For the first two months of her job, Nikki Haley was blazing her own trail as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Sounding more like Trump’s defeated GOP primary opponents than Trump himself, she announced that sanctions against Russia would not end until Crimea was returned to an independent Ukraine. She was asked if she was on the same page as the president. “Look, he’s the president,” she said. “He can say what he wants whenever he wants, but the direction we’ve gotten is to do our jobs, make sure that the United States is strong, and that’s what we’ll do.” “I’m following the spirit, not the letter” is a deft excuse, but eventually the secretary of state informed Haley that from here on out she’d need to defend Trump’s policies on big issues, not announce her own.
Ten days ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that National Security Adviser General H. R. McMaster went behind the president’s back to reassure America’s South Korean allies that the United States would pay for a new missile-defense system that Trump had previously threatened to cancel if South Korea didn’t pay up.
Then on Monday, a reporter for Canada’s National Post relayed that White House officials had called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to encourage him to reach out to their boss and convince him to not withdraw the United States from NAFTA. This strange gambit has been credited by Breitbart financial reporter John Carney to Mr. Ivanka himself, Jared Kushner. Although now other theories circulate, holding out hope that Kushner was merely facilitating communication between allies that would have happened anyway. After all, Canada is part of Kushner’s portfolio, just after bringing peace to the Middle East, managing relations in the Pacific, and selling America on $1 trillion of infrastructure spending.
In the cases of Haley and McMaster, Trump or administration sources have aired their grievances. Trump joked that Haley was easily replaceable. And Trump allies told Bloomberg’s Eli Lake that the boss was fuming about McMaster. Perhaps discount the Kushner-saves-NAFTA story until Trump jokes about demoting him from Ivanka’s husband to Tiffany’s.
Trump was always going to have trouble taking possession of the executive branch upon his election. Doing so requires hiring thousands of people and top officials who are committed to your vision. As a populist outsider who did not command deep loyalty from his own party, Trump was never going to have that kind of bench. Foreign policy in particular was going to be a challenge when dozens of Republican-leaning foreign-policy scholars and wonks signed an open letter denouncing Trump during his campaign.
I know what you’re thinking. You’d rather have Haley, McMaster, and (gulp) Jared Kushner than Trump leading on these matters. Fair enough. But some clarity about U.S. intentions is going to matter. This week, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of U.S. ally Turkey, is picking a rhetorical fight with U.S. ally Israel. If those allies get into a larger fight, do you want American policy to turn on whether or not hotel investors from Istanbul or Ramat Gan have the right phone number for Ivanka? Until the Trump administration effectively sets priorities and finishes hiring cabinet under-secretaries, it just might.
The confusion and chaos is a reflection of the man himself. America’s prosperity and power depends on its having a self-governing people. But now it doesn’t even have a self-governing president. Trump veers from one policy stance to another, seemingly when the mood strikes him. He hires personnel based not on policy affinity or competence, but on whether they look the part.
In the absence of presidential leadership, what else can we expect but for subordinates to rush in to fill the void? Haley speaks first to commit the United States and her party to America’s moral leadership in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, often plainly contradicting the campaign promises of Trump. Kushner dashes in to make sure that Trump doesn’t blow up a trade arrangement in which two of America’s closest allies have invested so much. McMaster rushes to reassure longstanding allies that the U.S. is still committed to their security. One fears that in the end, we’ll all be rushing to pick up the pieces.