National Security & Defense

Personnel and Policy

Iowa governor Terry Branstad testifies at his Senate confirmation hearings, May 2, 2017. (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
With empty embassies, Trump is falling down on the job

With North Korean nuclear threats escalating into a genuine international crisis, the ordinary thing to do would be to have our ambassadors in Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo keep in close consultation with the relevant authorities in those countries. A problem: As Evelyn Cheng points out at CNBC, we do not have ambassadors in South Korea, China, or Japan.

There is no undersecretary of state for East Asia. There is no ambassador to India or Australia. There are in fact more than 100 senior positions vacant in the State Department.

At some point, Donald J. Trump is going to start having to do the actual work of being president.

Trump has nominated Iowa governor Terry Branstad to serve in Beijing, but his nomination foundered in the Senate because the Trump administration was unable to complete much of the necessary paperwork. A nominee to the Tokyo embassy was not selected until March and still has not been confirmed. No nominee to South Korea was even under consideration as of Friday.

Salutary inaction often is the best medicine in government. We could close the Small Business Administration tomorrow, and the republic would stand. I am pleased that Betsy DeVos is the secretary of education, and I hope she is the last one. By all means, shutter the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Federal Consumer Information Center, fire the employees, burn the records, knock down the buildings, and salt the earth, until nothing is left of them but sad stories.

But let’s have an ambassador in China.

Trump, as a businessman with independent and populist instincts, taps into a very old and deep tradition in American political life: The desire to “run the government like a business.” One of the problems with running the government like a business is that the government is not a business. It is a different kind of undertaking, and it makes no more sense to try to run it like a business than it would to try to run your church like a business, or a Girl Scout troop. (Okay, maybe Girl Scout troops are a business, the running dogs of cookie capitalism.) Businesses, nonprofit corporations, and religious congregations are all worthwhile forms of social organization, but they are not interchangeable. There is something poetic about the fact that our contemporary populist conservatives, avowed foes of progressives and progressivism, are in thrall to one of the most ancient and enduring of all progressive errors: the belief that the government (and society) can be run the way a business is run, as though a nation were only “one big factory,” as the socialists used to put it.

One of the problems with running the government like a business is that the government is not a business.

Donald Trump has in fact never successfully run a large organization, and his few attempts to do so — notably with the Trump Taj Mahal and the Plaza Hotel bankruptcies — ended badly. For all his boasting about his employees and sprawling business empire (on the campaign trail, he lied about owning a hotel in Honolulu), what he has mostly done is run a small family business he inherited from his father, employing his wives and children, and leverage his tabloid celebrity into a series of very lucrative licensing and media deals. There is nothing wrong with a career that consists of a series of licensing deals and the like, but it is a very different kind of career from, say, running Microsoft or Ford. Donald Trump is not the executive he played on television.

And even if he were, the skills of a business executive are not necessarily transferable to the public sector — and especially not to the presidency, as Herbert Hoover learned the hard way. The president proposes a policy agenda and works to forge a political consensus to support it, working with Congress to implement it through legislation. Trump is not doing that. He is putting on public spectacles and tweeting. If you would like an indication of how that is going to work out in the long run, consider the mess that Republicans are making of health care at a moment when they control the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, while Democrats are in their worst position in nearly a century.

What’s worse is that Trump will not even take his own side in the fight that really matters in Washington: who holds power. Trump and his talk-radio cheerleaders bawl about the “deep state,” by which they mean the unelected bureaucrats who actually do the daily business of running the federal apparatus, but he refuses to put his own people in the key roles in the bureaucracies that would enable him to bind the bureaucrats to his agenda. They complain about “Obama holdovers,” and they are not necessarily wrong to do so, but many of those people can and should be replaced, and they would be, if the president could figure out how to do his job.

“Personnel is policy,” the proverb goes, and Trump’s policy is, for the moment, not to have a policy. He does not know what he wants to do about health care or the nuclear terrorists in Pyongyang, and even if he did, he does not have people in place to do it.


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