Poor Donald Trump, so late to the lesson that so many plutocrats before him learned: You can’t find good help.
Jeff Sessions? What a bust. True, he was never the nimblest newt in the swamp and had all that racial muck in his past. But he mirrored his master’s irreverence and atavism, with slighter dimensions and a Southern accent: Donald in a Dixie cup. Surely Sessions and his Justice Department could be expected to accomplish something as straightforward as keeping the Muslims at bay.
Hah. More than four months since the inauguration, there’s meager, flickering hope for the travel ban that wasn’t a travel ban until it became a travel ban again. The fault for that cannot possibly lie with its foundation of bigotry, its shoddy conception or the president’s own sloppy and shifting characterizations of it over time. No, there must be a fall guy with less shimmering tresses. The buck stops anywhere but hair.
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So does the pound, the euro and every last bit of spare change and pocket lint. If Trump is feuding with the London mayor, it’s the mayor who should be abashed. If Trump is at odds with Angela Merkel, she must have something to apologize for. Never mind his baseless tweets and boundless pique. He’s the American president, they’re not, and global hegemony means never having to say you’re sorry.
But back to the Potomac and his principal aides, unprincipled underlings and princeling of a son-in-law, each more incompetent than the next.
The buck stops with Sean Spicer, who kept wandering from the script like a toddler into traffic. All he had to do was stick to his lines: The president’s proposals are the wisest. The president’s ethics are the purest. The president’s crowds are the biggest. The president’s detractors fall into three camps: illegals, commies and Samantha Bee.
He couldn’t manage that much, or rather that little, and so Sarah Huckabee Sanders is claiming ever more podium time. She won’t last. No one will. The relevant sinkhole isn’t the one that opened up just outside Mar-a-Loco last month. It’s the one beneath the feet of anyone dippy, delusional or daring enough to think that Trumplandia is terrain on which to make a positive difference, let alone a career.
The buck stops with Jared Kushner, never mind that his grandiosity and shortcuts were emulations of dear old dad-in-law. He has lumbered onto investigators’ radar and thus teetered ever so slightly from favor – that’s Steve Bannon chortling in the background – though he reportedly tasted Trump’s rancor before, when he hid in Aspen during the health care debacle, skiing while Washington churned.
Where will the buck stop next? With the tiniest Trump, Barron? He has some nerve doing homework while tax reform is still being hammered out and infrastructure is just coming together.
Trump’s quickness to deflect blame, readiness to designate scapegoats, unpredictable tirades and stinginess with the loyalty that he demands from others aren’t just character flaws. They’re serious and quite possibly insurmountable obstacles to governing.
Those who serve him are forever fearful of being undercut, perpetually having to defend behavior from him that’s indefensible, and demoralized as a result. Consider Defense Secretary James Mattis, whose torments were summarized by James Hohmann this week in The Washington Post. How can the country get the best from him when he’s getting the worst from Trump?
Many of the country’s diplomats are in a funk, as my Times colleague Mark Landler just recounted, and the ludicrously large number of unfilled positions throughout the administration partly reflects the limited appeal of such a gloomy club. There was never any overflow of top-tier applicants, given how many Republicans swore off Trump and how many others were spurned by him for not being obsequious enough.
But now that the terms of working for him – ridicule by tweet, potentially stratospheric legal bills – are clear, the pool of available talent is a puddle too shallow to keep a newt afloat. Mike Allen reported in Axios on Tuesday morning that the creation of Trump’s “war room” – a battalion of lawyers and such who would do damage control during the Russia probe – is on hold, because he can’t find the soldiers to staff it.
By many accounts, the atmosphere in the White House is one part high school cafeteria, two parts “Lord of the Flies.” Aides who are jockeying for position and trying to safeguard their reputations ask operatives on the outside to whisper to the media that they’re up while their rivals are down, and so we’re subjected to a daily Dow Jones on the stock of various players, with special note of who has Oval Office “walk-in privileges.”
I suspect that the Trump era will flip that phrase, and the people walking out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will be seen as – and be – the privileged ones.