Donald Trump, Loose Cannon

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Yes, things are bad. No, it’s not a coup. And yes, there’s a threat to democracy, but it’s coming from the president, not his administration’s efforts to deal with him.

This all comes up because of the anecdotes in Bob Woodward’s new book about the Donald Trump administration detailing efforts of senior White House staff and executive-branch personnel to subvert Trump’s plans — even to the point of removing items from his desk — along with an anonymous New York Times op-ed by a “senior official in the Trump administration” claiming that “adults in the room” have “gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing.” 

Jamelle Bouie makes the case that this is similar to previous breakdowns in the constitutional order during Woodrow Wilson’s severe illness and Richard Nixon’s final days in office. Others go further, talking about the situation as a sort of “coup.” 

This strikes me as seriously wrong (see also this good Twitter thread from an expert on coups). Trump remains in office. He retains all of his statutory and constitutional powers. He’s just … well, he’s just too inept to know how to use them. That’s certainly dangerous, but the dangers are those of what Ross Douthat correctly calls Trump’s weakness

In fact, executive-branch officials ignoring presidential directives is nothing new. I’ll haul out my favorite quote on the subject, relayed to Richard Neustadt from someone in the Franklin Roosevelt administration:

Half of a President’s suggestions, which theoretically carry the weight of orders, can be safely forgotten by a Cabinet member. And if the President asks about a suggestion a second time, he can be told that it is being investigated. If he asks a third time, a wise Cabinet officer will give him at least part of what he suggests, but only occasionally, except about the most important matters, do Presidents ever get around to asking three times.

Swiping stuff from the president’s desk is a fairly extreme version of this. But it’s also a tactic that would be utterly ineffective against a president with any serious intent to follow through on what he says. Indeed, we have plenty of examples from normal administrations of White House staff treating at least some of the things presidents say as the equivalent of blowing off steam. But what we’re hearing about in these Trump stories is sort of a radical version of standard operating procedure for White House staff and the executive branch when faced with a president who is utterly unfit for the job. 

As I said: That’s no coup, but it’s certainly not good. There are all sorts of dangers involved — divided and unclear authority; vitally important policy points falling through the cracks; and the basic fact that only the president faces the electoral incentives and has the representational relationship with his or her constituents that combine to help produce good public policy. And it’s not just that Trump frequently lashes out with radically undemocratic statements (such as, on Wednesday, demanding that “the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once!”). Or that Trump might actually try to follow through on some of his authoritarian pronouncements and learn how to get the executive branch to go along. 

What’s really scary is that Trump’s ineptitude at his job means that the normal constraints that keep presidents from doing terrible things may simply not apply. Normal presidents care about their professional reputation among those they work with, and about their popularity among the nation at large, and so they attempt to do the sorts of things that would enhance their reputations and make voters like them. Because he’s unable to even try to do those things — because he has apparently has no sense at all of how the job works — Trump doesn’t see the clear warning signs and then back off things that damage himself and the nation.

Or, as my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Timothy L. O’Brien puts it, “he generally doesn’t care about the long-term damage he might inflict on himself or those around him as long as he’s the center of attention.” That’s truly scary because the entire political system, as those who have read Federalist 51 will recognize, depends on politicians who care deeply about avoiding damage to themselves. 

Whether anything can be done about all of this is a more complicated question. Several people have suggested that instead of manipulating the president, staff should resign. It’s probably true that significant resignations would further damage Trump’s presidency, so that’s a reasonable suggestion; on the other hand, there’s probably something to the idea that at least a select few folks in the administration have prevented horrific damage by knowing how to distract the president.

At any rate, no one should fool themselves into thinking that replacements would simply do what the president wants — resisting obviously foolish presidential edicts is something that all White House staff and cabinet secretaries do. And most of them try to manipulate policy in the direction they prefer. 

1. Sarah Binder on the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.

2. Kevin Cope and Joshua Fischman at the Monkey Cage crunch the numbers on just how conservative Kavanaugh is.

3. NBC’s list of the 10 governor’s seats most likely to switch parties. The opposite of the Senate situation: Republicans have many very vulnerable seats, and Democrats will likely pick up several. 

4. Reid Wilson sees more signs of a good Democratic year in the midterms

5. Aaron Blake highlights two anecdotes from the Woodward book

6. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Tyler Cowen on information

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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