In December 2016, then president-elect Trump told Chris Wallace of Fox News that he wouldn’t need the daily intelligence briefing as president: “You know, I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.” Not known for his interest in reading or fastidious attention of detail, Trump delegated the tedium of reviewing intelligence to his subordinates: his “generals,” who Trump assures us “are great,” and Vice President Mike Pence, a neoconservative hawk who seems to be at odds with Trump’s America First policy.
But Trump’s indifference to these daily briefings reveals more than just his hubris; it sheds light on what is emerging as the president’s distinct management style in the Oval Office.
Trump has given “total authorization” to the Defense Department, which in April authorized the first battlefield use of the 21,600-pound Massive Ordinance Air Blast weapon in a strike on the Islamic State in Afghanistan. When pressed by reporters about the proportionality of using the largest non-nuclear ordinance, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan General John Nicholson said that it “was the right weapon against the right target.” Nicholson skirted a question regarding the chain of command, saying only that he enjoyed “latitude” in making such decisions. More recently, Defense Secretary James Mattis clarified that Trump has delegated only tactical decisions, while strategy “is his and his alone.” Seven months into this administration, however, that strategy is yet to be defined.
As a neophyte to government, Trump sold his candidacy to the American people based on his expertise in business. He made promises to eliminate the political establishment—to “drain the swamp”—and run his administration the way he ran his businesses. But as Mitchell and Massoud pointed out in 2009, what works in real estate or reality television does not necessarily work in government. The authors point to many failures in George W. Bush’s decision-making process, arguing that Bush’s management style, based on his experience as a CEO, is partly responsible for the disastrous decision to invade Iraq. According to Mitchell and Massoud, Bush believed that “effective management meant delegating to a group of capable and loyal advisors.”
Trump, on this front, is no different. While his team was considering Ohio Governor John Kasich as a potential running mate, Donald Trump Jr. reportedly told a Kasich advisor that Trump’s vice president would be in charge of both domestic and foreign policy. When asked by the advisor what President Trump would be responsible for, Trump Jr. replied, “Making America great again.” But unlike a good CEO, Trump has stacked his administration with loyalists and billionaires whose knowledge of governance, in most cases, is little better than his own. Trump’s management style isn’t the only indicator of troubled waters ahead; with top advisors who possess little to no foreign policy experience, the U.S. may once again blunder into a disastrous decision akin to the invasion of Iraq.
For a man who once proclaimed “I alone can fix it,” Trump’s disinterest in the duties required of him is shocking. At the hundred-day mark of his presidency, Trump wistfully recalled the comfort he enjoyed as a civilian: “I loved my previous life. I had so many things going. This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.” Trump’s statement reveals his profound ignorance and intimates that he has little interest in doing the actual work of the presidency.
Optimism for the Trump administration’s ability to safely and smoothly steer this great ship through international waters is fading, particularly as the United States faces serious threats from both Russia and North Korea. At least one Republican senator has declared that the emperor has no clothes. In his full-throated takedown, Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) admonished his own party for inaction in the face of this chaotic executive branch.
But glimmers of a shining city can be seen through the fog of Trump. At the end of July, Congress overwhelmingly passed a new bill that limits Trump’s power to unilaterally relieve new and existing sanctions: the bill requires Congressional review and approval for any changes made to Russian (as well as Iranian and North Korean) sanctions. The president wisely, albeit reluctantly, signed the bill, ominously adding, “The framers of our Constitution put foreign affairs in the hands of the President. This bill will prove the wisdom of that choice.”
Under normal circumstances, Trump’s management style of delegating tasks related to security and foreign policy would be troubling enough. But the sheer inexperience in foreign policy among Trump’s senior advisors is cause for serious concern. The likelihood that the U.S. will make the kind of international misstep it’s made before increases daily, particularly as Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un play their game of rhetorical chicken.
Fortunately, the recent sanctions bill seems to indicate that Congress possesses both the wisdom and will to curb Trump’s control over foreign affairs. Now if only Congress could take away the nuclear codes.