THE KEYSTONE KOPS IN THE WHITE HOUSE
“My fellow-Americans,” Donald Trump said in his weekly address on Friday, “It’s an exciting time for our country. Our new Administration has so much change under way— change that is going to strengthen our Union and improve so many people’s lives.”
It’s exciting, all right; in fact, it is hard to look away. Just when you think things can’t get worse for the Trump Administration, it drops another clanger on itself.
Three weeks ago, the White House unveiled its revised anti-Muslim travel ban, which the federal courts immediately froze, on constitutional grounds, just as they had blocked its predecessor. Last week, there was the ignominious failure of the G.O.P. health-care bill, which Trump had personally endorsed, although he seemed blissfully unaware of some of its contents. And this week there was the still-developing saga of Devin Nunes, the bumbling head of the House Intelligence Committee, who unwisely tried to do the President a favor and ended up being publicly humiliated.
It is now perfectly evident that Nunes, in claiming he had evidence that Trump and his aides had been caught up in “incidental surveillance” during the transition, was doing the White House’s bidding and trying to create a diversion from James Comey’s confirmation that the F.B.I. is investigating whether Trump’s campaign coördinated with Russia.
According to a Times report, Nunes obtained access to intelligence information from at least two Administration aides when he visited the White House on the night of March 21st, though he initially denied coördinating with anybody who works there. One of the White House staffers was reportedly a member of the National Security Council, and the other was a lawyer in the office of the White House counsel who used to work for Nunes’s committee on Capitol Hill.
So far, Nunes has managed to cling to his committee post, but he has about as much credibility left as a thief caught inside a bank vault. At Friday’s White House press briefing, Glenn Thrush, of the Times, asked Sean Spicer, Trump’s spokesman, whether it was normal for the head of an investigatory committee to roam the White House complex at night and meet two mid-level staffers to see sensitive information. Spicer didn’t have much of an answer, of course. But the larger story here goes beyond Nunes and his nocturnal wanderings.
It concerns the White House’s competence—or lack thereof. Ten weeks ago, when Trump stormed into office attacking the media and promising a blitzkrieg of new policies and initiatives during his first hundred days, the dominant emotion among people who hadn’t voted for him was fear. Many commentators, myself included, warned about the dangers of democratic erosion, and sales of George Orwell’s “1984” soared.
Today, there are still plenty of reasons to be concerned about Trump and his illiberalism. The White House’s recent decision to dismantle President Obama’s clean-air regulations offers fresh testament to the malevolence of the Trump Administration’s agenda, and next week’s meeting between Trump and Xi Jinping, China’s President, will be a reminder of the enormous responsibilities that rest on a President’s shoulders. But, even among ardent Trumpophobes, fear and foreboding have been supplemented by wonderment at the White House’s string of gaffes. These days, instead of Big Brother, it often looks like the Keystone Kops are in charge.
In an interview with Tucker Carlson, of Fox News, a couple of weeks ago, Trump hinted that the White House had some information about possible surveillance by the Obama Administration that it would like the public to see. “We will be submitting certain things, and I will be perhaps speaking about this next week,” he said. The surprise wasn’t that the White House would subsequently use a political ally (Nunes) as a conduit. It was that the operation was handled so clumsily that it backfired almost immediately. “It’s hard to know who is dumber: the Trump White House for giving Nunes the info or Nunes for accepting it. Pure Amateur hour,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former director of communications in the Obama White House, tweeted on Thursday.
Pfeiffer isn’t a neutral player, of course. But the Nunes fiasco is hardly an isolated incident. Consider the fallout from the health-care debacle. Since the moment that Paul Ryan pulled his Obamacare-replacement bill from consideration in the House, Trump’s options for pursuing other elements of his domestic agenda, and perhaps even resuscitating health-care reform, have been clear. He can move even further to the right, to placate the members of the recalcitrant Freedom Caucus, or he can abandon them and try to win over some moderate Democrats.
Last weekend, Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, indicated that the White House would follow the second strategy, and other Administration officials floated the idea of reaching a deal with congressional Democrats on tax reform and infrastructure spending. But Trump himself didn’t appear to have been let in on the plan—he continued to bait and berate the opposition party.
“The Democrats will make a deal with me on healthcare as soon as ObamaCare folds – not long,” he tweeted on Monday. “Do not worry, we are in very good shape!” On the same day, in a pair of tweets, the President also went after his favorite Democratic target, Hillary Clinton. “Why isn’t the House Intelligence Committee looking into the Bill & Hillary deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia, Russian speech . . . money to Bill, the Hillary Russian ‘reset,’ praise of Russia by Hillary, or Podesta Russian Company. Trump Russia story is a hoax. #maga!”
On Thursday, Trump directed his fire at the Freedom Caucus. In a tweet, he said that they would “hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!” This lumping together of the Freedom Caucus and the Democrats came the morning after a group of conservative activists visited the White House for what was billed as friendly policy session. If Trump had decided to declare war on the right, he evidently hadn’t informed the members of his staff who arranged that session.
Mixed signals are nothing new from the Trump Administration. On Thursday, a reporter form Axios, the news site, sat in on a strategy session attended by Priebus, Steve Bannon, and Jared Kushner. The session was “on background,” which meant the reporter couldn’t identify who said what. But, on Friday morning, Mike Allen, Axios’s editor-in-chief, reported that one of the officials in the meeting “views the Trump White House in terms that could be applied to the iterative process of designing software. It’s a beta White House.”
Allen went on, “The senior official . . . said the White House was operating on similar principles to the Trump campaign: ‘We rode something until it didn’t work any more,’ the official said. ‘We recognized it didn’t work, we changed it, we adjusted it and then we kind of got better . . . [T]his was much more entrepreneurial.’ In the White House, he said, ‘we’re going to keep adjusting until we get it right.’ ”
No word on how long this adjustment process might take, or what role the man with the itchy Twitter finger might play in it.