President Donald Trump has now been in office for a year and a half. By this time, presidents who are unfamiliar with the ways of Washington (and that is not uncommon) have gotten past the rough spots, settled into the job and figured out how to work the levers of power. Some are naturally better at it than others and some take a while to get their bearings.
This article was originally published at Salon
Some always seem to be in the middle of political drama, while others just seem to stay placid and even-keeled, almost to the point of being boring. (The contrast between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama comes to mind.) But however they start out, a year and half in they have settled into whatever their groove is going to be, and are operating at a high level of competence. It’s the presidency of the United States, after all.
None of that applies to Trump. He is just as incompetent today as he was the day after his inauguration, when he sent out Sean Spicer in an ill-fitting suit to defend his preposterous claim that his inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama’s. In fact, he has actually gotten worse at the job instead of better. If anyone labored under the impression that the responsibility and importance of the job would by its very nature force a president, no matter how seemingly unfit, to rise to the occasion, Trump has disabused them of that.
Setting aside the relentless palace intrigue — which I think is unprecedented in American presidential history — and his endless insults and rhetorical excesses, Trump’s inability to craft even minimally competent policy, much less implement it, after all this time is astonishing. During the campaign he assured his followers that the presidency would be easy for him. He was such a genius that he would be able to do everything he promised almost immediately.
Seven days after his inauguration, Trump had his unctuous factotum Stephen Miller scratch out an executive order banning travelers and refugees from predominantly Muslim countries. It was so incompetent and amateurish that it stranded travelers all over the world and threw the entire immigration system. Most people chalked it up to an over-eager rookie mistake. He wanted to make good on his promise and didn’t understand the complexities of the job just yet. His administration wasn’t fully staffed up yet, hadn’t thought through the logistical ramifications of just pulling the plug and didn’t realize there were serious constitutional issues that would have to be considered. Surely it wouldn’t happen again.
Yet here we are, a year and half later, and Team Trump just did exactly the same thing with this ridiculous zero-tolerance policy at the border. Once again they instituted a half-baked policy based on some idiotic demagoguery (and Trump’s desperation to extort money to build his wall) without considering how it would play out.
In this case they thought they were being clever by arresting everyone who steps foot on American soil without proper papers and then separating them from their kids. They were more or less thinking, “Hey, we’ve got facilities and processes for unaccompanied minors who turn up at the border. So we’ll just call these kids that and it will all be fine.” But they failed to anticipate how people would react when they saw that the children coming over the border with their parents wouldn’t be teenagers like most actual unaccompanied minors, but little kids, even toddlers and infants. In their zeal to enact their “zero-tolerance” policy they couldn’t even think through the practical and political consequences of taking babies from their mothers.
Just as they didn’t bother to issue clear directives to the customs and immigration people with the Muslim ban, resulting in confusion and chaos everywhere, they didn’t bother to institute clear procedures for this family separation. Even something as obvious and simple as arranging for clear identification of the children and their parents, so they can easily be tracked and identified for reunification at the end of the process, was overlooked. Today, a little toddler is being asked “What’s your mommy’s name?” at some shelter in Michigan while her mother is on her way back to Guatemala with no idea where her baby is.
Jeff Sessions appeared on CBN News, the evangelical network, and tepidly said, “We didn’t intend for this to happen.” He’s only got the entire Department of Justice at his disposal. How could he be expected to anticipate that there might be a problem with yanking babies from their mothers and shipping them off without any way of knowing who they belong to? He can’t think of everything.
Trump’s executive order that supposedly rescinds the policy is just as inept. There are no clear directives, different agencies and jurisdictions are saying different things and nobody understands how it’s supposed to work. What else is new?
Former Bush administration staffer Elise Jordan said on MSNBC Thursday:
This is the worst political crisis that if you were just scripting would be the most horrific scenario that I could dream up. Maybe that’s part of the problem. We’ve had a failure of imagination with the Trump administration — how incompetent and depraved they can be with their public policy?
We don’t need to imagine. It’s happening before our eyes over and over again.
For all of this Republican president’s vaunted negotiating power, he has been exceptionally weak in getting anything out of a Republican Congress. They passed massive tax cuts that he didn’t run on, while every other legislative initiative has become mired in infighting, largely because the president remains completely clueless about how the process is supposed to work. On Thursday Trump tweeted this, in the middle of a hard-fought negotiation in the House over an immigration bill that might give Republicans in swing states a chance in November:
What is the purpose of the House doing good immigration bills when you need 9 votes by Democrats in the Senate, and the Dems are only looking to Obstruct (which they feel is good for them in the Mid-Terms). Republicans must get rid of the stupid Filibuster Rule-it is killing you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 21, 2018
To say that wasn’t helpful is an understatement.
I won’t even go into the massive foreign policy blunders. We all know what he’s done, and he’s not getting any better at that stuff either.
Ian Bremmer describes a reported Trump-Merkel exchange at the G7: "He stood up, he put his hand in his pocket… and he took two Starbursts candies out, threw them on the table and said to Merkel, 'Here, Angela. Don't say I never give you anything.'" pic.twitter.com/NVUlQTHMwg
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) June 21, 2018
One might be tempted to think this incompetence is a blessing in disguise, considering Trump’s authoritarian impulses. But as we’ve seen with the travel ban and the manufactured border crisis, his incompetence is no protection against cruelty and inhumanity. An unfit president is no less powerful.
The good news for Republicans is that when all is said and done, this train-wreck of a presidency will be repurposed as yet another example of how government can’t do anything right. They’ll tell us that the only solution for that problem is another round of tax cuts, the cure for whatever ails you. It’s quite a racket.