Jonathan Bernstein: ndictments show Trump’s inability to recruit first-rate people
Every time big news drops revealing more trouble for the Trump administration, one of the memorable lines from the movie version of “All The President’s Men” tends to reappear on Twitter. “The truth is,” the source known as “Deep Throat” tells reporter Bob Woodward, “these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”
I have no idea how smart former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, his partner Rick Gates or campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos might be (Manafort and Gates have pleaded not guilty, while Papadopoulos cut a deal and took a guilty plea). But there’s not a whole lot of evidence of good staff work from them. At any rate, things have certainly gotten out of hand with Monday’s indictments, and one major reason why they’ve gotten out of hand has everything to do with Trump’s inability to recruit first-rate professionals.
He burned through three sets of leadership teams on the way to the White House, then greatly exceeded his predecessors in terms of hiring people whose tenures are now measured in months (and even days in the case of Mike Flynn). It’s a long list: chief of staff, national security adviser, whatever it was that Steve Bannon did, communications director (twice), press secretary, secretary of Health and Human Services.
The result has been by far the most scandal-ridden first nine months of a presidency in U.S. history: If it’s not Trump-Russia, it’s cabinet secretaries under fire (or gone already) for charter flights or the cancellation of a $300 million contract to rebuild Puerto Rico’s wrecked power grid.
So why is Trump, contrary to his promises, so bad at selecting quality people?
Some of it no doubt is the president’s very limited management experience, along with the poor skills he appears to have — choosing people based on whether they look the part, while disqualifying others if they’ve ever said anything bad about him in the past.
A lot of it, however, may be exactly the same reason that Nixon’s people seemed not very smart and in over their heads: It’s a consequence of running a personal, and not a partisan, presidency. Both had White Houses with senior staff (and senior campaign staff) who had relatively weak or nonexistent long-term connections with their party. Nixon did that because parties were relatively weak at the time, and so he, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson all tended to recruit personal loyalists for key spots. Trump did it because he really did run as an honest-to-goodness party outsider, and so many within the party simply wouldn’t work for him.
So while other campaigns could have their pick of quality campaign operatives, the Trump operation was always going to have limited options, starting with relative newbies to national campaigning such as Corey Lewandowski and actual relatives including Donald J. Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner. It’s no surprise that they wound up with Manafort, whose experience in Republican politics was decades out of date, and whose recent professional expertise, according to Monday’s indictment, was focused on work as an unregistered agent of foreign autocracies and funneling payment for that work into offshore accounts. Nor is it a surprise that they wound up with Papadopoulos, whose credentials as a foreign policy adviser to a presidential candidate were less than overwhelming. The same is true of Michael Flynn, who left the White House mired in scandal after less than a month. None of these people would have been likely hires for the campaigns or presidencies of more conventional party candidates. But Trump just didn’t have a lot of obvious choices.
It’s not impossible for a personal presidency to have some quality people. Nor by any means is a partisan presidency a guarantee that things go well, as George W. Bush’s presidency demonstrates. And the current Republican Party, in particular, has quite a few problems that any Republican president would have found difficult to overcome. But the personal presidencies, roughly from Kennedy through Jimmy Carter, were more often than not considered failures: Lyndon Johnson’s presidency ended with him practically abdicating the position, Nixon resigned ahead of certain impeachment and conviction, and Gerald Ford and especially Carter were unpopular and defeated for re-election. By the end of Carter’s presidency, in fact, conventional wisdom suggested that the presidency was an impossible position. Partisan presidencies, from Ronald Reagan through Barack Obama, have been on the whole far more competent.
The problem for Trump going forward is that very little of this is easy to fix, even putting aside whatever further damage is coming as a consequence of what Trump and those he hired have done.
Trump’s not going to suddenly get better management skills. If anything, winning the presidency would likely confirm his suspicions that he already knew more than so-called experts. And no one who had an interest in joining the administration right after Trump’s election is going to be more likely after months of scandals and terrible approval ratings. It is possible that the administration is building a better vetting process than the campaign or the transition had — it would be hard to do worse — but that’s still not going to be enough.
The bottom line is that personal presidencies are always going to have difficulties finding good people and screening out bad ones, and that partisan presidencies are always going to have advantages in finding safe, reliable, competent staffers. With Nixon, many of those who should have been screened out ended up in prison, and the president himself resigned in disgrace to avoid impeachment and conviction.
Trump could have learned from the staffing mistakes of his predecessors; instead, he seems to be repeating them with reckless abandon.
If it were up to me, I’d lower the voting age to at least 14, so that everyone would have an opportunity to cast at least one ballot for president before graduating from high school.