Trump Russia Leaks Are Symptom of a Bigger Problem

(Bloomberg View) -- The president of the United States is one of the most powerful people in the world. Yet his private conversation with the Russian president this week did not stay that way because underlings objected to what he decided to say:

President Trump did not follow specific warnings from his national security advisers Tuesday when he congratulated Russian President Vladi­mir Putin on his reelection — including a section in his briefing materials in all-capital letters stating “DO NOT CONGRATULATE,” according to officials familiar with the call.

It's certainly true that this White House leaks far more embarrassing and humiliating things about the president than any other in anyone's memory; just take a look at Dan Drezner's epic thread of White House staff talking about the president as if he was a toddler. It's also true that leaking is a symptom, and the president himself is the cause. But it's a bit more complicated than one might think.

Of course, the most obvious reason that there are so many humiliating leaks is that Trump almost certainly leads all modern presidents in unprofessional behavior. As Matt Yglesias puts it:

Matthew Yglesias @mattyglesias
There would be fewer leaks about Trump engaging in wildly inappropriate behavior during sensitive phone calls if Tr… https://t.co/5YCWAwjzrg

However, that can't be the only reason. After all, every president is guilty of unprofessional behavior. It certainly helps that Trump constantly mistreats executive branch officials, including ones that he has nominated. Normal presidents engender fierce loyalty within the administration, especially within the White House. This one constantly mocks and belittles those he's hired, so that even those who haven't been targets can't possibly feel safe from it. 

Gregory Koger @GregoryKoger
It's almost as if publicly humiliating one's national security advisor is not a great management techique.… https://t.co/6WbAnGjTR8

But there's more!

The leaks -- and especially policy-related leaks such as the current Putin one -- are a very predictable consequence of Trump's poor presidenting skills. This is what happens when a president attempts to rule by command, instead of participating in governing by persuasion, bargaining, and use of his normal powers. 

Let me explain. It's not unusual at all for a president to differ with the policies his advisers recommend, either inside the White House or especially out in executive branch departments and agencies, which are far more independent of the Oval Office. What happens next? Well, presidents can go along with the advice they're getting. Or they can just plunge ahead, ignoring what they're hearing. But there's a third option, which is to work hard at persuading the entire administration that his chosen course of action is the best one. 

Some of that is accomplished by presidents early on by choosing personnel who are committed to the president's agenda. Yet Trump's hiring decisions seem driven by other factors -- including the cut of their jib test. So Trump ends up with a lot of aides who disagree with him.

But there's also a matter of hearing objections and dealing with them. It takes real political skill for presidents to figure out the best approach for neutralizing resistance from the bureaucracy and stakeholders. It also takes realistic judgement by the president about his own priorities: How important is this particular policy change? Is it worth the costs, including time and effort necessary, to overcoming resistance within the administration? 

It is tempting for all presidents, not just Trump, to take a shortcut and just attempt to move ahead by fiat. It must be especially tempting when the president himself is the one implementing the policy, which is when implementation takes the form of direct talks between the president and the leader of a foreign nation. 

Governing by command, however, yields predictable damage, as political scientist Richard Neustadt explained long ago. Even in the rare cases when presidential commands can be, in Neustadt's words, "self-executing," it still does nothing to pacify the key members of the administration who disagree. They still oppose the policy, and now they're frustrated that normal processes weren't followed, cutting out what they see as the legitimate role of themselves and their department or agency. Thus, leaks. Leaks about the specific policy change in order to undermine it; broader leaks of embarrassing presidential stories as revenge and a message to the president that he's not, after all, a dictator.

Unfortunately, Trump doesn't recognize any of the signals people are sending him with their leaks. "The 'kneel before Zod' approach is closer to how Trump thought the job would be than most folks understood," Maggie Haberman, a keen Trump observer, once wrote. He simply refuses to accept that constant policy pushback from all sides is part of the job, not some personal affront or "deep state" campaign. Moreover, Trump has been rolled on policy so many times that weakness has become central to his professional reputation, which means that everyone inside and outside of the administration have learned to stand firm when they disagree with him.

So on Russia, Trump -- for whatever reasons -- clearly has very different ideas than mainstream foreign policy professionals in or out of his party. He clearly prefers to avoid antagonizing Putin, presumably, we might stipulate, because he thinks it will yield the best results for the United States. And yet he's done little to make it an administration policy other than occasional personal episodes of acting out. as he did during the Tuesday phone call. He didn't work hard to find soft-on-Russia nominees to State, Defense, and other executive branch positions, or fill the White House with Putin apologists. He hasn't really publicly argued the case for a shift in policy. As far as I know, he hasn't defended ignoring Russian provocations (and his tweets Wednesday afternoon are barely an explanation, although at least it's a start); he just does it. 

And as far as we can tell, he doesn't even give administration experts the respect of overruling them properly. He could have, for example, taken their "DO NOT CONGRATULATE" briefing papers and rejected it as a first draft, making his case for why it was a good idea and listening seriously to their arguments against it, perhaps instructing them to prepare a second draft more in accord with his views but also giving some ground on whatever he feels is less essential. Governing professionals are used to being overruled by elected officials, and they all have plenty of experience with arguing, losing, and saluting to a policy they personally believe is inferior. They are less likely to do so after being ignored. 

Trump campaigned by saying "I alone can fix it." But if he wants to push through his major presidential initiatives, he needs to start working with other people, starting with the ones he hired. There's little reason to think he has the ability or the desire to break out of this destructive cycle. 

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. Remember: The fact that an executive branch department or agency is doing something doesn't necessarily mean it's following Trump's agenda; especially in this administration, it's far more likely that it's Trump going along with what the agency wants, not the other way around. 

  2. Yes, I know, some of you believe it's because Putin is blackmailing him or that they've made a nefarious deal. I don't think Trump's motives matter here, so I'll grant him fully legitimate goals for the sake of argument. 

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

For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.