David Halberstam wrote the definitive book on the Kennedy administration – The Best and the Brightest – about Kennedy’s “whiz kids” – the brilliant minds that stumbled through the Bay of Pigs disaster and the Cuban Missile Crisis and then laid the groundwork for the mess in Vietnam. Things didn’t work out, but the idea was this:
As Kennedy told a group of Nobel laureates he had in for a luncheon at the White House: It was the greatest collection of brains ever assembled there except for the time Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara were in the forefront of Kennedy’s best and brightest. Bundy, JFK’s national security adviser, had been a celebrated scholar for virtually his entire life. He was regarded as one of the smartest students ever to graduate from Yale University. He was then the youngest man ever to serve as dean of Harvard College… Likewise, McNamara, Kennedy’s defense secretary, was a storied figure in the business world. He had risen to the presidency of the Ford Motor Company at the age of 44 and revitalized its performance as a corporate titan.
Halberstam details how none of that did much good – but the idea was that the government should be run by people who know things – not amateurs. And then Kennedy was gone, and then Lyndon Johnson proved him right in an ironic way. Johnson wasn’t a brilliant man surrounded by brilliant men, but he was no amateur. He had spent all those years in the House and Senate and he knew how to get things done, through sweet-talk or threats, or the offer of federal funds for a bridge or school. He twisted arms. He knew the system. He was a master at getting things done – and he got things done – the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and Medicare and Medicaid and Head Start and all the rest. He made Kennedy look like an amateur, but on March 31, 1968, at the end of a nationally televised address, Lyndon Johnson went off-script and announced that he would not seek re-election. It was Vietnam. It was that war. He had listened to Kennedy’s best and brightest. He had taken them seriously. He paid the price for that.
It was a bad year. The kids were with Eugene McCarthy against the war, not a real threat, but Bobby Kennedy, who had become just as antiwar as McCarthy, was a real threat. He had positioned himself as a man of the people, and he really was just that, finally. He had the common touch. No one expected that from the kid. Bobby Kennedy also might have been the most qualified man ever to run for president – a former senator, a former attorney general, and he had been, in effect, his brother’s co-president. Like Johnson, he knew how to get things done, and he already knew what the job of president was really about. He’d been there, but then he was shot dead here in Los Angeles and that all came to nothing. Nixon was a brilliant man, in his way, but his inner demons did him in.
Since then, it’s been a parade of those with not quite the right experience, and not that good at getting things done, stumbling along. In 2008, when John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, it was clear that many thought that amateurs would do just fine. She wasn’t a whiz kid. At least Obama wasn’t an amateur – he had taught constitutional law and had been a senator, for a short time – but he too made his rookie mistakes. He didn’t schmooze, like Johnson. Legislation stalled. He had offered hope, not definitive expertise.
That’s not what Donald Trump offered. Robert Dallek, in December 2015, noted this:
Millions of Americans, led by the Republican presidential candidates themselves, seem to forget what goes into a successful presidency. Donald Trump has said repeatedly that he will make America great again by bringing the “greatest minds” into his administration to solve America’s domestic and foreign problems.
Trump assured Fox News back in August. “I know the best negotiators. I always say, ‘I know the ones that people think are good.’ I know people that you’ve never heard of that are better than all of them.”
That echoed Jack Kennedy, but Dallek had read Halberstam and offered this:
Certainly having a smart president and the best brains as his advisers is a desirable arrangement. But having the smartest people in the room at the White House is no guarantee of a triumphal presidency. While it is obviously better to have smart people than less astute men and women trying to figure out answers to current challenges, if offers no certainty that serious problems will be solved – or even that the right decisions would be made…
Trump should go back and read this history before he makes additional pronouncements about how he and other brainy people will work wonders in advancing the economy, solving U.S. foreign policy problems in the Middle East, Asia and Europe, and defending the homeland against terrorism. If the truth is told, the fact that he’s made himself a billionaire (starting out as only a millionaire) guarantees nothing about his possible performance as president. Herbert Hoover was a brilliantly successful businessman who also consulted with other smart, successful business moguls. His administration was one of the least successful in American history.
That’s all moot now of course. Trump didn’t bring in the best and brightest. Michael Flynn lasted twenty-eight days. H. R. McMaster lasted about a year in Flynn’s job. John Bolton is now purging all of McMaster’s people. Steve Bannon was everything, and then he was gone. Rex Tillerson destroyed the state department, and he’s gone, and his position is now vacant. No one knows what Ben Carson does, if anything at all. Others have come and gone. The turnover has been of epic proportion.
All that’s left is Donald Trump, which may be how he likes it, but this is an amateur running a one-man show. The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, with Greg Jaffe and John Hudson, report on how that’s going:
President Trump seemed distracted in March as his aides briefed him at his Mar-a-Lago resort on the administration’s plan to expel 60 Russian diplomats and suspected spies.
The United States, they explained, would be ousting roughly the same number of Russians as its European allies – part of a coordinated move to punish Moscow for the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil.
“We’ll match their numbers,” Trump instructed, according to a senior administration official. “We’re not taking the lead. We’re matching.”
The next day, when the expulsions were announced publicly, Trump erupted, officials said. To his shock and dismay, France and Germany were each expelling only four Russian officials – far fewer than the 60 his administration had decided on.
The president, who seemed to believe that other individual countries would largely equal the United States, was furious that his administration was being portrayed in the media as taking by far the toughest stance on Russia.
He was angry:
His briefers tried to reassure him that the sum total of European expulsions was roughly the same as the U.S. number.
“I don’t care about the total!” the administration official recalled Trump screaming. The official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Growing angrier, Trump insisted that his aides had misled him about the magnitude of the expulsions. “There were curse words,” the official said, “a lot of curse words.”
That’s because Trump sees himself running a one-man show:
The president instinctually opposes many of the punitive measures pushed by his Cabinet that have crippled his ability to forge a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The past month, in particular, has marked a major turning point in the administration’s stance, according to senior administration officials. There have been mass expulsions of Russian diplomats, sanctions on oligarchs that have bled billions of dollars from Russia’s already weak economy and, for the first time, a presidential tweet that criticized Putin by name for backing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
On Friday night, the United States, acting with Britain and France, attacked Assad’s chemical weapons facilities as punishment for what they say was his use of agents on civilians.
But that might not be what it seems:
Some close to Trump say the recent measures are the product of an ongoing pressure campaign to push the president to take a more skeptical view of the Russian leader.
“If you’re getting briefed by the CIA director on all this stuff, there’s a point where, even if you’re Donald J. Trump, you think, ‘Hmm – Putin’s a really bad guy,’ ” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, an informal Trump adviser.
Others note Trump’s ongoing unease with his own policy. Even as his administration has ratcheted up the pressure on Putin’s inner circle, Trump has continued in recent weeks to make overtures to the Russian leader, congratulating him on his election win and, in a move that frustrated his national security team, inviting him to visit the White House.
“I think I could have a very good relationship with Russia and with President Putin,” Trump said at a news conference just days after the largest expulsion of Russians in U.S. history. “And if I did, that would be a great thing. And there’s also a possibility that won’t happen. Who knows?”
Ah, but then there’s Obama and Mueller:
Trump came to the White House believing that his personal relationships with other leaders would be central to solving the world’s thorniest foreign policy problems, administration officials said. In Trump’s mind, no leader was more important or powerful than Putin, they said. A cooperative relationship with the Russian leader could help Trump find solutions to problems that bedeviled his predecessor in places such as Ukraine, Syria and North Korea.
Former president Barack Obama had a tense relationship with Putin. Trump said he could do better but felt stymied by the media, Congress and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Any conciliatory move he made toward Putin came under heavy scrutiny. “When will all the haters and fools out there realize that having a good relationship is a good thing,” Trump tweeted in November. “They are always playing politics – bad for our country.”
Privately, he complained to aides that the media’s fixation on the Mueller probe was hobbling his effort to woo Putin. “I can’t put on the charm,” the president often said, according to one of his advisers. “I’m not able to be president because of this witch hunt.”
In short, it’s his wonderful one-man show and everyone is out to get him, so he gets truculent:
As the months passed, the president’s options for improving relations with Russia narrowed. In late July, Congress overwhelmingly approved new sanctions on Moscow that were widely seen as a rebuke of Trump’s efforts to reach out to Putin. It took aides four days to persuade Trump to sign the bill, which had cleared with a veto-proof majority.
Trump advisers were reluctant to even raise the topic of Russian interference in the election, which Trump equated with Democrats’ efforts to undermine his victory. “It’s just kind of its own beast,” a senior national security official said. “It’s been a constant from Day One.”
He needs to be handled carefully:
Gingrich and other Trump advisers said CIA Director Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state nominee, was one of the few advisers who could address Russia without raising the president’s ire.
In January, Pompeo told the BBC that he had “every expectation” that Russia would make an effort to disrupt the 2018 midterm elections. Privately, he pushed Trump to take a tough line on Moscow.
And there’s this:
One area where aides worked to change Trump’s mind was on a proposal to sell antitank missiles to Ukraine. Obama had opposed the move for fear of angering Moscow and provoking a Russian escalation.
Trump initially was also hesitant to support the move, which had the backing of the Pentagon and State Department. “He would say, ‘Why is this our problem? Why not let the Europeans deal with Ukraine?” a U.S. official said.
Aides described a lobbying effort by Pompeo, Haley and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in support of the lethal aid. “I just want peace,” Trump would say when pressed on Ukraine.
His aides countered that the weapons would help achieve peace by deterring further Russian aggression.
He needs to be handled carefully:
To bring the president around, U.S. officials argued that the $47 million military aid package could be a boon to U.S. taxpayers if cash-strapped Kiev stabilized and someday became a reliable buyer of American military hardware. To the surprise of even his closest advisers, the president agreed late last year to the weapons transfer on the condition that the move be kept quiet and made without a formal news release.
Aides tried to warn him that there was almost no way to stop the news from leaking. When it broke, Russia hawks in Congress praised the president. “Another significant step in the right direction,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a frequent Trump critic. But Trump was still furious, an administration official said.
“For some reason, when it comes to Russia, he doesn’t hear the praise,” a senior administration official said. “Politically speaking, the best thing for him to do is to be tough. On that one issue, he cannot hear the praise.”
And there was this:
The poisoning in Britain in early March of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, with a nerve agent upped the tension between Trump and his advisers.
Initially, the president was hesitant to believe the intelligence that Russia was behind the attack – a fact that some aides attributed to his contrarian personality and tendency to look for deeper conspiracies. To persuade him, his advisers warned that he would get hammered in the press if he was out of step with U.S. allies, officials said.
“There was a sense that we couldn’t be the only ones not to concede to reality,” the Trump adviser said.
The next task was convincing Trump that he should punish Putin in coordination with the Europeans. “Why are you asking me to do this?” Trump asked in a call with British Prime Minister Theresa May, according to a senior White House official. “What’s Germany going to do? What about France?”
He was insistent that the poisoning in the English city of Salisbury was largely a European problem and that the allies should take the lead in moving against Russia.
This is an amateur at work, and others see that:
The relatively modest airstrikes that Trump ordered Friday were designed to deter Assad without provoking a broader military conflict with Russia.
Some European diplomats in Washington question whether the tough moves have Trump’s full support. “This wouldn’t be the policy unless Trump supports it. Yes?” asked one ambassador.
Russia analysts seem just as mystified. “This is a man who if he had his druthers would be pursuing a much more open and friendly policy with Russia,” said Angela Stent, a former White House official and professor at Georgetown University. “The United States essentially has three Russia policies: the president’s, the executive branch’s, and Congress’s.”
Which is it? Or there may be a fourth policy:
French President Emmanuel Macron said Sunday he “convinced” President Donald Trump to stay in Syria before the United States, United Kingdom and France launched strikes against targets at three sites Friday night.
“Ten days ago, President Trump said the USA’s will is to disengage from Syria. We convinced him that it was necessary to stay,” Macron said, during a two-hour televised interview with several French media outlets…
Macron said it had also been France which convinced Trump that the strikes had to be limited to suspected chemical weapons sites.
Prior to the strikes, there had been reports Trump wanted to see tougher, more extended action in Syria but was talked down by his national security team.
It seems that Emmanuel Macron teamed up with Trump’s national security team on this. That’s one way to deal with an amateur trying to run a one-man show. America has come a long way since President Kennedy talked about the greatest collection of brains ever assembled at the White House except for the time Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
America has come this far:
Former FBI director James B. Comey said in his first televised interview since being fired that he believed Donald Trump was “morally unfit to be president” and that it was “possible” that the Russians had material that could be used to blackmail him.
In a wide-ranging conversation with George Stephanopoulos broadcast on ABC late Sunday, Comey took aim at Trump in no uncertain terms, comparing his administration to a mafia family, likening his presidency to a forest fire and asserting there was evidence that he had committed a crime.
He said that he would not favor impeaching Trump to remove him from office, because that “would let the American people off the hook and have something happen indirectly that I believe they’re duty-bound to do directly” – meaning through elections. But he made clear his view of whether Trump was fit to hold the position.
“This president does not reflect the values of this country,” Comey said.
James Comey has a new book, Donald Trump obsessively watches absolutely everything on television about himself, so this had to happen:
On Sunday morning, Trump tweeted criticism of Comey, denying some of Comey’s allegations and alleging that Comey revealed classified information and lied to Congress.
“Slippery James Comey, a man who always ends up badly and out of whack (he is not smart!), will go down as the WORST FBI Director in history, by far!” Trump wrote.
It’s almost as if Trump was trying to make Comey’s point for him with angry name-calling and taunts, but this was deadly stuff:
As he did in his book, Comey detailed in the interview Trump’s fixation on unproven allegations that he watched prostitutes urinate on one another in a Moscow hotel in 2013, asserting that Trump at one point said he was contemplating ordering Comey to investigate and disprove the incident because he did not want “even a 1 percent chance” that his wife, first lady Melania Trump, would believe it happened.
Comey said that struck him as odd. “I remember thinking, ‘How could your wife think there’s a 1 percent chance you were with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow?'” he said, adding that his assessment was that it’s possible Trump is guilty of the accusation.
“I honestly never thought these words would come out of my mouth, but I don’t know whether the current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013,” Comey said. “It’s possible, but I don’t know.”
And there was this:
Comey said it was possible, too, that the Russians might have material that could be used to blackmail Trump.
“Do you think the Russians have something on Donald Trump?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“I think it’s possible. I don’t know. These are more words I never thought I’d utter about a president of the United States, but it’s possible,” Comey responded.
And there was the mob stuff:
Comey described in great detail several conversations he had with Trump, telling Stephanopoulos of how the president asked for his loyalty and how that interaction and others reminded him of his time as a prosecutor in New York pursuing mob families, for whom loyalty to the boss and the organization were the only values that mattered.
“It’s the family, the family, the family, the family,” Comey said.
There was much more to the interview. Comey has made some questionable decisions and done both good and real harm – Republicans and Democrats both hate him now – but it’s clear that many Americans have long thought that amateurs would do just fine, that the best and the brightest would only make a mess of things, as they once did. Obama offered hope, not definitive expertise, after all. But there’s no hope here. Thomas Jefferson still dines alone at the White House. Donald Trump munches cheeseburgers and watches Fox News.