The Wise Men Are Not Helping

Trump at the White House.

Back in the spring, when those horrified by the first few months of the Trump administration were searching for a bright side, the national news media, encouraged by expert observers of government, tried to assure us that everything would be fine, because at the very least President Trump had installed a few competent managers in key places. Among them was a group of three generals and former Exxon chief executive Rex Tillerson.

Tillerson is secretary of state, though it seems he still thinks of himself as a CEO running a for profit enterprise. The generals are: Lt. General H.R. McMaster, who serves as Trump’s National Security Advisor, former Marine General John Kelly, who serves as White House Chief of Staff, and James Mattis, who serves as Secretary of Defense. For some, having so many career military officers so close to the center of what is supposed to be a civilian led government is itself a problem, but we have been asked to work with it.

Relying on this group of four seems a thin thread to hang our hopes on. The idea that the country needs to be protected from the president by a squad of older men — who have been described as the “adults in the room” — seems only to confirm the fears most Americans hold that President Trump is not up to the job and has no appreciation for its consequence.

By late summer the gang of four concept was no longer a mere observation, it was an openly discussed national survival strategy. Senator Bob Corker described the entire White House operation as an adult day care center where Donald Trump is the main resident. A few weeks later Corker was holding hearings on the president’s power to launch a nuclear strike out of clear concern that the adults in the room ultimately have no control over a president many members of Congress don’t trust as a responsible leader.

As we approach the one year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration it appears the gang of four concept is itself a mirage. At least two of the four men the nation’s stability is relying on are plainly ineffective.

While Chief of Staff Kelly has reportedly put rules in place to control access to the president during office hours, multiple White House correspondents report that after hours, Trump works the phones getting advice from a variety of people who under normal circumstances would not have a seat at the table of senior advisers.

With Trump in particular this matters. He has expressed his preference for making decisions based on gut feelings rather than careful planning and he demonstrates almost daily that he is impulsive. Kelly has said from day one that his job is not to control the president himself, but to control the quality of information he is receiving. That is the traditional role of chief of staff, but from the perspective of this president the quality of information he receives is not a concern. He gives the same level of credibility to a comment he hears on cable news as he does a briefing from the CIA or Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kelly is a weak point in the safety net.

With the harrumph of an all powerful CEO, a deep Texas drawl, and the name Rex, Secretary of State Tillerson clearly fits the central casting requirement Trump applied to all his major appointees, but as the nation’s top diplomat Tillerson, like Kelly, is over his head. He has been undercut publicly by the president, he has entered into feuds with the president’s daughter and son-in-law, it appears he came close to quitting over the summer, and his priorities at the State Department seem focused more on the organizational chart than American foreign policy.

The New York Times reports morale at the State Department is at a low point as Tillerson refuses to take advice from career foreign service employees and continues on a campaign to drastically cut the department’s staff, shedding years of human intellectual capital American taxpayers have invested heavily in through both Democratic and Republican administrations. A department spokeswoman has confirmed for the record that Tillerson’s leadership has taken a toll on team spirit, but also begged employees not to give up.

None of this seems to matter to Tillerson. As a CEO he sees his first role as streamlining the agency. This mindset illustrates why private sector experience does not always translate to government. In the private sector success is measured by profits. Cutting expenses is the first step toward improving the bottom line. Government, on the other hand, is not supposed to be efficient in the same way. We ask our government to do things the private sector can’t or won’t do. Government is a loss leader. Its job is to create an environment in which the private sector can succeed. Tillerson is not only destroying morale in the State Department he is stripping it of its essential purpose.

This too is an extension of private sector thinking. At Exxon Tillerson’s job was to make sure his multi-national company was in position to do business around the world. Business was the main concern, not human rights, not promoting Democracy or American values. It is why Tillerson is very comfortable with the general concept behind President Trump’s “America first” approach to international relations. Under Trump and Tillerson, all that matters is the bottom line. America has no interest in leading the world from behind or any other position.

When Tillerson does try to behave like America’s chief diplomat he looks out of place and is largely ignored by world leaders. He has been undercut by the president on North Korea, he has been stepped on by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, major assignments that should be his have been given, by the president, to his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Tillerson has never denied that he is so unimpressed by the president that he once referred to Trump as “a moron.”

Tillerson is secretary of state in title only. Kelly is doing a dog paddle as chief of staff. McMaster and Mattis are rarely heard from in an administration led by a president with disdain for anyone with actual expertise.

The theory of the four elder statesman was flawed from the start. No matter how accomplished, the American people had no direct hand in selecting them. It is wrong for us to be forced to accept them as a shadow presidential team. It is fair to ask what is next? What happens when one or all of them resign? Will anyone of substance agree to take their place or will the country and the world be forced to accept the impulsive leadership of the man we actually picked for the most important job in the world?