Jules Witcover: It’s White House amateur hour

Jules Witcover

WAHINGTON — A novice Trump administration that has already demonstrated its ineptness in conducting deft foreign policy has now been revealed as similarly ham-handed in the art of politics.

Donald Trump Jr. made public an email exchange in which he confirmed his interest in information damaging to Hillary Clinton being offered by a source described to be connected to the government of Russia. The disclosure threw the White House into panic.

Donald Jr. in one email gushed, “I love it,” and that he looked forward to getting the dirt on Clinton later in the summer, when apparently he believed it would do the most damage. The email thread is the closest thing yet to the sort of smoking gun that undid Richard Nixon’s presidency 43 years ago.

On that occasion, a hidden White House tape captured chief of staff Bob Haldeman telling Nixon the way to handle the whole Watergate break-in was to have another aide call Pat Gray, then the FBI director, and “just say, ‘Stay the hell out of this’ … we don’t want you to go any further on it.” And that was what was done.

In the current matter, there was no such direct order or evidence that any derogatory information was delivered to Donald Jr. or seen by him. He disclosed his own email and boasted of his “transparency.” The only immediate response from his father, through a White House press aide, was that his son “is a highly qualified person and I applaud his transparency.” But it came only after The New York Times, which broke the story, had informed Donald Jr. it was about to release the emails. So you may hold your applause.

The son’s willingness even to entertain the offer of negative information on Clinton from a woman said to be a “Russian government attorney” — which the attorney has denied — was politically naive in itself. Included in the meeting were Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, then a campaign official, and Paul Manafort, the campaign manager, showing the whole caper was beyond naivety in terms of political judgment.

Donald Jr., seeking cover on the friendly Fox News channel in an interview with openly Trump propagandist Sean Hannity, offered that “in retrospect, I probably would have done things a little differently.” Of the offer of anti-Hillary material, he said: “For me it was opposition research. They had something, you know, maybe concrete evidence to all the stories I’d been hearing about, probably underreported for years….”

In any event, Donald Jr. said on Fox News that he never told his father of the meeting because “there was nothing to tell.” The whole matter underscored the price the politically inexperienced Trump administration is paying for leadership at the top, conspicuously insensitive to public expectations of professional behavior in governmental affairs. At least, that is, as opposed to running the country as it if were a mere family enterprise.

The dysfunction is evident in the president’s stalled legislative agenda, especially in the Senate Republicans’ struggle to cobble enough party support to pass an oft-revised repeal of Obamacare with or without replacement.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s conspicuous failure to pass a health care bill, which has obliged him to entertain the once-rejected notion of conferring with Senate Democrats on a compromise, dictated his decision to delay the summer recess until the middle of August, with no assurance of success even then.

The thought of sending Republican members of Congress to their home districts and states without action on Trump’s prime domestic agenda promise is particularly worrisome under the current political circumstances of the Republican president’s political turmoil. Predictably, GOP legislators will be met by hordes of angry constituents venting gripes over the do-nothing record on which the many of them will have to seek re-election in 2018.

More than ever in this dysfunctional early Trump administration, the old Casey Stengel lament of the New York Mets’ hapless first season in 1962 seems applicable: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

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