President Donald Trump and his fans are badly mistaken if they think a single show of force on Syria (followed by a declaration that nothing has changed) and the elevation of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court are going to plug the hole in his sinking ship. By his own declaration, Trump seems bent on returning to President Barack Obama’s Syria policy, doing nothing to steer the ship of state in a different direction. There seems to be nothing much new that would accelerate “eradication” of the Islamic State, as Trump promised. Likewise, activists are glad that a conservative jurist is replacing Antonin Scalia, but Gorsuch’s confirmation merely defends a conservative seat. Until there are other replacements on the court, Gorsuch won’t be able to deliver on Trump’s and right-wing lawyers’ exaggerated promises of reversing liberal precedent. If the Syria strikes are not repeated or other Supreme Court openings don’t materialize, these two accomplishments will fade from the headlines.
Trump will be bailing water so long as his crew is bitterly fighting in public and his major policy promises remain unfulfilled. By now he should have figured out that fixing his incompetent, chaotic staff is a precursor to achieving policy goals. We’ve seen that with regard to the National Security Council. So long as Michael Flynn and his band of loyalists were in control, a mature policy process was impossible.
Former State Department official and Trump critic Eliot Cohen explains:
“In the aftermath of the strike, there is, as ever, the question: “And now what?” America is presumably back to saying Assad must go — just how will the Trump administration move that along? What incentives do the Russians have to pressure Assad? Will there be retaliatory blows against U.S. service personnel fighting the Islamic State in Syria? ...
“This barrage of questions should not paralyze the U.S. government. But the Trump administration’s failure to staff itself adequately will make it difficult to address them. The array of assistant secretaries and undersecretaries who traditionally help presidents hammer out options is nowhere to be found. The National Security Council has a competent national security adviser in the person of Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster to guide its staff, but this is a White House riven by internal rivalries and alternative power centers, including the wounded but still influential America Firster Steve Bannon and the rising princeling Jared Kushner. Coherence will be in short supply.”
One difficulty in staffing deputy secretary, undersecretary and other political slots has been the purported objections of White House staff (e.g. Flynn, Stephen Bannon) who view “establishment” Republicans with suspicion or as a threat to their influence with the president. Trump could solve two problems — cutting Bannon down to size and staffing his government with competent people — by taking away Bannon’s role in personnel decisions and giving more leeway to Cabinet officials and to those with expertise (e.g. Gary Cohn has something to say about Treasury officials).
Trump’s inner circle should be honest with him. The White House communications team (a gaffe factory), legislative affairs team (could it not see the health care disaster unfolding?) and White House counsel (which, among other things, botched the travel ban) are egregiously substandard. Trump likewise cannot operate a White House effectively without a strong chief of staff who acts with the president’s authority. He must do better than Reince Priebus.
Once Trump reworks his staff, putting competent people in key roles and reducing internecine warfare, he then can move on to a set of longer-term, far-reaching agenda items. Figuring out what, if any, trade and tax reforms are possible and pushing through a popular infrastructure bill should top the list. But until he gets the personnel right, the policy initiatives will continue to flop.