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Opinion

In fairness to Trump’s ‘Executive Time,’ meetings really are the worst

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The online news site Axios has published three months’ worth of President Trump’s private schedules, including this page from Nov. 7, 2018. “RON” stands for “remain overnight.”
(Screengrab from Axios.com)

Online news site Axios caused a stir Sunday by publishing and analyzing three months’ worth of President Trump’s (non-public) daily schedules — the ones that inform the White House staff about Trump’s plans for the day, not the ones that are released publicly (which you can see at Factbase, which helpfully shows a running total of the days the president has spent golfing).

Trump critics quickly seized on the fact that the president spent 60% of his working hours in “unstructured Executive Time.” In some lexicons, that translates into time spent glued to cable TV news, Twitter app at the ready.

Citing half a dozen anonymous sources, Axios said Trump typically spends the first five hours of his day — from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. — in executive time, but not at the Oval Office. “Instead, he spends his mornings in the residence, watching TV, reading the papers, and responding to what he sees and reads by phoning aides, members of Congress, friends, administration officials and informal advisors,” the site reported.

My hero!

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We ... want a president who’ll make good decisions, which require good information and good judgment. It does not require a schedule packed with meetings.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I loathe meetings with the sort of intensity one normally reserves for the New England Patriots. So I may be a lot more forgiving of a president who schedules fewer meetings than other folks might be.

Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to leap to conclusions about Trump’s workday just because he doesn’t seem to have much of an appetite for scheduling.

I’m not belittling Axios’ reporting on this piece, which is amazing. Persuading a staffer to hand over copies of the president’s private schedule is kind of like persuading a worker at a company preparing for an initial public offering to release the chief executive’s calendar — it’s revealing and could conceivably damage the entire enterprise. And Axios has now done it at least twice, using about a week’s worth of private schedules a year ago to report on the expanding number of hours Trump was devoting to Executive Time.

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But there are a lot of ways to approach the job of president, and some perfectly good approaches involve a calendar that looks more like Trump’s leaked schedules than a bookkeeper’s spreadsheet.

Being president, as President George W. Bush famously put it, means being “the decider” — the final link in the chain of policymaking and administration. Out of necessity, presidents operate at a very high elevation. The federal bureaucracy is so enormous, a president has to rely on what amounts to multiple internal CEOs to run the various pieces of it while he or she sets the direction and the overall goals.

Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute »

We the people want a president who’ll make good decisions, which require good information and good judgment. It does not require a schedule packed with meetings. A president could spend hours in the residence poring over briefing books, or periodically summon top aides to the Oval Office for quick pro/con discussions, or pick up the phone to get the thoughts of a variety of people with the right expertise and perspective. Unlike the rest of us, presidents get their calls returned, pronto.

Trump’s spokespeople on Monday also argued, correctly, that a virtually empty calendar does not equate to a virtually empty day for Trump. “He does many different things here throughout the day” during Executive Time, said Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway; for example, she said, the interview he gave the New York Times on Friday probably appeared on the calendar just as Executive Time.

And in case you’re wondering, the federal Presidential Records Act doesn’t require Trump to keep detailed records of his calls, meetings and other time-filling activities. It merely requires him to preserve copies of whatever records he keeps, as opaque as they may be.

Admittedly, I’m leaning over backward here to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. Just based on his track record so far, he performs more like a president who spends his day watching TV than one who assiduously seeks out the best policy ideas and then subjects them to rigorous review before moving forward.

He famously “doesn’t like to read,” as former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson once said, which means he relies on other people’s critical thinking and analysis more than his predecessors did. He’s notoriously impulsive, which means he doesn’t vet his ideas well. And he seems to rely on a coterie of friends and sympathetic figures (hello, Sean Hannity) for feedback, rather than anything that might look like a panel of experts.

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Having said all that, I still think it’s a mistake for people who don’t like the president to seize upon his calendars as proof that he’s idling his hours away, kibbitzing with friends while watching “The View.” The vast hours of Executive Time on Trump’s schedule are like a blank canvas that people will fill out with whatever caricature they choose. All we know for sure is that this president doesn’t like meetings. That’s no black mark in my book.


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