A few days after President Donald Trump was inaugurated, Benjamin Wittes, editor of the influential Lawfare blog, came up with a pithy summary of the new administration: “malevolence tempered by incompetence.” A year later, that rings truer than ever.
In fact, this has been a big week for malevolence. But this column will focus on the incompetence, whose full depths – and consequences – we’re just starting to see.
Let’s start with a few recent stories.
In his State of the Union, Trump devoted part of one sentence to the disaster in Puerto Rico, struck by Hurricane Maria. “We are with you, we love you,” he declared. But the island’s residents, almost a third of whom are still without power four months after the storm, aren’t exactly feeling that love – especially because on the very day Trump said those words, FEMA officials told NPR that the disaster agency was ending its work on the island.
FEMA later said that this was a miscommunication. But at the very least it suggests a complete lack of focus.
Oh, and for the record, I don’t believe that Trump, who spent much of his speech falsely blaming brown people for a nonexistent crime wave, loves Puerto Ricans.
Trump also declared, as he has in the past, that he is “committed” to taking action on the opioid epidemic. But he’s been in office a year and has basically done nothing.
What he did do, however, was appoint a 24-year-old former campaign worker, with no relevant experience before joining the administration – who appears to have lied on his résumé – to a senior position in the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which should be coordinating the effort (if one existed).
Meanwhile, the Trump-appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention resigned after Politico reported that she had purchased tobacco-industry stocks after taking office. This was unethical; it was also deeply stupid. And the CDC isn’t some marginal agency: It’s as crucial to safeguarding American lives as, say, the Department of Homeland Security.
The thing is, these aren’t isolated examples. A remarkable number of Trump appointees have been forced out over falsified credentials, unethical practices or racist remarks. And you can be sure there are many other appointees who did the same things, but haven’t yet been caught.
Why is this administration hiring such people? It surely reflects both supply and demand: Competent people don’t want to work for Trump, and he and his inner circle don’t want them anyway.
By now it’s obvious to everyone that the Trump administration is a graveyard for reputations: Everyone who goes in comes out soiled and diminished. Only fools, or those with no reputation to lose, even want the positions on offer. And in any case, Trump, who values personal loyalty above professionalism, probably distrusts anyone whose credentials might give some sense of independence.
But what’s the problem? After all, stocks are up and the economy is steadily growing. Does competence even matter?
The answer is that America is a very big country with a lot of strengths, and it can run on momentum for a long time even if none of the people in charge know what they’re doing. Sooner or later, however, stuff happens – and then incompetence becomes a very big deal, as it has in Puerto Rico.
What kind of stuff may happen? The scariest scenarios involve national security. But we can’t count on smooth sailing for the economy, either. And who will manage economic turbulence if and when it hits? After all, we currently have perhaps the least impressive Treasury secretary in U.S. history.
Matters are a bit better at the Federal Reserve, where nobody seems to have bad things to say about Jerome Powell, just confirmed as Fed chairman. On the other hand, why didn’t Trump just follow the usual norms and appoint Janet Yellen, who has done a fantastic job, to a second term?
One answer may be that Trump is a traditionalist – and few things are more traditional than passing over a highly qualified woman in favor of a less qualified man. But I also suspect that he found Yellen’s independent stature threatening.
And lower-level Fed appointments are becoming cause for concern.
Last week, senators at a confirmation hearing questioned the economist Marvin Goodfriend, whom Trump has nominated for the Fed’s Board of Governors. Democrats pointed out that Goodfriend was wrong, again and again, about monetary policy during the crisis, repeatedly predicting inflation that didn’t happen.
Now, everyone makes bad predictions now and then; God knows I have. But you’re supposed to face up to your mistakes, figure out what went wrong and adapt your views. Goodfriend refused to do any of that. And why should he? His errors were politically correct; they reinforced Republican orthodoxy. From the GOP’s point of view, having been completely wrong about monetary policy isn’t a defect, it’s practically a badge of honor.
The point is that even at the Fed, which is partly insulated from the Trumpian reign of error, U.S. policymaking is being denuded of expertise. And the whole nation will eventually pay the price.