A Year-End Retrospective

It is disorienting to experience Donald Trump as the central drama in American politics. Yet we’ve been doing so for nearly two years now. The end of the year is a natural time to take stock. In that spirit, I want to revisit some of the topics I have written about since the ascent of Trump and Trumpism.

Russian Election Interference. In August 2016, at a time I firmly believed Hillary Clinton would be president and long before I had accepted the possibility of a Trump campaign victory, I proposed that Congress create a 9/11-style commission to investigate the allegations that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee and was interfering with the election in an effort to derail the Clinton campaign. I listed Congress’s important legislative and policy interests in a full investigation of Russian interference but argued that Congress was likely too politically self-interested in the subject to handle it as a matter of regular order. I noted that because there was “no way to disentangle the inherent partisanship of the presidential election from the factual inquiry,” we would benefit from a high profile, blue-ribbon commission approach.

While Congress has amassed a somewhat mixed record, my fears have largely borne out. The Senate intelligence committee’s Russia investigation has been an encouraging, yet fragile, example of bipartisan credibility. However, other Republican committee chairs have either abdicated their traditional jurisdictional interests (like the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs) or called for distracting investigations of Hillary Clinton, the FBI, or the Special Counsel (such as, to varying degrees, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Senate Judiciary Committee, and House Judiciary Committee).

Congressional Oversight. In January 2017, I gamed out strategic choices facing Congress as it developed its oversight agenda during the Trump administration. I listed a number of approaches leadership and committee chairs could adopt, including promoting Trump’s agenda, promoting Ryan and McConnell’s agenda, defending Republican orthodoxy where Trump had diverged, checking the executive branch and presidential overreach, advancing parochial causes, or amplifying cultural resentments. Congress has demonstrated all these threads to varying degrees. Yet beyond the Russia investigation, Congress has largely abdicated its role in checking the executive branch. A handful of executive branch and judicial nominees have received bipartisan Senate scrutiny and there have been a few moments of congressional muscle flexing on budget priorities and Russian sanctions. But these have been relatively few and far between. Even on Russia sanctions, the Republican Conference has been largely quiet about the Trump administration’s implementation foot-dragging.

When the same political party controls both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, there is less exacting oversight of the executive branch. But even by those standards congressional oversight has been unduly tame given President Trump’s failure to divest from his vast name-branded business interests. One does not need to win an argument about the original meaning of the Emoluments Clauses to recognize that the coexistence of President Trump and the Trump Organization, with business interests worldwide, creates myriad conflicts-of-interest and appearance problems. It damages the legitimacy of presidential decision-making.

Just shy of a year into the Trump administration, Congress has been breathtakingly absent from its oversight role as to Trump administration ethics.

Unripe Privilege Claims. Returning to the Russia investigation, numerous administration officials and investigation witnesses—including Mike Rogers, James Clapper, Dan Coats, Sally Yates, Donald Trump, Jr., and Jeff Sessions—have refused to answer specific questions or provide certain documents to Congress, relying on unsubstantiated theories of privilege. I have written several times (see here, here, here) about the fact that Congress has not moved to obtain the information, or really even forced these witnesses to clarify their legal claims. Instead, members of Congress complain openly in committee and on Twitter about the witnesses’ lack of grounds to assert privilege.

We will know that Congress is serious about obtaining the withheld information, or at least obtaining an articulated legal claim of privilege, when it issues a subpoena calling for information withheld during a witness interview or hearing. This withheld information about President Trump’s conduct and state of mind is critical to both the congressional and criminal investigations. Even though Congress may lack the will to compel answers, the Special Counsel would likely force resisting witnesses to put up or shut up in front of the grand jury if they refused to provide the information voluntarily in witness interviews.

Transition Advice on Administration Management. Last December, I spoke on a panel to the American Bar Association Administrative Law Section where I focused my remarks around two fundamental problems I saw with Trump’s leadership style and his ability to get things done as president: his authoritarian tendencies and aversion to subject-matter expertise. While the Trump transition to governance was uneven across departments, my concerns then about the nascent administration were largely well-founded.

As a television personality and candidate, Trump demonstrated a consistent expectation that subordinates and supporters provide unflinching loyalty without the promise of reciprocity. But the U.S. government, by constitutional and statutory design, is a stakeholder, rather than command-and-control, model. As President, Trump has attacked those executive branch institutions that he perceives as a threat, including the FBI, CIA, and Department of Justice. His allies have derided federal workers doing their nonpartisan jobs as the ‘Deep State,’ and proposed purges of those who are not sufficiently compliant to President Trump’s political will. The President has shown little appreciation of the co-equal branches of government. He has attacked judges who rule against his policies and made personal attacks on members of Congress of both parties over relatively minor displays of independence of him or resistance to his agenda. Trump and his political appointees have also sidelined experts in fields across government, from scientists to economists to diplomats to intelligence professionals.

It may be comforting to know the U.S. government has numerous check and balances built into it, but they are only as strong as the commitment to them held by those working in government. As Trump drains numerous agencies of career staff while leaving many positions either empty or filled by unqualified loyalists, all with the acquiescence of Congress, the structures designed to check presidential power become ever weaker.

White House Dishonesty. A New York Times analysis quantified this year’s torrent of presidential dishonesty. Top line: Trump told nearly six times as many falsehoods in his first ten months in office as Obama did in two full terms as president. Under Obama, dishonesty was an exception. Under Trump, it is becoming policy. After Sean Spicer’s disastrous first 72 hours as White House Press Secretary, I wrote about the paramount importance of honesty from the White House podium.

Truth is the White House mandate. The American people deserve it. During my years in the White House, the staff felt that we were not protecting the president if we did not arm him with the facts.

Every White House will put their best gloss on the facts—that is “spin”—but facts are the touchstone, and spin does not deny them. Sometimes the system fails, and someone who is speaking on behalf of the president, or the president himself, will say something that is inaccurate. Then, the first job of White House staff must be to correct the record and re-establish credibility as soon as possible.

This weekend the Trump White House failed these standards. Being inaccurate is very different than saying something you know to be demonstrably untrue.

This behavior has consequences. The American people look to the White House for bankable information about war, terrorist attacks, pandemics, natural disasters and the effects of government policy. How do we rely on this White House for truth in an emergency?

What about foreign governments? Every country makes strategic, economic, military and diplomacy decisions with an eye toward America. White House credibility matters. Without a credible White House, our allies cannot rely on our promises and our adversaries doubt our threats. Everything becomes more dangerous.

It pains me that the White House continued a pattern of dishonesty throughout the year. The President, White House spokespeople, and Trump administration officials have lied about issues from the trivial and mundane to the momentous. It has also been disheartening to see criticism of pervasive official dishonesty dismissed with false equivalences such as, “Obama told people they could keep their health insurance.” President Obama blew it on that oft-repeated talking point. It was a particularly damaging untruth because it went to a core argument about a signature policy initiative. But the Obama White House also eventually acknowledged the error and Obama apologized for it. Trump apologists’ furthered the damage of the Obama gaffe by using it to insulate the Trump administration’s far more numerous, systemic, wide-ranging deceptions.

In the Trump era, the daily barrage of angry news cycles and Twitter insults and reactions is exhausting. But this past year reminded many millions of Americans, including me, that democracy requires constant participation and vigilance. I am encouraged by that. I wish you all a happy and healthy new year. 

About the Author(s)

Andy Wright

Senior Fellow and Founding Editor of Just Security, former Associate Counsel to the President in the White House Counsel’s Office. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyMcCanse.