When Not To Explain Anything

Don’t explain. That only makes things worse. What’s done is done. Move on. That’s how it’s done in sports. The team has lost the big game. The coach faces the press. The coach says “we got beat” – the other guys were better, at least this time. We made mistakes. He made mistakes. No coach says “we didn’t really lose, we just ran out of time” or says the final score is “fake news” and his guys actually won. The final score was what it was. There’s no explaining that away. There’s no point in even trying. Suck it up and move on. Everything fell apart at the worst possible time. It happens.

Politics isn’t like that. Politics is explaining that everything didn’t just fall apart. Richard Nixon kept saying that. He’d just won reelection. No one cared about Watergate. Let the press do what it will do – he was getting back to work, the work of the American people. And then he was gone. He had tried to explain he wasn’t a crook. He had tried to explain that Watergate was a third-rate burglary that no one cared about. He had tried to explain those tapes were his, and protected by executive privilege. He had tried to explain a lot of things – but he never said what he should have said in the first place. He had made a mistake in what was actually a minor matter – that rather stupid third-rate burglary – and he was sorry, and it wouldn’t happen again. That would have been the end of it. Everyone would have moved on – but politicians don’t make mistakes.

That was the problem. The cover-up may be worse than the crime, but explaining that what is, really, isn’t what it is, is deadly. Don’t explain.

That’s Donald Trump’s problem now, but unlike Nixon, Trump subcontracts most of his explaining to his press secretary, because there’s so much uncomfortable explaining to do. He can’t spend all his time saying that he never makes mistakes. His press secretary can handle that, but as Aaron Blake explains, sometimes it’s best not to explain:

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was tasked Monday with explaining President Trump’s sympathetic comments about alleged spouse abuser Rob Porter. It went about as well as might be expected.

Sanders beat back one question after another about why Trump has suggested that Porter might be innocent but has said nothing about the domestic violence of which Porter stands accused. Then she was asked why Trump opted to go even a step further and wish Porter success in his career – a comment that seemed odd given that this is a man accused of horrible things.

Behold the spin: “I think the president of the United States hopes that all Americans can be successful in whatever they do,” Sanders said. “And if they’ve had any issues in the past – I’m not confirming or denying one way or the other – but if they do, the president wants success for all Americans.”

She concluded: “He was elected to serve all Americans, and he hopes for the best for all American citizens across the country.”

What? Blake points out that by this logic Trump has only the best wishes for Larry Nassar – now in prison for life for molesting hundreds of young female gymnast over more than twenty years – and Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby and even Hillary Clinton:

That is technically the argument that Sanders is making. She is arguing that Trump wants good things to happen to you – simply because you happen to be an American. It doesn’t appear to matter whether you’ve inflicted horrible things upon people or might have committed crimes.

Porter has been convicted of no crimes, of course, but wishing someone well inherently suggests that you think they are worthy of good things in the future. Trump didn’t say, “I wish Rob Porter well if he didn’t actually beat his wives.” Instead, the president just came out and said he hoped Porter would find success. “Well, we wish him well,” Trump said Friday. “He worked very hard. I found out about it recently, and I was surprised by it. But we certainly wish him well.” Trump added of Porter that “hopefully he will have a great career ahead of him.”

There’s no explaining that:

The idea that Trump – who ran as the law-and-order president –  wants good things to happen even to bad people doesn’t really add up. This is the guy who talked about putting his opponent in jail, after all. It’s about as far from being on-brand as you can get.

There really is no explaining that or this:

One week after the 2016 election, President-elect Donald J. Trump tweeted that he was “not trying to get ‘top level security clearance’ for my children,” calling such claims “a typically false news story.” But he said nothing at the time about his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Nearly 15 months later, Mr. Kushner, now a senior White House adviser with a broad foreign policy portfolio that requires access to some of the intelligence community’s most closely guarded secrets, still has not succeeded in securing a permanent security clearance. The delay has left him operating on an interim status that allows him access to classified material while the FBI continues working on his full background investigation.

Mr. Kushner’s status was similar to the status of others in the White House, including Rob Porter, the staff secretary who resigned last week after his two former wives alleged that he physically and emotionally abused them during their marriages.

This is a serious matter, and his press secretary just gave up:

Questions about the security clearance process at the White House have become more urgent after the scandal surrounding Mr. Porter and the still-unanswered questions about when the president’s aides knew about the abuse allegations against him. On Monday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, again refused to provide a detailed explanation.

“I can’t get into the specifics,” Ms. Sanders said in response to questions about what Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, knew about the Porter allegations and when he knew it.

She got it. Don’t explain. That only makes things worse, but the New York Times’ Peter Baker reports on another inexplicable matter:

More than a year into his administration, President Trump is presiding over a staff in turmoil, one with a 34 percent turnover rate, higher than any White House in decades. He has struggled to fill openings, unwilling to hire Republicans he considers disloyal and unable to entice Republicans who consider him unstable. Those who do come to work for him often do not last long, burning out from a volatile, sometimes cutthroat environment exacerbated by tweets and subpoenas.

This is the situation:

To visit the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the granite, slate and cast iron edifice across West Executive Avenue from the White House where most of the president’s staff works, at times feels like walking through a ghost town. The hallways do not bustle as much as in past administrations. The budget director is doing double duty as the acting head of the consumer protection agency. The personnel director is doing triple duty, also overseeing the offices of political affairs and public liaison.

“We have vacancies on top of vacancies,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied White House turnover over the last six administrations. “You have initial vacancies, you have people who left in the first year and now you have people who are leaving in the second year.”

According to a report by Ms. Tenpas, Mr. Trump’s 34 percent turnover rate in his first year is more than three times as high as President Barack Obama’s in the same period and twice as high as President Ronald Reagan’s, which until now was the modern record-holder. Of 12 positions deemed most central to the president, only five are still filled by the same person as when Mr. Trump took office.

Mr. Trump is on his second press secretary, his second national security adviser and his third deputy national security adviser. Five different people have been named communications director or served in the job in an acting capacity. The president has parted ways with his chief strategist, health secretary, several deputy chiefs of staff and his original private legal team. He is on his second chief of staff – and some wonder whether a third may be in the offing soon.

This seems to be an untenable situation:

Some administration officials privately spend much of their time trying to figure out how to leave without looking disloyal or provoking an easily angered president. Others, like Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, stubbornly resist what seem like clear signals that they are no longer welcome.

“I’m still here,” Mr. Tillerson told Fox News last week, months after the White House was reported in The New York Times and elsewhere to have a plan to replace him. “Nothing has changed.” Asked if he thought some in the administration were still advocating that he be replaced, Mr. Tillerson said, “I have no idea.”

No one has any idea, and Baker notes there really is an explanation for this:

Grueling in the best of times, an administration job now seems even less appealing to many potential recruits. Republican operatives said they worry not only about the pressure-cooker, soap-opera atmosphere and the danger of being drawn into the special counsel investigation of Russia’s election interference but also about hurting their careers after the White House.

“There isn’t a huge appetite from many Republicans on the outside to explore job opportunities in this administration,” said Ryan Williams, a former spokesman for Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee. “While there are a lot of vacancies and usually a position in the White House is one of the most prestigious jobs in Washington, that’s just not the feeling with this administration, given the turmoil and the chaos.”

Sarah Huckabee Sanders would never say that, or admit to this:

John F. Kelly was charged with reining in the turmoil and the chaos when he took over as chief of staff last summer, and many credit him with imposing more order on the building and shuffling out some of the more quarrelsome figures. But many White House officials were already souring on Mr. Kelly even before his handling of the abuse allegations against Mr. Porter gave his internal critics new ammunition against him.

Mr. Trump has expressed frustration with Mr. Kelly as well, but has sent mixed signals about whether he might replace him.

“Clearly between the two of them, Kelly and Trump, they don’t know what it is to manage,” said Terry Sullivan, the executive director of the White House Transition Project, which studies presidential personnel and management. “And by historical standards, they are particularly bad at it.”

At least Richard Nixon knew what it is to manage, and this goes beyond the White House:

Beyond those leaving, many positions have never been filled nearly 13 months after the inauguration. Some of those vacancies stem from the glacial pace of background investigations and the Senate confirmation process, which has grown worse with each successive president. But in many cases, the Trump administration has still not identified candidates.

According to the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization that tracks appointments along with The Washington Post, the Trump administration has made the fewest nominations, not counting those that have failed, and has had the fewest confirmed by this point of any of the last five administrations. At the State Department, nominees have yet to be made for three undersecretary positions and 10 assistant secretary positions, senior-level jobs that have traditionally been crucial to managing foreign policy.

It would be nice to have an ambassador to South Korea for example, but the man Trump nominated decided he just couldn’t work for Trump – the job would have been no more than threatening war, over and over – not a “diplomatic” position at all. He walked away. Trump now says he didn’t want that guy anyway. The position is still open, and oddly enough, Baker brings this back to the world of sports:

The constant churning exacts a toll. “It takes time for any group to jell and learn the ropes of governing, and that is definitely complicated by turnover,” said Lisa Brown, a top White House official under Mr. Obama and President Bill Clinton. “Every new person has to learn the ropes and changes the team dynamic. No different than an Olympic ice hockey team – it takes practice and discipline to work well together as a team.”

That will never happen, and Josh Marshall argues that this has to do with the Rob Porter scandal:

I was baffled by the way this scandal seemed to be hamstringing and damaging the White House in ways few others have. This is not to say the Porter story isn’t bad enough. It’s plenty bad. It’s egregiously bad. But this President has had a lot of scandals that are egregiously bad. Set aside for the moment that there is every reason to believe that the President himself is a chronic sexual predator – a fact that now seems more or less accepted as part of the political firmament. This is a President who literally stood up for Nazis against anti-Nazi protestors. There’s a lot of competition for bad, but individual wrongdoing should largely be centered on the person in question. It doesn’t naturally attach to their coworkers or employers. But from the start, in this case, everyone around Rob Porter seemed compromised by his offenses – and not in random ways. His story, this ignored and covered-up offense, has managed to expose and highlight all the failings of the President and his coterie – not simply their indifference to racism or gender violence but interwoven factors like indifference to the rule of law and personal loyalty to leader as the highest, indeed singular, value.

That’s a possible explanation:

This President surrounds himself with men who abuse women. Abuse and predation may know no party. But abusers seek out and run together. Trump’s politics are rooted in grievance, both gendered and racial. Trump is consistent if nothing else. He is an embodiment of his politics. It’s no surprise that this isn’t theoretical or merely expressed in political terms but is interpersonal and personally violent as well. Abusers know the President is one of them. They seek him out and he protects them in turn. Few men in the President’s coterie have multiple wives who’ve been willing to take the step of describing their former husband’s violence on the record. But it’s remarkable the number of Trump’s top advisors who have a history of abuse, whether it’s accusations of harassment or sexual assault or chronic physical violence against former spouses or girlfriends.

It unsurprising and yet still remarkable that the President’s first public comments on the Porter story were expressions of condolence to Porter and what he was suffering, paired with suggestions that Porter was probably wrongly accused. What strikes me most about these Trump moments is how simple a more cynical response would be. A pro-forma nod to the gravity of domestic violence and a generic expression of sympathy to the alleged victims would be so simple. Yet President is unwilling and perhaps unable to do so. He says what he feels and what he feels is not pretty.

And he’s not alone:

There’s the President’s Chief of Staff, once held up as a professional and an adult accepting the burden of service to a transgressive President out of a sense of duty. That false impression has been whittled away until we arrive at the present moment where we can see unmistakably that John Kelly is an expositor of what we might call Total Quality Trumpism, a more disciplined and professionalized version of the President’s desire to rebuild traditional gender, racial hierarchies and seek revenge against a world he believes is spinning out of control…

The key lines are worth remembering – “When I was a kid growing up a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred and looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we’ve seen from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life, was sacred. That’s gone. Religion. That seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer.”

Unsurprisingly, it has also become clear that Kelly’s attitudes toward immigrants are deeply aligned with President Trump’s. This was clear by implication in his time running the Department of Homeland Security and more vivid in his own ravenous words. We now have ample evidence of what should have been predictable from the start: Almost everyone who signed up to serve President Trump was in a critical way like him, either ideologically or in personal character. The notion that more than a handful were dedicated, non-extremist professionals serving in spite of Trump’s failings rather than because of them has simply failed the test of evidence.

So this was inevitable:

Kelly’s role in the Porter drama (along with other evidence over the last year) leaves little question that his vision of honor and integrity is one in which habitual violence against wives and girlfriends plays no significant role. Because of that he took no action when he learned about Porter’s past. Because of that he first delivered a paean to Porter’s virtue in response to the revelations and asked him not to resign. All the actions make sense with that predicate in mind. These things don’t matter, a minor personal vice – akin to smoking or perhaps a minor gambling habit – against a record of dedication and integrity.

And one thing leads to another:

Porter apparently lacked a security clearance in part because his background check was hung up over his previous abuse allegations. But this story has highlighted the fact that a large number of key White House staffers also lack clearances. This doesn’t mean they all did bad things. Some of it is tied to backlogs in the massive clearance process itself. What it seems to show is a more general problem. A large percentage of the people in the Trump White House either lack government experience or carry significant personal baggage. Some cases are like the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, someone who is wildly unqualified for the work he’s doing and has business ties to all kinds of questionable entities. In other cases it may simply be that lots of people have never been in government before.

What has become clear, over time, is that even the people with experience, the ‘good’ people, tend to come with less experience or more baggage than usual. There seems to be a process of mutual selection or rather de-selection in the Trump universe. The most experienced people stay away and more credible and principled people get blackballed.

That’s the situation, and Marshall has an explanation for that:

The President is defined by his predation. He attracts these people to him or they are the only options available and he in turn protects them. He’s staffed by the inexperienced, the incompetent and the reprobate. They are unable to hide his nature even when it would be in his interest to allow them to do so. The rush of crises and incapacity yields desperation and lying, in part because of the nature of the situation but even more because these behaviors are validated from the top. Did John Kelly start out as a liar? We don’t know. He seems to be one and a not terribly good one now. Porter’s exposure is like a brief but sustained flash of light amidst the moral darkness and squalor of the Trump White House, briefly illuminating all the dreck and rot of the rough beast of Trumpism.

That’s Marshall’s explanation. Sarah Huckabee Sanders would never say that. Her job is explaining that what Marshall sees as dreck and rot really isn’t dreck and rot at all. Trump should give her new instructions. Don’t explain. That only makes things worse.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to When Not To Explain Anything

  1. Rick says:

    “Trump should give [Sarah Huckabee Sanders] new instructions. Don’t explain. That only makes things worse.”

    But in fact, one of the faults of Sarah Sanders is she never explains anything.

    In fact, think about it: Has she ever really fully answered a question? Responding to every other question with, “I think we’ve been very clear about that…” is just a way of not answering questions, just another way of saying “Go back through your notes; you’ll find that we’ve already answered that question already.”

    Maybe what we’ve got here in the White House is what someone in some movie once termed “a failure to communicate”. Every day, reporters show up for information to relay to the public, get some administration abuse instead, which gives the networks a few of Sarah Sanders’s useless wisecracks to chew on until the next day. She doesn’t seem to understand her own job.

    General Kelly has the same problem. The effectiveness of his job depends on his looking like the impartial enforcer of order in the West Wing, which was destroyed that day when he appeared in the briefing room and gave his own opinion. The world didn’t need to know that he thinks the whole idea of the Gold Star Family was destroyed by a Pakistani family mourning their soldier son back at the Democratic Convention, or the idea of women deserving being treated with “honor” being gone because his old world is falling apart. He shoulda just stood in bed that morning, to coin an old phrase.

    I’m sort of surprised not to hear Trump bragging about him saving the government so much money by not filling all these positions in his administration. Trump’s got the average poor-man’s conception that government would work better if it didn’t have all this bureaucracy getting in the way, not realizing that sometimes things work the way they’re supposed to work if you let the bureaucracy automatically do what it’s supposed to.

    The problem with using so-called “common sense” is that that means you think you’re smarter than the “institutional memory” of the White House, which only exists if you hire people who know how the system works. Unfortunately, Trump seems to have gone out of his way to not hire people who had experience running a White House, and he is now paying the price.

    For instance, this “interim security clearance” stuff.

    It sounds an awful lot like the FBI told the White House Security Office at some point that Rob Porter will not qualify for a permanent clearance, and it was then decided Porter would just work indefinitely on his temporary clearance — at least until it became a problem, “at which point we’ll deal with it.”

    I wonder how many others in the White House are doing that? There seems to be nobody working there who knows what to do about that, which is a problem previous administrations didn’t have, maybe because they were not such know-it-alls who were reluctant to fill job openings.

    But it’s no wonder Trump can’t find good help. It’s not hard to imagine someone might be afraid that they’d be looking for a job some time in the future, and would come just this close to getting it, but then, their prospective employer takes a closer look at the resume and would notice the guy had once worked in the Trump White House — and the next thing he’d know, he’d be back out on the street.

    I suppose he could always leave the fact that he’d worked for Trump off his resume, but then he runs the risk of the Russians finding out, leaving him open to being blackmailed. It’s probably better to just lay low, at least until the good guys come back in power.

    Rick

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