Jules Witcover: Trump administration mired in incompetence
WASHINGTON — The Trump presidency continues to unravel, as a transparent mixture of denials and dissembling has plunged its credibility into free fall, after less than a month in power.
The rapid-fire accumulation of executive and communications crises in both domestic and foreign policy already has plunged President Trump and his young administration of inexperienced political operatives into nonstop damage-control mode.
As Trump himself and his team of explainers, apologists and distorters maintain their assault on reality and truth in the wake of their serial misrepresentations, questions of their competence and trustworthiness have taken center stage.
The firing of Michael Flynn as Trump’s national security adviser for lying about mysterious talks with the Russian ambassador has, rather than acting as a safety valve, instead fueled much greater public concern over the Kremlin’s effort to affect the outcome of the 2016 election that put Trump in the Oval Office.
Flynn’s pre-election discussion of American sanctions against Russia with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, confirmed by U.S. intelligence taps, suggested the notion of President Trump lifting the sanctions as part of a more accommodating policy toward Russia.
Plans of the House and Senate intelligence committees to investigate the whole matter have heightened calls from some Democrats and Republicans for a special congressional inquiry that presumably would be public. That was the case in Senate Committee investigation into the Watergate scandal that drove President Richard Nixon from office in 1974.
While it seems too early to come to that point, what has occurred so far has already thrown Trump and his newly assembled advisers in the White House back on their heels. Trump himself has characteristically blamed the American news media, equating much of their reporting on him and his team with “fake news.”
Trump’s White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, already the subject of much criticism and ridicule for his hostile and evasive demeanor toward the press, insisted that Flynn’s fate resulted only from the fact Trump’s confidence in him had “eroded.” Yet, astonishingly, the president yesterday called his ousted national security adviser “a wonderful man.”
All the above unfolded as the administration was struggling to recover from his major legal setback in which a Seattle federal district judge and then a three-person appellate body stopped in its tracks Trump’s temporary ban against refugees and immigrants from seven designated Muslim countries.
Trump’s response was to attack the judges and then send out his 31-year-old chief policy adviser, Stephen Miller, to accuse the judicial branch of claiming to be superior to the executive branch. It was a glaring misinterpretation of the constitutional separation of powers, delivered with particularly offensive arrogance.
This culmination of the Trump’s own serial and glaring lies and misrepresentations over a wide range of subjects had already compounded the image of a man and his assembled political team already running off the rails. The next day, Trump suffered the additional setback of his nominee for secretary of labor, who withdrew under bipartisan opposition.
Trump capped the day off by publicly breaking with the longtime U.S. support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in a news conference with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Trump essentially said he could agree with whatever the parties decided, and then told his guest to his face, “I’d like to see you hold back on (further) settlements (on the West Bank) for a little bit,” which Netanyahu has firmly opposed.
Although Trump entered the Oval Office with public opinion polls giving him highest unfavorability rating in history, much of his immense following through the 2016 campaign appears to remain substantially intact. But no previous American chief executive had to endure his first month in office with the turmoil, hostility and obvious organizational confusion that Donald Trump now must navigate.
More significantly, his young administration has begun under a dark and sinister cloud of suspicion over his relationship with Russia and its cunning President Vladimir Putin, as well as Trump’s own early demonstration of confusion and shocking incompetence at governing.