Donald Trump has accused Democrats of working to undermine the legitimacy of his presidency, but he should look somewhere else: to the faceless bureaucrats leaking drafts of his executive orders and the West Wing staffers sharing hugely embarrassing information about him.
In the past two days alone, government sources gave reporters drafts of executive orders that would gut US contributions to international organizations like the United Nations, potentially pave the way for the CIA to once again torture terror suspects, start the process of building Trump's long-promised wall, and make it easier to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants.
By Wednesday afternoon, senior officials like Defense Secretary James Mattis were working to distance themselves from the more controversial of the measures, potentially making it harder for Trump to actually put them into place.
Or consider the surprisingly large array of senior administration officials stepping forward (anonymously) to paint Trump in the worst light possible. New York magazine's Eric Levitz has a useful rundown: One Trump aide told Politico Sunday that the new president "gets bored and likes to watch TV," while others told the New York Times that Trump's "lack of discipline troubled even senior members of Mr. Trump's circle."
By Monday night, the Washington Post was publishing a lengthy story describing how Trump "grew increasingly and visibly enraged" by coverage of his sparsely attended inaugural and, "over the objections of his aides and advisers," ordered White House press secretary Sean Spicer to give a fiery and wholly inaccurate rebuttal. The Post said it based its account on "nearly a dozen senior White House officials and other Trump advisers and confidants." As Levitz notes:
Nearly a dozen of Trump's closest confidantes helped plant an embarrassing news story about how their boss can't handle embarrassing news stories. Which is to say: A president who prizes loyalty in his subordinates has already been betrayed by a huge swath of his inner circle.
Adding literal insult to injury, the social media accounts of several parts of the National Park Service took to social media in recent days to tweet out information about climate change— which Trump dismisses as a hoax — and retweet a photo distinctly showing that his inauguration drew a far smaller crowd than Barack Obama did in 2009. Trump responded by ordering the Interior Department to temporarily shut down its official Twitter accounts.
In the runup to the election, pundits like the Washington Post's Melinda Henneberger penned columns with titles like "How the government could resist President Trump's orders." Trump has been in office for less than a week, but there is more and more evidence that the resistance has already started.
All presidents try to prevent leaks, and all presidents fail. But what's happening to Trump is different. There's a lot of it, it's happening quickly, and it seems to come not just from disaffected civil servants but also from Trump's closest aides.
In some ways, that may be the inevitable outcome of Trump's chaotic campaign, which was marked by bitter infighting all the way to the top and his willingness to give Cabinet picks to those who openly disagree with him on an array of key issues.
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To take one example, Trump believes torture works and should potentially be reinstated; newly confirmed CIA chief Mike Pompeo, who leads the agency that would actually carry out the brutal interrogations, recently told lawmakers that he would "absolutely not" be willing to do so, even if Trump personally gave the order.
To take another, Trump has startled policymakers from both parties by cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin and arguing that NATO had become obsolete; Mattis, the new secretary of defense, told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing that NATO was "the most successful alliance in modern history, and maybe ever," and that his list of threats to the US "starts with Russia."
The open divide between Trump and his Cabinet picks is unprecedented in modern US political history, and civil servants at the Pentagon, the CIA, and other agencies could easily decide that their new bosses are giving them a subtle green light to slow-roll or ignore the president's directives.
Some lower-level officials may not wait for that type signal to begin working to stymie Trump. The new president is proposing the harshest changes to the nation's immigration laws in generations, and many of the bureaucrats charged with implementing the new policies are likely to oppose all or some of the new measures. The same holds true at the Pentagon, where there is widespread distrust of Russia, and the CIA, where there is strong institutional opposition to bringing back torture.
Leaking drafts of the executive orders is a good way to give Democrats time to begin mobilizing to fight the measures and to get Trump some bad publicity. It can also help further fuel the internal divisions already wracking the new administration: Just hours after the New York Times broke news of the draft executive order on torture and black sites, unnamed congressional sources told NBC's Ken Dilanian that "[c]ongressional sources tell me Pompeo and Mattis are disclaiming any involvement" with it.
By Wednesday evening, lawmakers from both parties had issued statements blasting the administration for even considering bringing back torture. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who authored a measure designed to ban brutal interrogation techniques, said in a statement, "We are not bringing back torture in the United States of America."
Given the political furor, it's now unclear when that order will be released — or what it will contain.
In most administrations, senior White House aides save the most embarrassing stories about the presidents they served for their memoirs. That's not the case with Trump, whose top aides are already giving reporters reams of damaging information about him.
It's not entirely clear what those aides hope to gain by painting their boss as a conspiracy-minded, easily distracted, TV-obsessed bully prone to paranoia, feelings of inadequacy, and flashes of blind, irrational anger.
The generous reading is that they may be hoping that Trump, who is known to obsess over how he's portrayed on television and the media more broadly, may see reports about his behavior and try to grow into the office. The less generous reading is that aides are already trying to distance themselves from a president they see as catastrophically unsuited to the job and to set the stage for other Trump confidants to take the blame for his failures.
Either way, we're left with a president whose draft executive orders are being quickly leaked to the press and whose own West Wing staffers are openly deriding him. And that's all happened within his first week. We have at least 204 more weeks to go.
Commentary by Yochi Dreazen, deputy managing editor and foreign editor at Vox. Follow him/her on Twitter @yochidreazen.
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