by Max Boot
Every administration faces a steep learning curve when it takes office. The defining characteristic of the Trump administration is its refusal to become any less incompetent than it was on day one, thanks to its contempt for expertise and its preference for ideology over reality.
The administration began in January 2017 with chaos at the airports. Trump had made an impractical, illegal and unethical campaign promise by calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Put in charge of implementing the “Muslim ban” were two ideologues with no executive branch experience, Stephen Miller and Stephen K. Bannon. Customs and Border Protection officials had no input in the executive order banning travel from seven majority-Muslim nations that Trump signed on Jan. 27, 2017. The result was utter confusion at the nation’s airports, with officials unsure who was allowed in and who wasn’t.
More than three years later, the nation’s airports have again been thrown into chaos by another ill-considered travel ban crafted by the amateurs working for the president. First son-in-law Jared Kushner worked with Miller to craft Wednesday’s prime-time speech in which Trump announced a ban on travel from most parts of Europe, even though by then most health experts said that it was too late — covid-19 had already spread widely in the United States.
The development of the coronavirus travel ban was as slapdash as the Muslim travel ban. The Post reported: “Thirty minutes before Trump appeared live on camera, a final draft of his remarks still had not circulated widely within the White House …. And senior health experts in the administration did not review a final draft of the remarks.” Problems were obvious at once: Trump made major errors that had to be corrected by his aides, including his assertion that the ban would cover cargo as well as people.
But the biggest problem did not emerge until Friday, when hordes of panicked Americans returned from Europe to a handful of U.S. airports that were not prepared to receive them. As former Rand Corp. analyst Cheryl Benard recounted in a Post op-ed, thousands of travelers were forced to wait for hours in crowded lines, sometimes alongside obviously sick individuals. Many were then forced to use unsanitary fingerprint readers and sent on their way without any testing or follow-up. A travel ban designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus might have accelerated it.
No one who is familiar with Kushner’s track record will be remotely surprised. His trademark combination of arrogance and ignorance was on vivid display in January when he released a “peace plan” for Israelis and Palestinians without consulting the Palestinians. It was proclaimed DOA but could still damage the prospects of a two-state solution. Kushner could not organize a two-car funeral, yet he has now inserted himself into the midst of what might be the worst public health emergency since the Spanish flu in 1918 … because why not?
There are, thankfully, still people in the U.S. government who know what they are doing — dedicated civil servants such as the physicians Anthony S. Fauci at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Nancy Messonnier at the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. But Trump has been waging war on the experts from the start. Michael Lewis’s 2018 book “The Fifth Risk” details how the Trump transition was so disorganized that there was virtually no attempt to learn from Obama appointees and civil servants who had years, even decades, of relevant experience.
Kushner was behind that chaos, too: Three days after the election, he purged former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and his aides, who had been running the transition, because Christie, a former federal prosecutor, had once sent his father to prison. Trump was so clueless that he didn’t see the need for a transition at all. Lewis quotes the president-elect telling Christie: “Chris, you and I are so smart that we can leave the victory party two hours early and do the transition ourselves.”
The Trump people were utterly unprepared to run the federal government and began making momentous decisions with no understanding of what they were doing or what kind of risks they were running. The National Security Council office responsible for coordinating the response to pandemics miraculously survived the first year of the administration, only to be inexplicably axed by national security adviser John Bolton in 2018. “It would be nice if the office was still there,” Fauci told Congress last week. With that office gone, the administration’s response to the novel coronavirus has been typically ad hoc and disjointed.AD
Critical failures — principally the failure to distribute tests more widely and to alert Americans to the severity of the threat — are almost certain to cost large numbers of lives. Trump is incapable of either taking charge or accepting responsibility for what his subordinates are doing in his name. “No, I don’t take responsibility at all,” he said Friday when asked about covid-19 testing failures. That will be the epitaph of an administration that, amazingly, appears to grow more incompetent the longer it stays in office.
Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist and the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. He is the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam,” a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in biography. Follow Max