Reflecting on the torrent of critiques of the Trump presidency since November 8, overflowing its banks like a regulated California waterway, one is reminded of the Jewish anecdote in which a poor provincial Hebrew school teacher tells the father of one of his students that if God should ever bless him with Rothschild’s riches he would be even richer than Rothschild. When the father asks how this could be the teacher responds “I could teach Hebrew school on the side.”
Everyone with access to a TV camera or keyboard is touting a warning, a personnel recommendation or a policy refinement or two which, if adopted, would allegedly make Trump more successful than Trump. Now if the purpose in doing this is merely to celebrate, like that Hebrew teacher of Chelm, one’s own particular competence, regardless of whether it is central, just tangential, or worse, to the big picture ostensibly under discussion, that is fine. But it should not be confused with adding to the store of insights useful to us all in understanding the current condition of the new Administration or assessing its prospects.
Consider the reality. Trump and his appointees are like the hapless purchasers of a paint by the numbers set who, on opening the box, find that the blue and the yellow paints are missing. Regardless of their exertions, their “Las Vegas Strip by Night” painting is not going to come out right without numbers three and seven. Trump does not have an administration; he has the skeleton of a government. Personnel– not coherent ideology, not skillful drafting, and not eloquent explanation– is still policy. This skeleton crew of Trump’s can’t ramrod Congress on tax policy, rebuild the armed forces, rebut outrageous media fabrications or construct a coherent approach to immigration, legal and illegal, saddled with second third and fourth tier personnel installed over eight years by an administration whose malignant legacy Trump has declared his intention to eradicate. No “messaging, “whether brilliant or pedestrian, can prevail when undercut by continuous leaks, from committed political opponents inside government. The resulting confidence-diminishing disarray feeds on itself, serving as a never-failing source of ready hydration for the ring of malicious Republican hacks gleefully, in Lyndon Johnson’s immortal formulation, “outside the tent pissing in.” No White House staffer who hasn’t even had time to hang the kids’ pictures on the wall can or should spread themselves thin enough to do their own job, and that of a score of slow-walking agency GS 15’s as well. Something has to give, and clearly, it is.
Whatever their differences, there is one fundamental issue that Hill, White House and ostensible partisans of the Trump Administration should be able to agree on: to deny a new Administration the personnel it needs to perform its responsibilities is not politics; it is political sabotage–a cynical attempt to upend the result of the election by hobbling elected and appointed officials engaged in carrying out their constitutional functions. Politicians can lie and ridicule under the name of debate; citizens can harass congressmen and intimidate locals and call it “resistance,” but what we are now witnessing by way of delay solely for delay’s sake with respect to Senate confirmations for Administration posts is beyond the pale. How will Democrats react if in the next few months an agency’s response to a crisis is lacking for want of trusted personnel committed to the Administration’s policy? Will they accept their share of the blame?
When the time is right for it, we can all indulge ourselves in policy speculations and critiques. But these are beside the point when there is not yet anything like an Administration staffed to formulate or execute policy. President Trump has accomplished an extraordinary amount under the circumstances, but it is his first duty to assemble a fully-capable Administration that operates like a government and not a medieval royal household.
When General George Pickett was asked to weigh in on the raging postwar debates among Confederate veterans as to why the charge that bears his name failed on the third day at Gettysburg he responded that “I have always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.” In this peculiar post-election virtual civil war into which we have been plunged, raising fresh doubts every day about the new Administration’s competence, let’s be explicit about the Senate Democrats and their army of abettors who have had a great deal “to do with it.”
Call them out and get this Administration staffed now. Every day the confidence hole gets deeper and the risk of a disaster that a skeleton crew can’t cope with gets greater.