The incompetence displayed by Trump's immigration orders will be terrifying in a crisis

Matthew Yglesias
President Donald Trump is seen through an Oval Office window as he speaks on the phone to King Salman of Saudi Arabia on January 29, 2017.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

For liberals alarmed by Donald Trump's election, there is something heartening about the revelation that the new president has no idea what he's doing. His rollout of new travel restrictions aimed at offering a constitutionally, economically, and diplomatically viable alternative to his campaign pledge of a total ban on Muslim entry to the country has been shambolic. It has spurred judicial and political mobilization against a sloppy and ill-conceived policy, which will likely end up with Trump accomplishing much less harm than he could have with a more measured approach.

All in all, Trump's stumbles raise the prospect of what Dylan Matthews calls the "Carter Scenario," in which a president who is simply bad at presidenting manages to not get very much done and blow the opportunity for a newly empowered legislative majority to enact historic change.

What you make of that will, of course, depend on your prior ideological commitments. What should be viewed differently is the reality that all presidents end up needing to deal with crises of one type or another. So far, Trump has exclusively faced crises of his own creation, and he's handled them disastrously.

Americans of all stripes ought to worry about what's going to happen when he faces a real one.

Even a criminal president can be counted on to deliver a certain measure of economic prosperity and global stability, for the simple reason that incentives are properly aligned. A president prone to making mistakes, however, can easily doom us all.

'Malevolence tempered by incompetence'

Trump's order itself is a moral disaster, from top to bottom. It cruelly targets the weakest people in the world — refugees — for nonexistent security gains. It dollops on top of that arbitrary penalties on citizens of seven countries, including Iranian-born people who are Iranian citizens against their own will, that were selected for what were clearly reasons of cynical politics rather than real risk assessment. The good news, such as it is, is that as Brookings Institution national security law analyst Ben Wittes put it on Saturday, the order reads, "frankly, as though it was not reviewed by competent counsel at all."

In that sense, it adds up to "malevolence tempered by incompetence" — with a new policy crafted in a sufficiently sloppy manner that key aspects of it don't hold up in court.

What we've learned since, however, is the scary reality that the order really wasn't reviewed by competent counsel at all. It was written, apparently, by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, a couple of hacks without expertise in immigration law. It was then handed over to the Department of Homeland Security without the opportunity for DHS to offer feedback. But when DHS counsel assessed that the order did not apply to green card holders, they were swiftly overridden by Bannon.

Over the weekend, chaos reigned on this front, with members of the Trump administration contradicting each other until Sunday night DHS's initial interpretation was allowed to stand. The order was signed with Defense Secretary James Mattis standing by Trump's side, but Mattis himself apparently never read the order — he was simply used as a prop.

Matthew Yglesias tweet

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly was on the phone receiving a briefing about the proposed policy shift when, according to Michael Shear and Ron Nixon, "someone on the call looked up at a television in his office. 'The president is signing the executive order that we're discussing,' the official said, stunned."

Mike Allen in his daily email reports that Trump's "inner circle, resentful of leaks, seeks little input from the Cabinet, outside allies, or Hill leaders."

This in some ways understates the level of chaos. Trump didn't seek input from the secretary of state on the possible diplomatic blowback (UK Prime Minister Theresa May, for example, woke up to the unwelcome news that one of her own party's MPs is now banned from the United States for the crime of having been born in Somalia) not because he is ignoring the Cabinet but because he has no secretary of state. Similarly, there are no secretaries of Treasury, commerce, or labor in place to offer feedback on the economic ramifications.

Incompetence tends to compound itself

Every day, the White House press office sends around an estimate of the president's schedule in the day to come. The Trump White House's daily schedule for the day of the new president's first meeting with a foreign leader misspelled the British prime minister's name three times.

It was an inconsequential thing, but a telling sign that White House statements are heading out the door with relatively little vetting. That is almost certainly the reason that Trump's routine statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day forgot to mention Jews. But Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, sent out to the Sunday shows to explain why Trump had thrown America's airports into chaos, decided to defend the omission on the grounds that "everyone's suffering in the Holocaust" is "something that we consider to be extraordinarily sad." This exacerbated the problem, leading to condemnations from Jewish Republican groups that hadn't originally planned to speak up.

But turning small mistakes into big ones is the kind of thing that happens when your small mistake gets overshadowed by an unrelated additional mistake.

Meanwhile, Trump has simply shot himself in the foot in terms of getting additional members of his team confirmed. The immigration orders led to unprecedented grassroots anti-Trump mobilization that has greatly increased the pressure on Democratic senators to do everything they can to show that they are fighting Trump.

Donald Trump tweet

Meanwhile, Trump is lashing out at Republican senators who criticized his order. The net impact will be to greatly delay the moment until we have a full complement of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries in place, especially with Trump struggling to get full secretaries confirmed speedily and treating Mattis and Kelly in a way that will make it difficult to recruit high-quality people for other jobs.

Soon we will get untempered incompetence

Many liberals I know are happy to see that the Trump administration is not a well-oiled machine. And to an extent this makes sense. A more disciplined, more organized administration would be a lot more likely to succeed in repealing the Affordable Care Act or shepherding Paul Ryan's war on the poor into law.

In many ways, it's reassuring to know that a malevolent administration's actions will be tempered by incompetence.

But in other ways, it is quite the opposite. Even a president whose ideas you disagree has incentives aligned to get the basics right. A recession, a bloody war, a natural disaster, or a mishandled environmental catastrophe would be bad for Trump's popularity and political standing and also objectively bad for the world. Sound crisis management is a win-win.

In a bitterly divided country, it's inevitable that any newly elected president will roll out some big new initiatives that his opponent regards as malign... As soon as he's forced to respond to external crisis, it's going to be anything but.

What we have seen so far from Trump is that he is not much of a crisis manager. He takes a small problem like having a smaller Inauguration Day audience that Barack Obama and turns it into a days-long, credibility-shattering drama about voter fraud. He takes a desire to crack down on refugees for the sake of a little political gain and turns it into a fiasco.

Yet all presidents eventually face a crisis that is not of their own creation. Maybe a spy plane gets into an accidental crash. Maybe North Korea does an ICBM test. Maybe Greece's budget woes produce a renewed financial crisis in Europe. Maybe there will be a scary infectious disease outbreak. The government will need to respond. And it will be in the interests of America and the world for the government to respond in a calm, well-informed, and effective manner. And it will be in the interest of Donald Trump to respond in a calm, well-informed, and effective manner.

Under the circumstances, it would be nice to think that Trump is capable — at least in principle — of responding in a calm, well-informed, and effective manner. But based on the evidence available in front of us, it's extremely difficult to be confident that he is. In a bitterly divided country, it's inevitable that any newly elected president will roll out some big new initiatives that his opponent regards as malign. Trump's big headline undertakings have been mistakes. As long as he is driving the news cycle, that incompetence is reassuring to his skeptics. As soon as he's forced to respond to external crisis, it's going to be anything but.

Commentary by Matthew Yglesias, a writer at Vox. Follow him/her on Twitter @mattyglesias.

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