WASHINGTON, Feb 1: In keeping with the second law of thermodynamics, it’s far easier to break something than to fix it. Donald Trump’s first ten days has been a resounding affirmation of that scientific principle.
On Monday night, President Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates for her letter instructing Department of Justice lawyers not to defend Trump’s controversial immigration ban. Her reasoning was simple: the executive order was unlawful and the Attorney General is loyal to the law, not the president.
Her defiance quickly set off a political firestorm. Trump sent a letter to Yates, relieving her of her duties and appointing Dana Boente in her place. All of this was well within Trump’s legal rights as president. But the language of the letter, and the complete chaos that has defined Trump’s first ten days in office, signal that disorder and disarray will be hallmarks of The Donald’s White House.
It is also a warning sign that non-partisan agencies are rapidly being politicized.
In dismissing Yates, Trump justified the firing by saying that she had “betrayed” him. Such language is much more common in Putin’s Russia or in The Lannister’s Westeros; it is not normal language for a functioning Western democracy. And yet it signals a clear shift from past presidents: for Trump, the presidency is personal.
At the same time that Yates was learning of her permanent holiday from the Department of Justice, Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, was issuing a warning to those at the State Department to either “get with the program or go.” That was an extraordinary rebuke of the sacred principle in American politics that the top echelons of the bureaucracy are appointed, but others are free to register their dissent with specific policies. In fact, Spicer was referring to a “dissent cable” signed by a large number of career, non-political civil servants who were expressing their disagreement with Trump’s immigration ban through a process set-up specifically to register such complaints.
Spicer’s warning and the removal of Yates with accusations of “betrayal” are not illegal. Moreover, presidents are expected to clean house with their predecessor’s political appointments; President Obama did not try to govern with a phalanx of George W. Bush’s appointees surrounding him. But what Trump is doing is not normal. Alarm bells are clearly ringing at the scope and scale of what some Democrats are calling a purge.
On Wednesday, Thomas Countryman – a career foreign service officer who was serving as Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation – was in the air on his way to Rome for a summit aimed at reducing nuclear proliferation. Without warning, he received word that he had been removed from the post. Nobody was sent to replace him.
That’s part of a larger pattern in Trump’s early days: the majority of senior positions at the US State Department are currently vacant. Some Trump supporters are celebrating this news as evidence that Trump is making good on his promise to “Drain the Swamp.” The problem, though, is that there aren’t legions of experts on the diplomacy of nuclear non-proliferation just waiting to fill the void. The abrupt loss of non-partisan expertise from dedicated career public servants – with unfilled voids rather than replacements – is simply unprecedented in modern American history.
Furthermore, this stark politicization is not reserved for the Departments of State and Justice. Instead, it’s happening in the Oval Office and the White House itself. When presidents make key decisions, they are not surrounding by their cabinet. They are surrounded by their senior advisers and strategists. Currently, the five most powerful people that most have Trump’s ear are: a media propagandist in Breitbart’s Steve Bannon; a pollster in Kellyanne Conway; a general in Michael Flynn, who had such a penchant for conspiracy theories that his colleagues began to refer to them as “Flynn facts”; a lawyer who ran the national Republican Party in Reince Priebus; and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Those five are advising someone who has never served in government and who clearly does not understand government.
Moreover, Trump’s quintet of advisers have made it clear that they will circumvent standard channels of policy-making to get things done. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly learned that the immigration executive order was being signed when he saw Trump signing it on television. Republican staffers from the House Judiciary Committee were secretly brought into the Trump transition and asked to sign non-disclosure agreements to work on the controversial immigration executive order, without the knowledge of their elected bosses.
Most egregiously, Steve Bannon – the hyperpartisan Breitbart media mogul – was placed on the National Security Council at the same time that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were removed and asked to attend on an invitation-only basis. This is highly unusual; George W. Bush specifically blocked Karl Rove from sitting in on the NSC meetings because he wanted to send a clear message: national security was above partisanship and political strategizing. Trump is sending the exact opposite message after just a week and a half.
Trump’s populist appeal tapped into deep distrust of government and “the system.” It argued that the passengers should fly the plane, because the pilot had been taking the wrong route for too long. But we still need pilots. We still need real expertise. Unfortunately, in the last ten days, partisan politics has increasingly been allowed to hijack core institutions of American government. THE TELEGRAPH