Sunday, January 29, 2017
A Dangerously Isolated President
By Benjamin Wallace-Wells, The New Yorker [original article contains links]; via AGG on Facebook
In the first week of the Trump Presidency, influence has run through a very select group of advisers—maybe as many as half a dozen, maybe as few as two.
The Presidential order that Donald Trump signed on Friday barring all refugees and citizens from seven Muslim countries from travel to the United States was reviewed by virtually no one. The State Department did not help craft it, nor the Defense Department, nor Justice. Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security, John Kelly, “saw the final details shortly before the order was finalized,” CNN reported. Early Saturday morning, there were reports that two Iraqi refugees had been detained upon their arrival at John F. Kennedy Airport. When a lawyer for the men asked an official to whom he needed to speak to fix the situation, the official said, “Ask Mr. Trump.” This sounded like a sign of straight goonery and incipient authoritarianism; maybe it was. But it also may have been the only reasonable answer. Few people understood what was going on.
The order claims to protect Americans from “foreign terrorist entry,” but that was no reason for it. A wealth of data shows that immigrants from those countries have not been responsible for fatal terrorist attacks in the United States. At first, the acting spokesperson of the Department of Homeland Security said that the order would not apply to permanent residents of the United States. This seemed to be a sensible assumption; as fevered as the talk over immigration has been on the right, few have threatened a mass revocation of the rights of green-card holders. But a senior White House official later said that green-card holders would have to undergo screenings. Morally outrageous scenes followed. Homeland Security officials said that at least a hundred people had been prevented from entering the country, and many more had been stopped from boarding planes to the U.S. Those detained at Dulles International Airport, before federal judges issued stays of the order, included an Iranian couple in their eighties, both with green cards. One was legally blind, and the other had recently had a stroke; their granddaughter said that officials at the airport “weren’t treating them very well.” At O’Hare, a couple with an eighteen-month-old was reportedly detained, after a trip abroad to introduce the baby to relatives.
On Saturday, the President announced three more executive actions, one of which changed the composition of his National Security Council. Trump reserved one seat on the Council for his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, the former chairman of the right-wing Web site Breitbart News, who has no experience in foreign relations. Trump also limited the roles of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of National Intelligence, with a memo that said they will only attend meetings when “issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.” The erasure of the line between national security and Bannon’s politics, which have included an embrace of white nationalism, was deeply troubling. But the exclusion of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of National Intelligence was more surprising. The President can pick anyone he wants for those positions. Trump has nominated the former Indiana senator Dan Coats to be the director of National Intelligence; the term of the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, will expire this year. The President seems to be deliberately tightening the circle around him.
In the first week of the Trump Presidency, influence has run through a very select group of advisers—maybe as many as half a dozen, maybe as few as two. The President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Bannon have consolidated their influence. Kushner, who has spent his brief career running his father’s real-estate empire, reportedly has been told to lead negotiations with Mexico. Kushner was also involved in a discussion with British officials, and denounced the United Kingdom’s support of a United Nations resolution opposing Israeli settlements. According to the Washington Post, some former campaign aides “have been alarmed by Kushner’s efforts to elbow aside anyone he perceives as a possible threat to his role as Trump’s chief consigliere.” But Bannon’s portfolio may be even broader. His hand was apparent in the President’s dark Inauguration speech, in his economic nationalism, and in his early, aggressive stances against Mexico and refugees.
The President’s isolation runs deeper than that. As the confusion around the immigration ban made clear, the vast government he oversees has little input on his actions. In an interview this week, Trump said that he reads the Times, the New York Post, and the Washington Post each day, but he seems to scan them as an actor does, for reviews of his own performance. His campaign made clear that he was not interested in the findings of scientists, social scientists, or the American government. Trump’s transition has alienated him from the American public. Gallup found on Friday that fifty per cent of Americans disapproved of Trump’s performance, the highest disapproval rating on record for any American President this early in his term.
In normal times, an Administration this isolated and divorced from public opinion would seem to be fatally weak. The argument made by the President’s first week is that these conditions, combined with the general assent of a Republican-controlled Congress, might in fact create the opposite situation, freeing him to do whatever he wants.
At times this past week, the theatre of the Administration has seemed to be as large as the Oval Office; at others, it has seemed smaller still, about the size of the President’s own head. “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on . . . I will send in the Feds!” Trump tweeted on Tuesday evening. In fact, a large team from the Department of Justice had recently been in Chicago, where it delivered an indictment of the excesses of the Chicago Police Department, connecting them to the collapse of trust between residents and officers, which in turn enabled a rise in crime.
But that report hadn’t prompted the President’s tweet. What had? It turned out that Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show had just aired a segment on crime in Chicago. The President had seen something that moved him on a news program, and then he had reacted. The tweet was one of the least significant Presidential gestures of the past week. But it served as prelude for some of the darker ones. At times, the only figure in the room may be Trump himself and the blue glow of his television screen.
Benjamin Wallace-Wells began contributing to The New Yorker in 2007, and joined the magazine as a staff writer in 2015. He writes mainly about American politics and society.