Trump Shouldn’t Have Time for Rosenstein Week

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On Monday, White House aides said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had offered to resign. Then came word from unnamed Justice Department officials that he was not resigning but expected to be fired. Then we heard he was heading to the White House. And then … nothing. At least for now. Rosenstein spoke to President Donald Trump on the phone, and will meet with him on Thursday. Will he quit? Get fired? Who knows?

All this matters because Rosenstein is overseeing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the president and Russia. Removing him might be a prelude to an attempt by the president to shut down the probe, which would clearly be a major crisis. But the talk of Rosenstein’s departure doesn’t seem to be directly tied to the Mueller operation. Instead, it appears to stem from a New York Times story last week that Rosenstein once talked about taping the president and even invoking the 25th amendment. Or at least, that’s what the White House says. Yet Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s lawyers, implied Monday that if Rosenstein is ousted there should be a “time out on this inquiry.” Which suggests that the Times story — which may have been based on White House leaks to begin with, and has been denied by Rosenstein and challenged by other reporting — may just have been a pretext to get rid of the deputy attorney general anyway. 

Or maybe not! There are also reports that the Rosenstein drama Monday was a deliberate attempt to get the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court story out of the news for a while. Granted, that could just be what I call the clever fallacy: As always, pundits are quick to devise clever explanations for Trump’s actions, even though it’s possible that he was just acting on impulse. But maybe it’s true after all. 

Either way, this episode shows how difficult it must be for this White House to focus, even if this particular flashpoint doesn’t turn into a major crisis. There’s the Kavanaugh confirmation, the Rosenstein story, and the underlying Mueller investigation. And those are going on at the same time as the president is in New York for a series of meetings and functions around the United Nations, with several important relationships and administration priorities at stake.

There’s also the continued recovery in North Carolina from Hurricane Florence. Presidential leadership is important in coordinating the government agencies involved. Is Trump, who seemed on top of the story at first, still following up to make sure things are running smoothly? 

And those are only the immediate headline stories. There’s also continuing negotiations with Canada and Mexico, an escalating trade war with China, and trade tensions elsewhere. Congress is bucking to put off its business until after the election, including more spending bills; Trump will need to decide whether to sign a temporary spending bill that doesn’t give him funding for the border wall he wants or try to force a government shutdown when the fiscal year ends at the end of September. And there are dozens of other things that merit a president’s attention. 

Meanwhile, in addition to the New York trip, Trump is stumping for various candidates as the midterm elections approach. 

All administrations face these kinds of internal distractions. Most, however, do not have to deal with multiple investigations of the president and his associates. Most have far more stable personnel. Every president occasionally misfires and forces the staff to clean up after him; with Trump, that’s almost constant. 

What does it all mean? For one thing, a White House preoccupied with crises and nonsense isn’t going to be as effective at monitoring everything else. That means less influence for the president. It means executive branch agencies, Congress and every other policy player can do whatever they want with far less pressure to do what the president wants. 

It also means that a lot of stuff is probably slipping through the cracks, and we won’t notice it until later. Some government tasks are handled by a single agency, and in those cases where the agency is already doing good work it’ll continue to do so, but where things are shoddy they’ll probably remain shoddy. Many other tasks require interagency coordination; some of those things just won’t get done, or they’ll be done worse than they would with active White House management. But it’s exactly that active management by White House staff, including personal attention from the president when it would do the most good, that is hard to maintain as things get all higgledy-piggledy. 

In other words: Chaos has severe costs, even when we can’t see them for a while. Historians are still digging up evidence that Richard Nixon to a large extent gave up on a lot of the presidency in his final months in 1974. I can only imagine what kinds of neglect historians will find when they start working on the Trump administration.

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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