A Crisis of Secrecy

President Trump’s penchant for secrecy leaves the wrong people wondering what he is thinking. Photo: Central Command

Official Washington, which includes the news media, began to settle into a feeling of acceptance with the Trump administration this week. Things were beginning to resemble something that looked like normalcy. Trump seemed to be moderating or reversing previously held positions that most in Washington see as politically unrealistic. The secretary of state and defense secretary behaved as adults in public. Rumors swirled about the future of loathed rebel Steve Bannon. For the most part, Trump stayed off Twitter.

In a town searching for signs of hope — a sign that we are not in the first few months of a four year siege — these small gestures toward a Washington insiders recognize was enough to put some people at ease. It is probably a false hope, because the fundamental short-comings that make Trump unqualified to be president remain.

We are told by Trump voters themselves that they did not vote for him because they took his campaign promises literally, but because he understood, more than any other candidate, that things are not working in this country and he planned to fix them. They trust Trump with the details of how that gets done and they will not necessarily be disappointed with him if he literally reverses himself for the greater good. That’s the right attitude for Trump backers, because as he searches for a way to get his administration on track, Trump is reversing himself on a number of issues and moving in a direction that appears to be aimed at satisfying his new audience — entrenched Washington.

The results are still chaos. While we have not had a good relationship with Russia since the second Bush administration, Secretary Rex Tillerson and the Russian president both agreed this week that things between our two countries are now worse than they’ve been in a long time. As promised, President Obama kept us out of a new war in the Middle East during his time in office, but Trump’s missile attack on Syria could be seen as a first step toward deeper involvement in the region. The use of a giant bomb in Afghanistan could be part of a military strategy that pre-dates the Trump administration(as claimed), but it also could signal the application of the Doctrine of Overwhelming force against terrorists still operating there sixteen years after September 11th.

The problem of North Korea is getting worse under Trump, in fact, it has gotten so bad that China stepped in this week and asked politely for the Trump administration and the North Koreans to step back from the brink. At the Easter weekend, the Trump administration is drawing us more deeply into the quagmire of the Middle East and opening a new front with a country that may be unable to step back from its warlike rhetoric as a matter of honor. The only thing worse than North Korea as it is would be a North Korea at war with the United States or a North Korea with no leadership at all.

These changes in foreign policy expose one of the fundamental flaws of the Trump administration that should have been apparent during the campaign. Trump has no experience in public office. He also has no experience running a business where he is accountable to anyone but himself. Therefore he has no sense that he needs to explain his decisions, or his vision, to anyone. Not Congress, not the American people, our allies around the world, our enemies, or anyone else. The same can be said for many of his top advisors, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his daughter Ivanka, who many Washington insiders are blindly putting their faith in as moderating forces. Success in the world of the Trump family is not a matter of leadership, it is a matter of the bottom line and the accumulation of wealth. Results are measured in dollars amassed, not popular understanding of their policies. There is nothing wrong with this fact of life in the business world, but Trump is no longer in business, he is a public servant.

Part of the vision behind Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” is the idea that the United States should be the toughest guy on the block. While campaigning he expressed a desire to keep his strategy to himself and surprise adversaries when it comes to the use of force and when it comes to economic competition. The equivalent of “speak softly and carry a big stick.” The unspoken goal of such a policy is to paralyze our adversaries with fear.

If this is Trump’s policy he has never articulated it in a clear way. If his foreign policy is more transactional — as some are suggesting — he has not explained that approach either. He explains nothing, because he feels no need to and that method of operation is at the heart of the chronic crisis that puts the administration in peril.

To lead effectively, the president needs to make decisions and then explain to the rest of us why those decisions are right and why we need to follow his lead. Businesslike competence is not enough, because the president is accountable to the people now and not just the ones who voted for him.

Members of the Trump administration have clearly been stunned by the criticism they have faced since the president took office. Almost every major mistake they’ve made has been compounded by the refusal to explain policies before they have been implemented or refusing to explain the vision they represent.

This week the administration announced it would not release visitor logs that would make it easier for the news media to track who is coming and going from the White House. For the general public this sounds like a deep inside the beltway issue that has no affect on most Americans — inside baseball — just like the issue of President Trump’s tax returns. I tend to agree that there is little value for most of us in knowing who is visiting the White House or how much money Trump has paid in taxes. But the default position of the Trump administration to lean first on the side of secrecy is troubling, because it denies us the right to scrutinize policies that are being carried out in our name.

Secrecy is the breeding ground of popular discontent. If voters have no sense of direction, if they cannot recognize a coherent policy, eventually they become frustrated and turn on the people in power. The element of surprise that Trump covets as a businessman is of limited use in public office, especially if the voters are the ones being surprised. The element of surprise is of limited use in foreign policy as well, because an adversary who does not clearly understand America’s trigger points may decide to act preemptively.

The next crisis of the Trump administration may involve the Middle East, North Korea, Russia, or a criminal investigation, but the larger crisis, that will eventually consume the administration as it matures, will be rooted in the fundamental inability of the Trump family to understand they have not been hired as management consultants. Donald Trump is a public servant with a duty to keep us informed and bought in to the policies he is implementing on our behalf. Now more than ever, close to two years after he declared he wanted to make American great again, we need the details. Transparency is the only path to success.