After the fastest, most furious week yet for the Trump administration, America’s elder statesmen say they have never seen such turmoil or ineptitude
When press officers at the White House glance up from their desks, they are constantly reminded of their boss’s big day. On the wall, in thick dark frames, are photos: Donald Trump taking the oath of office, giving a thumbs up at his inaugural address, bidding farewell to Barack Obama, waving to the crowd during his inaugural parade, dancing with his wife at an inaugural ball.
Walking by last Monday, Trump gestured towards an image of his inauguration crowd – a point that still irks him – and told reporters there would soon be an official statement about the future of his national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Trouble was, an hour earlier, adviser Kellyanne Conway had appeared on television declaring that the president had “full confidence” in Flynn. Soon after, Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer read a statement that said “the president is evaluating the situation”. Six hours later, Flynn was gone.
It was the fastest, most furious week yet for an administration that, like a runaway train, has Washington and America’s elder statesmen shaking their heads, declaring that they have never seen such turmoil or ineptitude.
“Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil,” Gen Tony Thomas, head of the military’s special operations command, told a conference last week. “I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war.”
Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war Gen Tony Thomas
Some of the malaise can be attributed to the growing pains that plague any new administration. Some is said to be down to the factional struggles, imported to the White House from Trump’s businesses. And much is believed to be on the shoulders of the capricious, egocentric, volatile president, the first in US history to have been elected with no political or military experience.
Yet both Trump and his supporters deny the dysfunction, pointing to executive orders, a supreme court nomination and the scrapping of a Pacific trade deal at breakneck speed.
“Don’t believe the main stream (fake news) media,” Trump tweeted Saturday morning. “The White House is running VERY WELL. I inherited a MESS and am in the process of fixing it.”
Sleeping just four or five hours a night, Trump’s manic pace has made the world’s head spin. He had an angry phone call with the prime minister of Australia, a Twitter spat that convinced the president of Mexico to cancel a meeting, and consulted the prime minister of Japan about a North Korean missile launch in full view of dinner guests at his Florida country club, Mar-a-Lago. He approved, over dinner, a commando raid in Yemen that resulted in the death of a Navy Seal and an eight-year-old girl.
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At home, he was caught on live television making a false claim about his electoral victory, press releases have been littered with spelling mistakes, and the president has fought Twitter battles with everyone from senators to Arnold Schwarzenegger to a department store that dropped his daughter’s products.
Then there were the White House contradictions around the abrupt departure of Flynn, who misled the vice-president over his conversations with the Russian ambassador. Then Trump’s pick for labour secretary, Andrew Puzder, withdrew his nomination after facing questions over his personal background and business record.
Not even in his fourth week, there was the president’s ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, an order widely denounced and sowing disarray and demonstrations at airports. Trump sacked his acting attorney general for refusing to defend the ban, attacked the courts for pausing it to weigh its lawfulness, and insisted this week that it was “a very smooth rollout”.
“This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine,” he said at a rambling, impromptu press conference.
That characterisation has provoked scorn. “From what I can tell, it’s non-functional,” said Rick Tyler, a political analyst. “It’s not firing on all cylinders, and the timing is off, and the transmission won’t engage.”
The executive order, Tyler noted, “created havoc and turmoil. The communications team are incoherent, inconsistent and contradictory to what the president says.”
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Bob Shrum, a Democratic consultant and strategist, called the president’s defenses “preposterous”. “It’s like a car where none of the gears work and you’ve no idea if you’re going at 90mph or 30mph and you’re just careening. It doesn’t remotely compare with anything I can think of. There’s never been anything like this.”
One Republican with ties to the White House blamed growing pains, from Trump’s lean campaign to the staff of the federal bureaucracy.
The Trump administration has also decided to vet for any criticism of the president during the campaign. On Thursday, a political appointee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development was fired after it was noticed that he had written a critical opinion column about Trump in October.
But operations have also been hampered by competing interests and seething mutual suspicion. Media reports describe paranoid staff using a secret chat app that erases messages as soon as they are read. Trump’s inner circle includes Conway; chief of staff Reince Priebus; senior advisers Jared Kushner, 36, (Trump’s son-in-law) and Stephen Miller, 31; and chief strategist Stephen Bannon, the former Goldman Sachs executive who has likened himself to Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII.
Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee for president in 2008, told reporters this week that “whole environment is one of dysfunction in the Trump administration”.
“Who’s making the decisions in the White House? Is it the 31-year-old? Is it Mr Bannon? Is it the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff? I don’t know.”
The default answer could still be Priebus who, as chief of staff, would traditionally act as gatekeeper to Trump. But his boss is anything but traditional, and Priebus’s establishment influence is countered by two ideologues, Bannon and Miller. Bannon, previously head of the rightwing Breitbart News, has been described by Democrats as a white nationalist and is seen by many as the true power behind the throne.
Last week Bannon and Priebus gave a joint media interview to deny rumours of a rift. But Tyler said: “There’s no clear chain of command. They can’t tell who’s in charge.