When Barack Obama came into office, George W. Bush left him with two wars and an economy teetering on the brink of colossal disaster. Eight years later, Obama handed off to Donald Trump a country with challenges, but no immediate crises looming. Less than a month after taking office, though, Trump finds himself awash in catastrophes that are all of his own making.
Trump's biggest mess results from his choice of retired Gen. Michael Flynn to be his national security advisor. In a steady stream of leaks from intelligence agencies, it has been revealed that Flynn had multiple meetings with Russian officials during the presidential campaign, including an encounter with Moscow's ambassador to the United States in which Flynn signaled that the newly elected Republican president would be easier to deal with than Obama. On Monday, Flynn resigned his post after acknowledging that he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of his chat with the Russian ambassador.
On Tuesday, the news broke that other Trump campaign officials, including onetime campaign director Paul Manafort, were also in frequent communication with Russian intelligence agents at a time when the Russians were engaged in computer hacks and a disinformation campaign aimed at undermining Trump's opponent, Hillary Clinton. The FBI is investigating and now several Republican senators are joining with Democrats to demand a bipartisan congressional probe into the links between Russia and the Trump team.
This is not a very auspicious way to begin a new presidency, and Russia is far from the only problem.
Trump's plan to close the door on refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations was blocked by federal courts. The constitutionally dubious executive order that set the scheme in motion was hastily implemented with almost no input from anyone outside a tight circle of Trump's advisors in the West Wing. It met immediate resistance from demonstrators at airports and state attorneys general in the courts. With a little care, collaboration and caution, Trump might have been able to craft a policy that would have succeeded, but that is not how this president or his chief strategists, right-wing militants Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, roll. And Trump made things even worse by making personal attacks against the judges who ruled against him.
The Muslim ban was just one of several ill-considered executive orders churned out by Trump (with Bannon's and Miller's close guidance). One edict from the Oval Office ordered that two regulations must be eliminated each time a government agency or department implements one new regulation. This gimmick is a simpleton's version of regulatory reform that ignores all sorts of complicated issues. It will prove to be unworkable and, probably, illegal. Another order Trump signed, reportedly without reading it closely, put Bannon on the National Security Council, thus sending a shock wave through the ranks of foreign relations specialists.
Then there was Trump's very first week in office in which he and his minions engaged in a war with the media — and with reality — insisting that the crowd at Trump's inauguration was bigger than the historic crowd at Obama's first swearing-in ceremony in 2009. It was an absurd exercise that demonstrated the two biggest weaknesses of the new White House: the president's self-absorbed egotism and his willingness — and the willingness of those around him — to blatantly lie when the truth is inconvenient.
Trump's chief spokesman, Sean Spicer, became a figure of ridicule — and a recurring character on "Saturday Night Live" — at his very first news briefing when he angrily defended Trump's bogus claims about the size of the inaugural crowd. He made himself laughable again on Tuesday when he insisted no one has been tougher on Russia than his boss, thereby giving the TV news channels a good excuse to rerun the many news clips that show Trump fawning over Vladimir Putin.
In that Tuesday briefing, Spicer also presented an official timeline purporting to show when the president learned about Flynn's dealings with the Russians. According to Spicer, Trump was briefed in late January. Inconveniently, Trump, in a quick exchange with the traveling media on Air Force One last weekend, claimed that he knew nothing at all about the Flynn controversy. Obviously, Trump was lying and Spicer's timeline confirmed it. In a similar failure to coordinate messages, senior Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway (who is being shunned by CNN and called out by a government ethics office for her lies and careless statements) said Flynn had the president's full support, just hours before Flynn got the boot.
Trump has a compliant, Republican-controlled Congress waiting to do his bidding. He has millions of supporters who dutifully give him the benefit of the doubt on any issue. He has inherited an economy that is chugging along nicely and an international scene without any immediate crisis. He could be enjoying a small honeymoon right now.
Instead, because of bizarre personnel choices (Flynn, Bannon, Miller, Conway), policy proposals based on falsehoods (there is no flood of poorly vetted terrorists), dumb campaign promises (there is no simple way to get rid of the Affordable Care Act), childish vendettas (picking a fight with Nordstrom for dropping daughter Ivanka's fashion products) and unrelenting lies (pick a day, any day), the Trump administration is mired in controversy and chaos. And Trump, who always finds someone to blame for everything, really has no one to blame but himself.
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