than-usual hole in the bureaucracy.
Many of those who stayed, and who see themselves as apolitical civil servants, have been disturbed by the factionalism, the partisanship and the outright incompetence, according to the Times.
Three weeks into the Trump administration, council staff members get up in the morning, read President Trump’s Twitter posts and struggle to make policy to fit them. Most are kept in the dark about what Mr Trump tells foreign leaders in his phone calls. Some staff members have turned to encrypted communications to talk with their colleagues, after hearing that Mr Trump’s top advisors are considering an “insider threat” program that could result in monitoring cellphones and emails for leaks.
The appointment of far-right ideologue Steve Bannon to the National Security Council’s principals committee has done the opposite of instill confidence.
Eliot A. Cohen writes for The Atlantic that Bannon has been allowed to run a shadow national security staff while Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, also influences foreign policy in a way that’s unclear to the careerists.
“Trump seems to like this arrangement,” writes Cohen. “His management model is competition among key staffers.”
But that’s the opposite of what you want in a national-security crisis.
An empty administration
If the National Security Council is incapable of making policy, then it falls on the Departments of Defense and State to step in.
The trouble, as The Washington Post shows, is that Trump has yet to nominate, let alone appoint, dozens of assistant, deputy and undersecretaries to all departments, including Defense and State. Those are the people who normally keep the government running and they simply aren’t there.
It didn’t help that several top officials at State resigned last month.
It also didn’t help that Trump decided against allowing ambassadors appointed by his predecessor, Barack Obama, to stay in their posts until he could find replacements for them. Now, with the exception of China, Israel and the United Kingdom, many countries will be left without high-level representation.
Similarly, there are positions at multilateral organizations, including the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, that have yet to be filled.
The situation is worse in domestic agencies. Trump has yet to find directors for the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the United States Geological Survey. All the top posts at the Environmental Protection Agency, with the exception of the administrator, remain vacant. Same at the Export-Import Bank, the Small Business Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Then there are lower-level appointments Trump needs to make to the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Election Commission, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Federal Reserve, the National Labor Relations Board, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission… The list goes on.
None of this was entirely unpredicted.
I myself argued here in June of last year that Trump’s shambolic campaign operation did not suggest he would excel at managing the presidency.
He did not built an organization that could attract talent. He appeared to have paid no attention to the preparations for the transition, perhaps not expecting to win. He relied on a small cadre of confidants and then encouraged competition among them, resulting in top staffers spending more time plotting than they did campaigning for Trump.
This hasn’t changed, even though that the stakes are immeasurably higher. It’s only a matter of time before something goes seriously wrong.