Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Donald Trump and the stress testing of the American system of government 13

Posted in social networking and business by Timothy Platt on April 9, 2017

This is my 18th installment to a now-ongoing series of postings in which I seek to address politics in the United States as it has become, starting with the nominations process leading up to the 2016 presidential elections (see Social Networking and Business 2, posting 244 and loosely following.) And this is also my 13th installment here since the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, and with many already deeply concerned as to his competency for holding office – and at just 80 days since his swearing into office, counting January 20, 2016: his inauguration day as his day one as president. Many, in fact have held deep reservations as to Donald Trump’s capabilities from even before he was elected too.

I originally planned on writing this posting as a simple continuation of a line of discussion that I have been adding to this series in its most recent installments. I have been analyzing who is making what decisions in the Trump administration and in pursuit of what can loosely be called the Trump agenda. And I was at least initially intending to continue that line of thought and discussion here, where I would “consider Congressional participation in all of this,” to repeat the wording offered at the end of 17th installment, for what was to follow here.

And I added to the end of that 17th installment, that:

• I would do so both in terms of legislation proposed and moved upon,
• And for efforts to among other things block House investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections, and into possible collusion in that on the part of people who worked in the Trump campaign and people who now work in his administration.
• As Congress is in session and as the flow of events coming out of it continues, a then still-impending fight in the US Senate over the Gorsuch nomination to the Supreme Court included, I expected to add in at least one or two new issues for consideration here as well.
• And the possibility of Republican-led Congressional action including their using the so called nuclear option in changing Senate parliamentary procedures to push through a Gorsuch confirmation was one such possibility that I had in mind there.

And I added that I would also have more to add here regarding president Trump himself and what he is doing in all of this, and certainly from a Congressional action perspective. A president of the United States does, after all have a bully pulpit, to use president Teddy Roosevelt’s expression, when addressing the power and authority that a president holds for influencing public opinion that can influence elected politicians in their actions, and for directly influencing those members of Congress and other elected officials as well. What has Trump been doing to use his bully pulpit as a still new to office president, and with what effect?

That was my initial plan, but when I write about a leader who has no systematic plan on his part, the one detail that you can expect to remain constant and predictable is that nothing can reliably be expected to remain constant and predictable – at least in readily ascertainable prospect. So I at least begin this posting by at least quickly addressing a series of what as of now are still late breaking disruptively emergent news items that do not at least directly fit that to-discuss-next pattern. And I begin that with the at least partial downfall of Steve Bannon: Trump’s until-recently seemingly undisputed power behind the throne.

Bannon and Trump’s son in law, Jared Kushner were the two most powerfully influential voices in first candidate Trump’s and then in president Trump’s inner circle. And they seemed to have at least somewhat stably divided up the range of influence that they could hold. They are very different people with different and readily conflicting personalities and they have different agendas and goals. But at least from outward appearance they seemed to have arrived at least an “avoid each other when possible, work together when necessary” modus vivendi. That, and certainly long-term, would have best suited the interests of both of them. But president Trump has been placing more and more trust and more and more wide-ranging responsibility on Kushner’s shoulders, and on those of his daughter Ivanka – Kushner’s wife and his link to the family. And Bannon made the hubris-blinded mistake of getting into what is sometimes crudely called a pissing contest with Kushner in response to this and in response to what he saw as a relative diminishment in his position and stature there. Bannon in effect demanded that Trump pick a favorite between them. Trump did and his choice was not Bannon. Bannon found that out and publically if in no other way, when he was removed from the list of who will be allowed to attend National Security Council meetings and of course from its executive level Principles Committee.

I suspect that Bannon’s role in the Trump administration has been downsized in other ways as well, but this is certainly a significant, and a significantly public indication of how his position in it has changed on anything related to national security and in that area of public and international policy. See:

Trump Removes Stephen Bannon From National Security Council Post and
Bannon’s Out. But Did H.R. McMaster Win? (N.B. the answer to that question is “No” …)
• And also see Jared Kushner, Man of Steel (… and Kushner has probably not won either, not really.)

Donald Trump has an established track record of playing people who work for him against each other, setting up competitive and even openly antagonistic relationships between them, and with all seeking his favor and approval and all of the time. This pattern appears to trace back to his earliest days in business when he was still working for his father and just starting to build what would become his own business empire too. And it dovetails with his approach to the world where all situations faced involve starkly defined win-lose outcome possibilities, and where win-win and other mutually beneficial games and outcomes can never actually arise.

Trump builds up those who he sees personal benefit to himself from advancing, and for as long as he sees that as creating a positive win for himself. Then he tears them down and at least as quickly and with him winning and them losing from that. For a still very recent, stark political life-stage example of this from the Trump record, consider how he used and then discarded New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Trump, a then still presidential hopeful seeking the nomination of the Republican Party, pulled Christie in close to his side for public appearances and photo opportunities when Christie was the only nationally known politician to step forward and support him. Then when Trump won that race and was selected as the one true Republican Party candidate for the presidency for the 2016 election and when other recognized politicians with less personal baggage than Christie jumped onboard with him, Trump discarded his faithful ally governor Christie, and as soon as he did not need him anymore.

Donald Trump does not reliably offer that which he most fully expects and demands from others: loyalty. And Steve Bannon forgot this as he lashed out at one of the few people who Donald Trump might make an exception to for that: a member of his own immediate family, and the personally loyal to him, spouse of one of his own children at that.

Is Bannon out of power now and headed towards a same type of exit that Chris Christie faced? I doubt that at least as of now, but he might be facing time in at least something of a wilderness for a while – if he can recoup and come out from under attacking Kushner and by calling him a Democrat, among other names and publically. (In Trump and alt-right speak, that is a very serious curse. And note that I did not discuss this turn of events in terms of the current, as of this writing national security advisor, Herbert Raymond McMaster, and any behind the scenes politicking that he might have attempted. He is just a supporting role character in all of this.)

And with the seeming shifts in Trump’s own little administrative world at least briefly readdressed here, I turn to consider the story that many if not most readers would have expected to see me start this posting with: president Trump’s having just ordered US military forces to bomb one of Syria’s main air force bases in reprisal for sarin nerve gas attacks that had just been carried out under president Bashar al-Assad’s orders against civilian populations in rebel-held territory in his country:

Trump launches military strike against Syria.

This decision and its follow-through, appears to have upset at least a faction of Trump’s supportive base and certainly those who have hoped to see him pursue a more isolationist version of an “America first” policy as he has arguably promised:

Trump’s Far-Right Supporters Turn on Him Over Syria Strike.

But Trump has always decided and acted with his own priorities and goals in mind and not those of others – and apparently with that including the political base that elected him too. I have already discussed this fact in terms of how president Trump has prioritized his efforts to cut programs out of the federal budget and even when they directly help members of his base. And I have addressed this in how Trump has sought to repeal the Affordable Care Act but without anything like a viable replacement alternative to protect the healthcare needs of the American public: the members of his base included. So he changes his mind on foreign policy and on staying out of Middle Eastern entanglements too? That simply follows an already established pattern.

But let me step back from the specifics of these two news stories, that in and of themselves might both simply offer short-term interest, and certainly if Trump himself lets them die down. Let’s consider their possible longer-term significance.

For the first of them, the at least for now diminution of Steve Bannon in power and position might very well be a harbinger of how the Trump administration is going to see a significant amount of churn in who works there and with what authority. I refer here to a type of instability that essentially all of his pre-presidential management and leadership style would suggest possible: ongoing discord and turnover and a real potential for that, and at any time and with that coming from Trump himself and not just from outside pressures of the type that led to Michael Flynn’s ouster from his role as National Security Advisor.

Trump himself does not create systematic policy or strategy,or systematic order, so anything in the way of system and structure that is to emerge from a Trump White House is going to have to come from his enabling support team: his senior staff and his allowed-in inner circle, and from whatever outside advisors he is willing to include for at least specific decision making contexts. But Trump himself actively seeks to keep those close to him uncertain and off-balance and particularly when he is positively recognizing them and advancing them into positions of authority and responsibility. He builds others up, but that makes them potential challengers to his power and authority too. So he subverts and undercuts and breaks down those now-challengers and any other potential ones as they arise from outside of his circle, to insure that he always remains on the win side of any win-lose situation.

That does not bode well for long-term stable government policy, or for stable policy implementation where a clear line of actual agreed-to policy might be discerned. And this brings me to the second news story that I just cited here: Syria. And it brings me to the set of topics that I was originally intending to address in my next series installment after this one: the possibilities and prospects of a first true crisis faced by a still chaotic young Trump administration. That possibility, I add in anticipation of what is to come, has been my greatest single concern coming out of the emerging Trump administration as every modern US president has faced at least one real crisis and president Trump is certain to face at least one as well.

Let’s reconsider Syria and his bombing raid in that light. And I begin with the raw notes that I prepared for myself a couple of postings ago in this series, in anticipation of what would have been the next one to come after this one:

• Address, or at least prepare to address the issues of how Trump might deal with a first real, genuine crisis, and how every modern era US president has faced at least one major crisis.
• North Korea and the possibility of a provocation that gets out of hand? Or of their actually developing an H bomb and one they can launch from a ballistic missile?
• Assad and Syria and his chemical weapons attacks, etc?
• What wild card possibilities might jump up? Another 9/11 terrorist attack here in the US? Another Hurricane Katrina? Something really novel and unexpected, at least when thinking in terms of crises that other US presidents have already faced?

I know that I am not the only one and by a long shot to have seen crisis potential for the United States and for the Trump administration, in Syria and al-Assad’s essentially genocidal war against his own people. I still worry about that one, just as I do the prospect of a Kim Jung Un having both intercontinental ballistic missiles and hydrogen bombs that he can deliver them with – while being so crazy and violent that he would hire people to assassinate his half brother in public with the nerve agent VX in the middle of a busy international airport in another country.

But right now, it is still up to president Trump as to whether he has pushed us into a true emerging crisis with his response to what sane people would see as al-Assad’s war crimes against his own people from his use of nerve gas against them.

• If this is in fact actually a limited one-off response that Trump just launched: a one-time only response to the latest of way too many chemical and other outlawed weapons attacks on civilians, then it is self-limiting and not necessarily a lit fuse to open-ended crisis, in and of itself.
• To selectively expand on the range of possible follow-throughs to this attack on Trump’s part that he might pursue, from that of the above point: what if his ordering military action here has been done in a context of warning the al-Assad regime that this is what they can expect in the future too if they bomb their people with lethal chemical weapons again? That warning, in and of itself might also mean avoiding entangling the United States in Syria’s ongoing civil war, at least as an ongoing day-to-day active commitment with the ongoing flow of crisis possibilities that that would engender for the Trump administration and for the United States.
• This second approach, I have to add would constitute a clear example of brinksmanship on Trump’s part, as it would create an ongoing and even potentially open ended risk of what could become essentially complete involvement in Syria’s war. Keeping this list’s scenario 2 threat, and its follow-through from becoming a first step to the United States entering into Syria’s ongoing civil war would require president Trump’s making it clear that his response to al-Assad’s recent sarin gas attack just carried out, and any possible future such responses from the United States would be limited and proportional and only taken in response to specific, particularly egregious actions on president al-Assad’s part.
• That approach, if scrupulously adhered to, might not in and of itself lead to US entanglement in yet one more open-ended Middle East war quagmire, and the ongoing crises that that would create and both for the Trump administration and for the United States as a whole. But any ill-considered expansion of the type or scale of military involvement entered into: and even just arguably apparent loss of proportionality of response, could easily lead directly to long-term US military involvement and commitment, and to recurring crises that would stem from that.
• I have written repeatedly here of Trump’s failure to think and plan before acting, and of his capacity to embellish upon what he has started and without consideration of consequences from that. Grandiosity carries a price here. And I have written of how president Trump is unable to change course once started, for fear of appearing weak if he does so. So if he makes a mistake or takes a miss-step he cannot back away from that, and we are very likely going to face an avoidable crisis for, and I add coming out of his administration because of that.

Trump is now in a position to act again in Syria, and in ways that could draw us into a crisis of expanded involvement in war again, in the Middle East. Knowing where and how to draw the line of engagement there calls for reasoning and insight and a level of knowledge and I add self-knowledge that Donald Trump is neither comfortable with in others, nor capable of in himself. That worries me. And his all but eager willingness to keep his most senior administrative staff in conflict with each other and unable to smoothly effectively work together to help manage this or anything else in his agenda, does not encourage me.

Let’s step back to consider his administration and who he has brought into it again, but this time by the numbers and not in terms of specific individuals. Look at president Trump’s progress to date in actually building a cohesive, effectively functioning administrative team around himself, for carrying out his presidency:

• As of now, president Trump has only filled 22 of 553 key appointed positions in his administration that call for Senate confirmation. He has, by all accounts I have seen, not even come up with lists of names yet for many if not most of those unfilled positions, for consideration as possible appointees.
• At 80 days in, that is a new historic record low for new presidential administrations, and certainly when considered as a percentage of such positions that would have to be filled (for more accurate comparison to earlier, still smaller government US presidencies.)

And with this renewed reexamination of the chaos in Trump’s White House and administration completed and at least for now, I turn to consider the more expected topic of this posting, and the United States Congress as it partakes in all of this. And Congress and certainly its Republican members have been busy, even if not particularly productive from all of that effort. I will begin addressing this set of issues here and then continue from that start in a next series installment.

I begin discussing Congressional action and attempted action here, with an area of activity that I have already made at least passing note of in earlier installments, and how the Republican caucus has simply gone along with president Trump in approving essentially anyone who he seeks confirmation for, in the US Senate. Trump, by all evidence has placed loyalty towards himself and the prospect of that above any other candidate selection or vetting consideration. That, among other reasons is why so many of his appointees have been found after the fact, to have conflict of interest challenges that prudence would have seen as disqualifying, and with that including both business entanglements and related conflicts of interest, and improper relationships with foreign governments. That includes prospective appointees hiding the fact that they have been paid by foreign governments. And it includes their not revealing that they have been in conversation, and in some cases more than just that, with active members of foreign government intelligence agencies; appointee involvement with active members of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) is definitely included there.

• No one seems to vet proposed Trump administration office holders, and certainly not before they are voted upon and approved and either in the Trump administration itself with its selections process or by the Senate and its offices.
• Thinking back to Michael Flynn and his issues, and I add a variety of other specific Russian government-entangled appointees, I find myself asking some seemingly simple, basic questions and of a type that has explicit US Constitution Article 2, Section 4 (i.e. impeachment) implications:
• Who knew what and when, and what did they do about this? Who did they tell and what did they do with any evidence that they might have that would justify concern in this?

I am going to continue this line of discussion regarding Congressional activity, as just noted above, in my next installment to this series. And in the course of that I will discuss the failed efforts of the House of Representatives to pass the Affordable Care Act and how they are facing increasing resistance there against other Trump agenda legislation as well: his tax reform attempt included. I will also discuss a still recent news event that I touched upon above as a possibility: the now realized use of the nuclear option to ram through approval and confirmation of Neil Gorsuch as a Supreme Court justice.

After that I will look more deeply into the issue of crises as they arise and impact upon and shape presidential administrations. And after that I will at least attempt to follow a path here that I have build my consulting career around when working with businesses, and at least attempt to lay out some parameters for constructive change in what we are seeing around us and certainly as coming from the Trump administration and from Donald Trump himself. In that, I will assume that for whatever combination of political and other reasons, it becomes impossible to distinguish between Donald Trump as incapacitated due to mental health issues (as would invoke use of 25th Amendment, Section 4 provisions), and Donald Trump as simply incompetent but as not actually behaving in ways that could constitutionally lead to early removal from office. Barring impeachment, that means both president Trump and the nation as a whole, having to find ways to work better together – and in spite of an essentially entirely dysfunctional start and absent any real foundation for building from, and certainly from the Trump side of this.

In anticipation of that, and as a briefly stated thought piece that I will return to, I do not see Donald Trump changing on his own: growing in any significant way on his own, into his still new job as president of the United States. Who does he trust the most who could support and influence him in a more positive direction, and how could they best be supported and enabled for being able help guide and shape policy and its active follow-through? And what other, perhaps more out of the box approaches might be available for this, that could limit alt-right influence in the White House and bring a still chaotically floundering Trump administration towards more of a centrist position, and on at least the key issues and policy decisions at stake? There are no easy answers and may not be any viable ones to any of this, but if president Trump is to remain in office for a full four years – which is quite possible, people of good will and who adhere to a wide range of political perspectives have to think and work together, and in terms of finding better ways for that to happen. And yes, I do find myself thinking back to the challenges that I first addressed in Part 1 of this series as I write that. Ultimately, everything that I have written in this series from that early point on, as directly connected with and has pointed back to the issues and challenges raised there. I intend on discussing that too.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Social Networking and Business 2, and also see that directory’s Page 1.


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