The second week of the Trump transition brought several new appointments, the first specific policy pronouncements, and the most alarming statement about Presidential power since Richard Nixon declared, in 1977, “When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
First, the appointments. Trump announced that General Mike Flynn would serve as his national-security adviser. There are three ways to judge any head of the National Security Council: experience, ideology, and independence. Given that the President-elect has no foreign-policy experience and still struggles with the most basic facts about world affairs, it’s crucial for his N.S.C. adviser to have experience both as a high-level strategist and as a manager of the bureaucracy. N.S.C. adviser is a staff job. He or she is charged with coördinating policy among the State Department, the Pentagon, the intelligence agencies, and the other key entities in the national-security apparatus. Flynn was a well-respected intelligence analyst, and he has been praised for his work in Afghanistan, especially in understanding the enemy. But when he was elevated to a managerial position running the Defense Intelligence Agency, he failed and was sacked. This is not disqualifying, but it is concerning. A bad manager at the head of the N.S.C. can compensate by hiring a strong deputy national-security adviser who can take on the organizational duties, and one hopes Flynn finds someone who can fill that role.
Ideologically, after Flynn left the Obama Administration, he seems to have drifted into the fever swamps of the right-wing media, frequently retweeting Breitbart articles and the occasional racist meme. (Imagine if Henry Kissinger had retweeted a fake article about Hillary and a child-sex ring, as Flynn did.) Flynn has also grown increasingly Islamophobic since leaving the Pentagon, declaring that Islam—not just radical Islam—is “like a cancer,” and tweeting “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” This is precisely the viewpoint that radical Islamists want to see propagated from the White House, and if Flynn continues to attack the religion practiced by almost a quarter of the humans in the world, he could become ISIS’s greatest recruiter.
The question of Flynn’s independence is as important as his experience and ideology. Trump’s own impulsiveness requires that he be surrounded by White House advisers who can serve as a brake on his worst instincts. In the military, Flynn had a reputation for independence, as Dana Priest wrote here, but evidence from his recent career isn’t promising: Flynn previously expressed opposition to the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture, which is illegal, but, after joining the Trump campaign, he has defended the practice, presumably out of deference to the pro-torture views of his new boss. (Interestingly, according to a story that Trump told in an interview with the Times on Tuesday, another general, James Mattis, who Trump said is likely to be his defense secretary, seems to have talked Trump out of the idea that waterboarding is effective.)
Trump’s other picks over the past week fall into two categories: unqualified and extreme. He chose Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, to be his Ambassador to the United Nations. In Haley, Trump is nominating a person with no foreign-policy or diplomatic experience to go up against some of the world’s fiercest negotiators, including Vitaly Churkin, a veteran diplomat who represents Russia. Trump was also reportedly set to announce that Ben Carson would be his choice to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development—Trump even tweeted the speculation. Carson, a celebrated Baltimore surgeon, whose own spokesman recently said that he is not qualified to run a government agency, said on Facebook that he would be joining the Administration. Carson has no experience with housing policy.
Two other picks, Senator Jeff Sessions, to run the Department of Justice, and the Kansas congressman Mike Pompeo, to run the C.I.A., are seemingly qualified for their respective jobs. But, as with Flynn, among the important questions for them is whether they can remain independent, and can moderate Trump’s repeatedly stated view that the federal government is a tool that the President can use to reward friends and punish enemies. Like Trump, Pompeo has said that he favors bringing back the use of torture, and he was a harsh critic of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report documenting the Bush Administration’s use of it. He has also made statements about Islam that seemingly blame all Muslims for Islamic terrorism. In a June, 2013, speech about the alleged failure of unnamed Islamic leaders to speak out against terrorism, he declared, “Instead of responding, silence has made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts.”
Sessions, whose nomination for a federal judgeship, in 1986, was scuttled after he was accused of making racist statements, has served in the Senate since 1997. He appears to have the votes necessary from his colleagues to be confirmed. His most important role in the Trump Administration may be insuring that the Justice Department maintains its independence from the White House, and an ironclad promise to keep Trump from meddling in the affairs of the D.O.J. will undoubtedly be a top concern among Democrats at Sessions’s confirmation hearings.
On Wednesday evening, Trump chose Betsy DeVos, a longtime Republican donor, as his Education Secretary. This is a somewhat encouraging choice, in that DeVos did not support Trump during the campaign and she has a history of ideological disagreement with Trump on the issue of Common Core, though she tweeted today that she does not support the federal government’s education standards, which have become a vilified by conservatives.
Trump’s first policy speech as President-elect came in the form of a two-and-a-half-minute YouTube video. He called for formally withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that he and Hillary Clinton both opposed; scaling back regulations on the development of coal and shale energy; and directing his Administration to investigate abuses in the visa program and to develop a cyber-security plan to thwart attacks on infrastructure. He also said that he would institute, for former Administration officials, a five-year ban on industry lobbying and a lifetime ban on lobbying on behalf of foreign governments, promises that have no enforcement mechanism and so are about as good as a lifetime money-back guarantee from the defunct Trump University. All in all, the list was not nearly as worrisome as Trump’s critics feared. It was notable less for its extremism than for its randomness.
It has only been two weeks. We’ve only seen a fraction of the Trump cabinet, and very little of his actual first-year policy proposals. Things could get much better, or much worse. In his interview with the Times, Trump seemed to be open-minded about climate change, torture, his approach to NATO, relations with Russia, and several other controversial issues on which he had previously taken a hard line. But he was so vague that it was impossible to know whether he was moderating his views or just playing to his audience. Any politician who spends the morning attacking an institution as “failing” and the afternoon praising it as a “great American jewel” should be judged by his actions, not his words.
But in one area Trump has been clear: he will continue to use his election to advance his business interests. In a single week, there have been more unprecedented conflicts of interest uncovered than a typical President faces in a full term in office. To summarize:
* Trump, in a call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, “praised one of his Turkish business partners as a ‘close friend’ and ‘your great admirer.’ ”
* Trump asked a British politician about wind farms that are ruining the view of a Trump golf course in Scotland.
* Trump’s children discussed “additional projects” in the “Philippine resort and leisure sector” with the new Philippine envoy, who happens to be a Trump business partner.
* Trump will soon oversee the Justice Department’s case against Deutsche Bank, Trump’s biggest lender, which stands accused of major abuses during the housing-loan crisis and whose demise could damage Trump’s business empire.
* Salesmen at Trump International Hotel in Washington recently held an event marketing the hotel to diplomats, one of whom told the Washington Post, “Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel, blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new President, ‘I love your new hotel!’ Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?’ “
* Trump and his children recently met with Trump’s Indian business partners and discussed U.S.-India policy.
* Trump told President Ilham Aliyev, the autocratic ruler of Azerbaijan, where a Trump hotel project has been stalled, “that he heard very good words about” him, “and wished the head of state success in his activities,” according to Azerbaijan’s official news service.
* Trump included his daughter Ivanka, one of his three adult children to whom he is allegedly turning over his company, in a meeting with Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister.
* Trump and Ivanka took a congratulatory call from Mauricio Macri, the President of Argentina, and a few days later a long-stalled Trump project in Buenos Aires reportedly became unstuck.
Whatever one’s ideological views of Trump’s appointments and policies, his cavalier attitude about mixing business and the Presidency is on par with what is normal only in a Third World kleptocracy. And, unlike his policy views, which seemed malleable during the Times interview, Trump was steadfast about his views on mixing business and government.
“The law is totally on my side,” he said. “Meaning, the President can’t have a conflict of interest.”