Trump Learns the Hard Way He Can’t Act Alone

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Donald Trump couldn’t do a better job of teaching everyone how the presidency works, according to classic political scientist Richard Neustadt. Today’s lesson: the costs of acting alone. 

All presidents are frustrated by the limitations of the office. As canny observers have noticed, Trump tends to deal with that by gravitating toward things that he can do all by himself, so we get pardons, stripping people of security clearances and holding summits. Richard Nixon, when he couldn’t get things done he wanted, went around the system to try to do those things (such as, say, spying on political opponents when the FBI refused to do it). Trump, facing the same obstacles, instead retreats to those things that the system does allow him to do without anyone’s permission or cooperation. And when he doesn’t do that, he attempts to order those around him to do what he wants even if they have the ability to say no.

So we have two new stories. One is Trump’s decision to strip former CIA director John Brennan of his security clearance (and floating plans to strip clearances from other former government officials who have criticized him). Trump was able to do that basically just by giving the order. It immediately caused a severe backlash. Brennan placed an op-ed in the New York Times hitting the president on the Russia scandal. Then retired Admiral William H. McRaven put a column in the Washington Post offering to give up his own clearance. And then a dozen former high-ranking CIA officials did the same thing. As Slate’s Fred Kaplan commented, it was “an uncharacteristic act” for almost all of them.

This isn’t a public opinion story (at least not directly). It’s about Trump’s awful professional reputation. It’s also about Trump’s future dealings with the intelligence community. Odds are that if a bunch of former high-ranking folks are willing to speak out, that means rank-and-file folks are livid as well, and they may well hold it against Trump when he wants something in the future … just as the rank-and-file at many other executive-branch departments and agencies are upset with Trump and his policies and willing to use the bureaucratic weapons they have against him. 

People who deal with Trump learn that he’s mostly harmless and easily rolled. Which gets to the second story: Trump’s big military parade. He had ordered it, and the Pentagon — which is no fan of wasting resources with a make-work project designed mainly to flatter the president’s ego — seemingly was going along. Until, on Thursday, word leaked that the budget for the parade had exploded to $92 million from $12 million. Which turned out to be enough to get the thing canceled — or, at least, postponed to some date in 2019. 

We don’t know for a fact that the Pentagon deliberately came up with a bloated budget and leaked it to the news media in order to spike the whole thing. But that’s where my money is. Oh, and expect something very similar to happen to Trump’s Space Force — another idea that Trump finds really cool but that the Pentagon bureaucracy almost certainly doesn’t want anything to do with. 

1. Charles Stewart III at the Monkey Cage with good news about election administration in 2016 and 2012. 

2. Rick Hasen on Michael Cohen, Donald Trump, Stormy Daniels and campaign finance law.

3. Here at Bloomberg Opinion, Shannon O'Neil on the judiciary in South America.

4. Brand-new at FiveThirtyEight: U.S. House election forecasts. Nate Silver’s site crunches the numbers and gives the Democrats about a 3 in 4 chance of taking a House majority but with a wide margin of error. Very consistent with Seth Masket’s fundamentals model, and with the seat-by-seat reported forecasts from various experts. Worth monitoring, but do remember that rare events happen all the time. 

5. And Bloomberg’s Toluse Olorunnipa on the mystery men in Trump’s speeches

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

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

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