U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the members of the media while departing the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg)

Trump's Chaotic Reboot Will Have Real Consequences

(Bloomberg View) -- Rex Tillerson was widely viewed a both an incompetent and unusually destructive secretary of state. Mike Pompeo was an unusually partisan CIA director who might be a better fit for the State position. Strictly viewed as an isolated personnel move, President Donald Trump has upgraded his cabinet.

Of course, Tuesday's announcement was anything but an isolated personnel move. It came on the same day as the president's body man was fired over a security clearance issue, and an undersecretary of state was sent packing in the wake of his boss. Last week, Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn decided to exit, as did Director of Communications Hope Hicks at the end of last month. 

With Maggie Haberman of the New York Times reporting even more major staffing changes on the way, it's hard to think of a historical comparison to this level of staff turmoil. Nor is there any reason to believe that the reboot will achieve any kind of stability. After all, two of those rumored to be in trouble, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, are already replacements for the original picks for those two positions. 

Tillerson was the second cabinet secretary fired in the first 15 months of the administration, and if CIA Director Mike Pompeo does replace him, five cabinet-level posts will have turned over already. And that's not counting the doomed nomination of Trump's original pick for secretary of labor.

His short tenure is highly unusual. Of the secretaries of state chosen by the previous ten newly elected presidents, all but one lasted at least three years. Only Ronald Reagan had a similar failure, and Al Haig managed to last over 100 days more than Tillerson. It takes going back to the 19th century to find someone similar.

Breaking with history is often good, and it's also true that secretary of state isn't as important a position as it once was. But there's no breaking with an underappreciated aspect of running the executive branch: It takes time for important members to learn to function as a team. That's not happening.

There's simply no way that Trump can adequately, say, prepare for a North Korea summit in the midst of all this turmoil. Let alone prepare for that summit, deal with the Russian attack in the U.K., handle the fallout from the newly imposed tariffs, and conduct wars in Afghanistan, Syria, and wherever other Islamic State terrorists are located. And the rest of the foreign affairs and national security agenda. And domestic affairs. Not to mention the continued distraction of the Mueller investigation. 

Of course, no president can handle in detail everything that comes along, even presidents whose schedule doesn't feature so much "executive time." But Trump is systematically making it increasingly difficult for either his White House or the executive branch departments and agencies to make good decisions in areas of high focus. Numerous important things will fall through the cracks for want of attention as well. Sure, the bureaucracy grinds on. And a handful of highly motivated and at least somewhat capable Trump selections, such as Scott Pruitt at EPA, are able to do plenty until they too wind up on the president's bad side.   

For the most part, however, the chaos on the surface is a very good indication of even more chaos underneath. The only question is how much the United States will be damaged before it's all over. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

  1. New CIA nominee Gina Haspel has a worrying history of involvement in torture operations during the George W. Bush administration, so I'd rather not see her heading that agency it will be interesting to see how the Senate feels. On the good side, however, she at least seems otherwise qualified for the job.

  2. In fact, one likely source of damage is that normal presidential checks on people like Pruitt are missing, while he and others with aggressive agendas feel pressure to get as much done before Trump turns on them, which makes poor decision-making and implementation more likely. 

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

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