America’s new president is really new. We’ve never elected a president who has never held any public office before, one who never even ran for public office before. He has no government experience – he doesn’t even seem to know how the government is structured – what the various agencies do and how they do it – and what they can and cannot do. He cannot ring up the Justice Department and have them arrest Hillary Clinton. And of course he has no diplomatic experience. He hasn’t been following which Kurds are fighting with us in Iraq against ISIS and which Kurds are fighting in Turkey to mess up our off-and-on ally, and would just as soon fight us too. A senator on a foreign-relations committee would know about such things, and about our treaties and agreements, some problematic, some not. Joe Biden knew about such things. John McCain knows about such things. Hilary Clinton had been secretary of state. She certainly knew about such things. Donald Trump is a former real-estate magnate, who turned to branding to make his fortune larger. He doesn’t know about such things, and of course he has no military experience, other than the military academy he was sent to after he punched out his eighth-grade music teacher. He skipped that whole Vietnam thing – a deferment for bone spurs – he doesn’t remember which foot. But he kept shouting out “I know more about ISIS than the generals, believe me!”
Enough people believed him. No one in the military believed him, but that didn’t matter. There weren’t enough of those folks to make a difference, and they wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton either. You don’t play fast and loose with classified documents. Many of them sat it out. They were never a factor. America decided to take a flier on the guy who knew nothing but had what many thought was the right attitude. Well, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by two million votes, so America didn’t decide that. That also didn’t matter. Enough people in just the right places decided that. That’s the system. There’s not much anyone can do about that now.
But we did get a guy who knows next to nothing. It was right out there in the open. In July, Marc Fisher had offered this:
As he has prepared to be named the Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump has not read any biographies of presidents. He said he would like to someday.
He has no time to read, he said: “I never have. I’m always busy doing a lot. Now I’m more busy, I guess, than ever before.”
Trump’s desk is piled high with magazines, nearly all of them with himself on their covers, and each morning, he reviews a pile of printouts of news articles about himself that his secretary delivers to his desk. But there are no shelves of books in his office, no computer on his desk.
Presidents have different ways of preparing to make decisions. Some read deeply, some prefer to review short memos that condense difficult issues into bite-size summaries, ideally with check-boxes at the bottom of the page. But Trump, poised to become the first major-party presidential nominee since Dwight Eisenhower who had not previously held elected office, appears to have an unusually light appetite for reading.
He reads about himself. That’s it, but he has his reasons:
He said in a series of interviews that he does not need to read extensively because he reaches the right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I already had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”
Trump said he is skeptical of experts because “they can’t see the forest for the trees.” He believes that when he makes decisions, people see that he instinctively knows the right thing to do: “A lot of people said, ‘Man, he was more accurate than guys who have studied it all the time.’ ”
Perhaps people voted for him as a matter of wish-fulfillment. Everyone wants to skip the boring parts, the hard work. Who needs that crap? Everyone has said that in high school now and then, or said it all the time, and everyone is in some way obsessed with what others think of them. This guy skipped the boring parts and was always right about everything. It would be cool to be like that. America should have a president like that. America wanted to be like him, but Fisher also noted the cost of that:
Trump’s approach goes beyond the chief executive manner of Reagan or the younger Bush. “We’ve had presidents who have reveled in their lack of erudition,” said Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University, citing Warren Harding and Lyndon Johnson as leaders who scoffed at academics and other experts. “But Trump is really something of an outlier with this idea that knowing things is almost a distraction. He doesn’t have a historical anchor, so you see his gut changing on issues from moment to moment.”
That just happened in that New York Times interview:
President-elect Donald J. Trump on Tuesday tempered some of his most extreme campaign promises, dropping his vow to jail Hillary Clinton, expressing doubt about the value of torturing terrorism suspects and pledging to have an open mind about climate change.
Those were three of many reversals in that interview – his gut was changing on issues from moment to moment, and will continue to change. He’s not grounded, as they say, perhaps because he doesn’t read and then think about what he’s read. He’s better than that. He’s above all that, but now that has serious implications:
President-elect Donald Trump has received two classified intelligence briefings since his surprise election victory earlier this month, a frequency that is notably lower – at least so far – than that of his predecessors, current and former U.S. officials said.
A team of intelligence analysts has been prepared to deliver daily briefings on global developments and security threats to Trump in the two weeks since he won. Vice President-elect Mike Pence, by contrast, has set aside time for intelligence briefings almost every day since the election, officials said.
Donald Trump has no time for that boring stuff, and there are two ways to look at this:
Officials involved in the Trump transition team cautioned against assigning any significance to the briefing schedule that the president-elect has set so far, noting that he has been immersed in the work of forming his administration, and has made filling key national security posts his top priority.
But others have interpreted Trump’s limited engagement with his briefing team as an additional sign of indifference from a president-elect who has no meaningful experience on national security issues and was dismissive of U.S. intelligence agencies’ capabilities and findings during the campaign.
That dismissive indifference might be a problem:
A senior U.S. official who receives the same briefing delivered to President Obama each day said that devoting time to such sessions would help Trump get up to speed on world events.
“Trump has a lot of catching up to do,” the official said.
That’s okay, because he talks to people:
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a senior member of Trump’s transition team, dismissed the issue, saying that Trump has devoted significant attention to security matters even while meeting with world leaders and assembling his administration.
What does he talk to them about when he doesn’t know what’s really going on? It seems he wings it. He trusts his gut, not this:
The President’s Daily Brief, as the classified document is known, is designed to provide a summary of key security developments and insights from all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, as well as an update on covert programs being run overseas by the CIA. It is typically delivered each morning by intelligence analysts selected because of their experience and expertise for the prestigious job.
The contents are among the most closely guarded secrets in Washington, but it is likely that recent versions of the brief covered developments including the resumption of Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria and the disruption of an alleged Islamic State terrorism plot in France.
That sort of thing might be good to know:
“The last three presidents-elect used the intelligence briefings offered during the transition to literally study the national security issues that they would be facing and the world leaders with whom they would be interacting as president,” said Michael Morell, former deputy CIA director, who supported Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during the campaign.
“The president-elect is missing out on a golden opportunity to learn about the national security threats and challenges facing our nation,” Morell said, “knowledge that would be extremely valuable to have when he takes the oath of office and when he steps into the Situation Room for the first time.”
Oh well – the guy prefers to trust his gut – he’s always right after all, when everyone else gets it wrong – so this isn’t surprising:
Trump has yet to meet with Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. or other top intelligence officials – aside from an unofficial meeting with embattled Adm. Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, who is rumored to be a top candidate to replace Clapper. Trump has greeted a parade of other officials auditioning for Cabinet positions, but also met with Indian business partners, television news anchors and figures in the entertainment industry.
That’s what we took a flier on, perhaps because that’s so cool, although Greg Jaffe reports on how, in military matters, Trump may hit a wall:
At least six former generals are being considered for as many as four top positions in a Trump administration – a concentration of military brass that foreign policy experts said is unprecedented in the recent history of the United States. In their charcoal-gray suits and short haircuts, they look like any other business executives. But these former officers, most of whom have spent their adult lives in the military and much of the past 15 years at war, are unlike the people Trump has encountered in corporate boardrooms. They are also unlike the politicians and political operatives who have dominated his life since he declared his intention to run for the White House more than a year ago.
That’s the wall:
“He’s going to find them a strange and alien life form,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan. “They are motivated by different things. They have their own ethos that is different from business executives or entertainment people, and right now I think he’s entranced by that.”
The generals enjoy enormous public respect, and their plain-talking style and deep overseas experience could help add luster to Trump’s Cabinet. But the generals, if chosen for top jobs, could quickly feel put out by Trump’s sometimes chaotic style, his tendency to repeat untruths and his controversial views on Islam, torture, America’s treaty obligations and the laws of war.
In short, they may think he’s a fool, and he hasn’t helped matters:
When Trump talked about generals on the campaign trail, it was often to disparage them as political pawns of President Obama. “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me,” Trump said in September, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
In other moments he has lavished them with over-the-top praise. “They’re so much braver than me,” he said at a rally last fall in North Carolina. “I wouldn’t have done what they did. I’m brave in other ways. I’m financially brave.”
It’s a good thing that generals are trained not to laugh out loud at absurd civilian politicians. Being financially brave doesn’t cut it, nor does misunderstanding the job:
The president-elect’s ideal of generalship frequently seems frozen in amber, harking back to his high school days at New York Military Academy. He regularly heralds the toughness of such World War II luminaries as Gen. George S. Patton and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, both of whom suffered major career setbacks for bucking authority.
Both were assholes who were removed from power. Eisenhower sidelined Patton after he slapped that shell-socked soldier in that hospital in Italy. Truman dumped MacArthur for mouthing off and suggesting that, if we weren’t such cowards, we’d nuke the Chinese to fix things in Korea. That wasn’t his call. Do your job well – duty, honor, country, and that’s it. Self-discipline is everything.
Trump doesn’t think that way:
There are many reasons – both practical and political – that Trump finds generals so attractive. His focus on senior officers to fill out top foreign policy positions, such as director of national intelligence and secretary of defense, reflects the president-elect’s finely tuned understanding of the country and his base. “Trump loves generals so much because America loves the generals,” said Phil Carter, an Iraq veteran and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Even if he doesn’t pick any of them, just meeting with them in public reflects glory on Trump.”
Think of those short pudgy guys who interview star athletes on ESPN – they shove a microphone in the guy’s face and ask him to explain how he got to be so wonderful. Those short pudgy guys couldn’t make the softball team in eighth grade. They’re wannabes who get to hang around the real men now, and later talk about how manly and awesome those big guys are. It’s a bit pathetic. Those short pudgy guys are called jock-sniffs. That’s Trump, but Trump likes the smell of gunpowder and testosterone. He wants to hang with the generals. People might think he’s one of them. That would be so cool. Maybe they’ll invite him to one of their parties.
Despite the military’s appeal, Trump may be surprised by the generals on matters of style and policy. Some of the fiercest resistance to enhanced interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, came from the military during the Bush administration. Trump has said he backs such measures and admitted in a Tuesday interview with the New York Times that he was taken aback when [General “Mad Dog”] Mattis disagreed with him.
There will be more of that:
Trump’s campaign trail talk of temporarily banning Muslims or forcing them to register with the U.S. government is certain to draw resistance from most senior military officers, including those who have cycled through interviews with Trump in recent days. Although retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, has described Islam as a threat to the United States, his views have alienated him from most generals and many of his former military mentors.
“I don’t think a single one of the generals, with the exception of Flynn, will buy into Trump’s view of the Islamic world,” Barno said. “All of them will reject the notion that Islam is the problem or that Muslims are the problem.”
Flynn has said that Islam is a political movement disguised as a religion. Say that often enough and it will be. There’s a reason he lost his job, but that’s also the reason that Flynn got so angry at the two Trump security briefings so far, telling the analysts in the room that they were full of shit about everything – he knew better. Flynn and Trump were made for each other.
There’s been a misunderstanding here:
Trump’s vision of ruthless battlefield commanders pursuing an implacable foe misses a lot about the modern general. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have certainly involved a lot of fighting and killing, but generals have also spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about winning over civilians, wooing fickle tribal elders and managing sensitive allies.
They view alliances, such as NATO, as sacrosanct. Trump has said that the United States may not defend NATO allies who do not “pay their bills.”
“War involves fighting, but so much more,” said retired Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who oversaw the training of Iraqi forces in Baghdad from 2007 to 2008.
But it’s more than that:
The biggest difference between Trump and his generals could come in the realm of managing risk. Most generals spent decades methodically working their way through a massive bureaucracy with its own unique set of politics, customs and byzantine policies. They survived and in many cases thrived in a culture that rewards conformity over the brash, go-it-alone approach that has characterized Trump’s career.
“There are a lot of bold and bright colonels who never made general,” one former military officer said.
It pays to know how things work, and then there is the matter of civilian control of the military:
For years, top U.S. officials have been pushing allies where the military dominates the highest levels of government, such as Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey, to cede more authority to civilians.
A general-heavy Trump administration could undermine that message. “This is a way that less-democratic governments conduct themselves,” said Kathleen Hicks, a senior official in the Obama administration and the Pentagon and an adviser to the Hillary Clinton campaign.
It also upends decades of tradition. “Civilian control is so fundamental to the character and the way we think about the United States,” said Jim Thomas, a former top official in the George W. Bush administration. “It’s something that should be preserved at all costs.”
We don’t want to be just like Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey. Trump needs to read up on those military governments and how problematic they are. He might want to read up on how we’ve discouraged that sort of thing and why. It’s all in those daily top-secret security briefings he’s been blowing off.
But that’s not how he rolls:
President-elect Donald J. Trump moved swiftly on Wednesday to diversify his cabinet and try to heal lingering rifts in the Republican Party, reaching out to Gov. Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina and Betsy DeVos, a prominent Republican fund-raiser, both of whom opposed him during the campaign, as well as Ben Carson, who challenged Mr. Trump for the Republican nomination.
Ms. Haley, who was named ambassador to the United Nations, and Ms. DeVos, who was named education secretary, would be the first women in Mr. Trump’s cabinet. Mr. Carson, whose selection as secretary of housing and urban development is expected to be announced on Friday, would be the first African-American.
Nikki Haley has no experience in international diplomacy – she knows nothing about it. Betsy DeVos has been working for years to phase out public schools in favor of a voucher system where parents get a bit of money to send their kids to private schools, Christian schools. This is a Christian nation, after all. The public should pay for Jesus-only education. Ben Carson had already said he was unqualified to run a giant bureaucracy. He’d never done anything like that in his life. He’d never run anything – but Trump seems to have talked him into it. How hard can it be?
That’s the question that Trump asked America. We’re about to discover the answer.