Mined from the notebooks, Tuesday, October 31, 2017. Posted Wednesday night, November 1.
Most successful Presidents have had a close advisor like Jack had in Bobby. Our current President has nobody remotely like Bobby. “President John F. Kennedy, right, confers with his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, at the White House on Oct. 1, 1962, during the buildup of military tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that became the Cuban missile crisis later that month.” Photo courtesy AP via WBUR.
Like I would know, but I'd bet that significantly contributing to our Mr President Trump's panic right now is that he has no idea what these three guys are supposed to have done wrong.
More to the point, he has no idea how what they've done will cause trouble for him.
He ran his campaign the way he's run his presidency which is the same way he ran his business ventures: recklessly, carelessly, fecklessly, irresponsibly, and ignorantly, without paying attention to the details and so without really knowing what he was doing, with no specific goal except a big pay out for himself in the end, confident that if he got into trouble he could talk his way out of it, lie his way out of it, wheel and deal his way out of it, bribe, bully, or scheme his way out of it, secure in his belief that everybody he dealt with was either as crooked as himself and therefore not likely to call in the law or too stupid to realize they'd been conned, either way deserving of the shaft. That's the way con artists think, and his dealings with the Russians were just another scam or, as far as he was probably concerned, just a part of the larger scam he was running on Republican voters, and that had all his attention.
I don't know if he thought he would win, wanted to win, or cared if he won. His mind wasn't on the nuts and bolts of running his campaign, that's for sure. All that seemed to matter to him was riling up his mobs of fans, soaking up their applause, causing trouble, and making people mad. He left the day to day running of the campaign to others, which is what presidential candidates tend to do, but it's not a good idea to neglect to keep tabs if you're running a criminal enterprise on the side.
Actually, it looks like it was the campaign they were running on the side. The criminal enterprise was the main business. They had to keep that Russian money pouring in. All the more reason for him to have stayed on top of things. But he's lazy and irresponsible, even for a criminal, and he let things slide, and now he's at a loss to explain to himself why he's in such trouble.
Of course he knows why. He knows whatever he did was underhanded and illegal. But in his mind, that's the way the world works. Like I said, he thinks most everybody is as crooked as he is or they're stupid, so why sweat the details? He takes it as a given he'll skate in the end. This time, though, it's looking like he won't skate, and he's truly scared. He has no understanding of the technicalities and no one he can trust to explain it all to him, and that leaves him alone and in the dark with his fear.
Trump has surrounded himself with incompetents, knaves, and fools. Who else would work for him? He's an incompetent, a knave, and a fool himself. But you can only turn to incompetents, knaves, and fools for advice if you want advice on how to screw up, commit knavery, or make a fool of yourself. They're not the best people to advise you how to escape the legal snares you've set for yourself and which a determined, intelligent, honest prosecutor like Robert Mueller is bent on seeing you don't escape. But in the larger scheme of things, they're not the best people to advise you on any aspect of your presidenting.
And this is why he should not have been elected to the job.
It's why no one like him should be elected to the job.
When I say that, I don't only mean no one like him in being an incompetent, a knave, and a fool. That's a given or should be. I mean no one like him in having no one close to turn to for trustworthy, knowledgeable, and useful advice about how to do the job. How to govern. How to form policy and see it through into law and practice. How to read, understand, and comply with the law. (Even honest presidents need a lot of help with that.) How to be president. What it means to be president, including and especially how a president is limited in action and behavior not just by law but by custom, tradition, diplomatic considerations, political necessity, and voters' expectations. This is the kind of advice you get from people who have the practical knowledge and have developed the expertise that comes from experience working in politics and government.
And you get to know people like this or at least learn to recognize them by having had experience working in politics and government yourself or, again at least, having made a diligent and successful effort at learning what it's like to do that work.
Trump, of course, is in the job partly because he had no experience and a lot of naive and ignorant people thought that was a virtue. He benefited from a longstanding American belief that all professional politicians are corrupt and self-serving tools of a corrupt and self-serving system and only an outsider pure of heart can come in and clean things up.
I'll pause here while you laugh yourself to exhaustion at the idea of Donald Trump being pure of heart.
There. Got that out of your system? Me too. So, moving on..
It's one of our characteristically American vanities that any one of us could do a better job running things than whoever's in charge at the moment as mayor, governor, congresscritter, or president. The old picking a name out of the phone book canard. Any one of us maybe could handle the job but not on our own. We'd need help and advice from people who know what they're doing and whom we could trust and rely on to get things done.
When Trump in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention declared that "I alone can fix" the nation's problems and make America great again, it should have immediately disqualified him in voters' minds, not least because it was something only a would-be tyrant would see as a point in his own favor. But it was also something only someone who had no idea what the job entailed would say. It was also not something that someone who knew whose advice he would be calling on and on whose help he'd be relying would think to say. In other words, Trump was boasting that he didn't have anyone to turn to when things got rough and that three o'clock in the morning phone call came.
Trump's situation is worse because he's conceited and ignorant and because he doesn't dare let anyone get close to him who would see through him and recoil in horror. But even if we'd elected someone as decent, honest, well-intentioned, and idealistic as Jefferson Smith president, without close, competent advisers, that president would start flailing and failing from the day after the election.
Having good advisors and aides provides no immunity to failure. Even presidents who can call on help from the best and the brightest can still do themselves in with catastrophically bad decisions, as the ghost of Lyndon Johnson is here to tell you.
But every successful president has surrounded himself with the best and the brightest and most experienced and knowledgeable people he could find and convince to come work for him. Lincoln, who came to the White House with practically no first-hand experience in national politics of his own---one term in Congress fifteen years before he became president, that was it---made a point of filling his cabinet with old Washington hands and political insiders. The point of assembling his team of rivals was his own political education. He learned from listening to them argue who knew their particular business best and whom to trust on which issues.
And most successful presidents have had at least one intimate advisor who was not only smarter than him but who would be brutally honest in telling him he was on the wrong track and argue fiercely and perseveringly for a change of course. For Lincoln, that turned out to be Seward. But Washington had that in Hamilton. Jefferson in James Madison. (Tall order for Jefferson to find someone smarter than himself, but he did it.) Dwight Eisenhower in his brother Milton and John Kennedy in his brother Robert.
Trump has no one. He promised to hire "the best people" but he didn’t know who they were or how to recognize them. The possibly best and only worth-his-salt Cabinet member is there, apparently, because Trump liked his nickname. Otherwise, the best and the brightest didn't queue up to come work for him because they were the best and the brightest and knew what it would mean to have him for a boss.
As for intimate advisors, who's he got? Jared and Ivanka. But while some credulous observers keep hoping Ivanka will have some influence for the good, she's a dilettante and Daddy's good little girl, and though sycophants and apologists have tried to compare Jared to Hamilton and Bobby Kennedy---pause for more laughter---he's a miniature version of his father in law, which is why he's got his own hide to save before he can help save the President's.
The Washington Post reports that he's angry and withdrawn, his aides and staff "freaking out" as they feel "the walls closing in" around them. The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg describes him and the mood around him as hysterical. He's desperate to take comfort in not finding his name in the indictments of Gates and Manafort but he really doesn't know if he can. There are more indictments in the works but he can't even begin to guess who'll they'll include or how they might be leading to implicating him. He doesn't know what was done in his name while he wasn't looking or even while he was. He doesn't even know if he explicitly gave the go-ahead and exactly what he gave the go-ahead for or who he gave it to.
Like I said. He's alone in the dark with his fear, trapped there by his own incompetence, knavery, and foolishness.
Be sure to read Ongoing Trump Migraine: His Initial Foreign Policy Team in the New York Times: "A collection of fringe thinkers and has-beens and unknowns..."
Recommended related reading:
The trip that forged Jack and Bobby Kennedy’s political partnership by Larry Tye at the Boston Globe. Excerpted from Tye's Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, available in hardcover, paperback, and for kindle at Amazon.
And speaking of the ghost of Lyndon Johnson, also from the New York Times, by Cornell government professor Jonathan Kirshner: When the Wise Men Failed.