It’s hard to find good help these days, at least if you’re President Donald Trump. People who work for the executive branch — people he’s appointed — feel free to criticize him, distance themselves from him, disagree with him, or just refrain from defending him and his policies.
Writing in Politico Magazine, Rich Lowry says that Trump has an “insubordination problem.” His evidence includes Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s pointed refusal to say that Trump speaks for American values and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s contradiction of him on North Korea.
Lowry thinks Trump weakened his sway over his subordinates by first harshly criticizing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then failing to follow through on that criticism. The original action made his other appointees less inclined to feel loyal, and the subsequent inaction made them less afraid to act on their feelings. Lowry concludes that White House chief of staff John Kelly needs to crack some heads to keep the administration from disintegrating.
The phenomenon to which Lowry is pointing is real. But the root problem isn’t insubordination; it’s a lack of presidential seriousness.
A new example came in recent reports that Trump is angry with his aides over Chinese imports. He keeps telling them he wants tariffs, he reportedly said, and they keep moving forward with milder policies.
Yet it is within a president’s power to make himself be taken seriously by his underlings. Other presidents have all done it — or, rather, they have been taken seriously by default. They have rarely had to exert themselves to make sure their commands are being executed.
In the Trump administration, though, it is not always clear which of the president’s comments are meant to be orders and which of them are just self-expression. When the president says he wants a health policy that covers more people than Obamacare, does it mean his aides have to come up with a policy that accomplishes this goal?
Nobody has taken it that way, and Trump has not done anything about it. The Pentagon is slow-walking Trump’s policy excluding transgender people from the military. If he is planning to do something about it, the news has not come out of his leak-happy White House. (He hasn’t even tweeted a complaint, pathetic as that would be.)
Based on his conduct so far, Trump views the president’s most important role as being commenter-in-chief. Administering the White House and through it the executive branch so as to make his comments reality has not been nearly as high a priority. He hires people who don’t share his views, complains when they don’t act on his views, and … that’s all.
If special prosecutor Robert Mueller is really conducting a witch hunt, as Trump claims, and his attorney general is too weak to do anything about it, as he also claims, then the remedy is not to be found on Twitter: Trump has to fire Sessions and replace him with someone who will remove Mueller. But he isn’t willing to do that, perhaps because of the political fallout, so he instead pops off at the cost of his own credibility.
It has become a cliché that many of Trump’s utterances are to be taken seriously but not literally. The consequence is that, more and more, executive-branch personnel are inverting that formula. For them he is literally the president, but not seriously.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist.