Reckless Incompetence

For the past two weeks, almost every day has produced a stunning revelation about the current Administration.  By this point, it is crystal clear that the Liar-in-Chief is completely clueless about the many responsibilities of his job and simply does not care.  He is going to proceed full speed ahead — hoping that determination and arrogance will make up for any deficiencies in his knowledge about policy issues or protocol.

Most democracies have some institutional procedures that keep individuals from rising to the top of the government without sufficient experience in politics and government to assure a basic knowledge of how things work.   In a parliamentary system, the leaders of the major parties tend to have served several terms before becoming leader of their party.  Additionally, the leaders tend to have served on the leadership teams of their parties (having responsibility for several different policy areas including at least one major area) before running for and winning their party’s top spots.  In addition, there are procedures in place that allow a party to remove (albeit with some difficulty) a leader who is not doing a good job as prime minister.

Unfortunately for the U.S., our Constitution predates the modern era of parliamentary democracy.  Our framers did have the same type of concerns that have animated modern parliamentary government, but the development of national politics have undermined the procedures created by the framers.  The electoral college was supposed to assure a minimum level of competence in the presidency.  The thought behind the original language in Article II (two votes per elector, no more than one of which could be from the elector’s state) was that each elector would cast one vote for one of the leading politicians in that state and one vote for a politician with a  national reputation.  Barring a clearly obvious national candidate, no candidate would get a national majority and the House would pick between the top candidates.  This scheme depended upon the framers’ belief that politics would stay state-based and that the different state parties would not get together with similar groups from other states to from a national party that would be able to get electors in multiple states to support a national ticket.  That has left the burden on the parties to devise systems of choosing leaders that ensures competence in their presidential candidates, and — as the current incumbent shows — the Republican Party rules have failed in that regards.

Similarly, the framers’ desire for separation of powers narrowed the ability of Congress to remove a president.  While there are some political aspects to the removal process, the framers required the House to draw up articles of impeachment specifying the reasons for seeking the removal of the president with those reasons limited to “high crimes and misdemeanors.”  Then that removal has to be supported by two-thirds of the Senate after a formal trial-like hearing.  Requiring members of the House and members of the Senate to officially find that a president of their own party has committed the types of acts supporting removal is asking a lot.  Perhaps for that reason, no president has ever been impeached except when the House is controlled by the other party.  In the two cases in which the opposing party has impeached the president, there has not been enough votes in the Senate for removal.  By contrast, three of the last five prime ministers in the United Kingdom gained that position after their parties dumped the leader who won the election during the middle of the term.  Given this difficult removal process, it is unlikely that President Trump will be impeached despite his gross incompetence as emphasized by the events of the past two weeks.

And the past two weeks has revealed Trump’s gross incompetence.  At the top of his sins is his disclosure of intelligence to Russia.  It’s not that the president does not have the authority to make that disclosure.  It’s that the disclosure was criminally stupid.  It is one thing to disclose information that you have gained yourself.  It is another thing to disclose information that another country has shared with you on the understanding that further disclosure is restricted.  In this case, apparently, the source of the intelligence was an Israeli asset in Syria.  Needless to say, Israel does not have good relations with Syria.  It is important to Israel that the Assad government does not know who is spying for Israel in Syria.  Given the fact that Putin supports Assad, telling Russia that you have information from an asset in a particular city makes it likely that Syria will be looking for that asset.  Given that Mossad has done a much better job of placing spies in Arab countries than we have, burning a Mossad asset is not good for future cooperation.  (There will be some because Israel needs us more than we need them, but things work better when Israel believes that they can trust us to respect their needs.)

Another area of concern is, of course, the removal of Director Comey.  Again, a president does have the authority to remove the FBI director.  If President Trump were actually concerned about the competence of Director Comey or simply wanted a different general direction for the FBI, such a decision was within his authority.  President Trump’s own statements and the implication of some of the leaks reveal that President Trump’s problem with Comey was not the general priorities of the FBI.  Instead, it is that the FBI is investigating — as it should — whether the Trump campaign (or individuals associated with the Trump campaign) engaged in inappropriate contacts with the Russian government.   Trump may not like it, but the evidence is pretty clear that individuals connected to the Russian government violated U.S.  law by hacking into computers belonging to the DNC and various campaigns (including the Clinton and Rubio campaigns) and stealing information.  If individuals associated with his campaign aided or encouraged these efforts or the disclosure of stolen information, then they also committed crimes.  In addition, it is pretty clear that both one of his campaign managers (Paul Manafort) and his original National Security Advisor (Michael Flynn) violated federal law related to lobbying for foreign governments.   While President Trump may not like the political fallout that he may suffer from his failure to realize the significance of these problems or adequately investigate their  backgrounds when he decided to hire these people, that is not a valid reason for removing Director Comey.

A word of caution is appropriate here, now that there is a special counsel to supervise this investigation.  While President Trump’s actions approach the level of obstruction of justice, it is not clear that they actually cross that threshold.  Similarly, while there is circumstantial evidence that the Trump campaign was aware that Russia had stolen information from the DNC and the Clinton campaign, it is not clear that anybody colluded in that theft or the ultimate disclosure of that information.  And it is unclear that Manafort or Flynn did anything improper on behalf of Russia or Turkey other than failing to adequately disclose that they had been hired to lobby on behalf of those two countries.  In other words, there is certainly enough here to warrant an investigation, but the conclusion of that investigation may merely show incompetence rather than criminal malice.  Mere incompetence has not been a basis for impeachment in the past.  While some activists may wish for impeachment (but do we really want a competent ultra-conservative as President), the public at large would not react well to impeachment if not supported by strong evidence of clear criminal conduct connected to the performance of the duties of the office.

The bigger concern, at least in the short run, is what this reckless incompetence means for the country.  The Trump Administration is already having problems filling many appointed positions that a president must fill.   Four months in, Trump has only nominated people for approximately 80 of the 500 or so executive branch positions (not counting ambassadors or local U.S. Attorneys or U.S.  Marshals) that need to be filled.  A continued appearance of chaos and incompetence at the top will not encourage people to step up for these positions.   While service in the lower tiers of appointed positions in one administration is typically a stepping stone for service in higher tiers when your party is next in power, Trump does not appear to be drawing that much on the Bush 43 administration.  Furthermore, if things continue as they have, it does not appear that service in this administration will be a positive item on the resume for the next Republican administration twelve or sixteen years from now.  And if competent people are not chosen (or decline the offer), then more chaos will follow.

A competent Republican administration is not a good thing; it will miss opportunities to make life better for all because it’s priorities are wrong.  But an incompetent Republican administration is worse; it will screw up even the simple things and put us more at risk because it does not know how to do the simple things.  This Administration may be even worse than that because the President seems to believe that he is competent when it is clear to everyone else that he is not.  The recklessness that comes from his exaggerated opinion of his own abilities is a threat to everyone.  In the short-term, all that we can do to stop it is begin preparing for the mid-terms.  The important reality check in the U.S. is that most of what a president wants to do needs congressional approval.  And President Trump is giving us a golden opportunity to regain the House (or at the very least making the House so close that the Republicans will not be able to afford any defections from either the dwindling handful of reasonable Republicans or the much larger number on the wacky fringe that wants to go even further than President Trump is willing to go).

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