The few grown-ups in Trump’s Cabinet are getting sidelined, their expertise goes ignored, and the pledge that they could choose their own teams—an assurance they were given upon taking their jobs—lies in tatters. With each passing day, it seems clearer that this wreckage stems not from President Trump’s administrative sloppiness but from a deliberate strategy to concentrate power among his circle of confidants—and to strip power from all other quarters of the federal government.
Trump’s critics cheered when he named Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, one of the U.S. Army’s smartest and most insistent officers, as his national security adviser after Michael Flynn was forced out in scandal. Trump assured McMaster that he could clean house at the National Security Council—a promise that many assumed meant the imminent ouster of K.T. McFarland, a Fox News commentator that Trump had made deputy national security adviser, and the dismantlement of a parallel NSC structure set up by White House political strategist Steve Bannon. But three weeks after McMaster’s installment, there are few signs that either of these things are happening.* And just last Friday, McMaster tried to remove Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a 30-year-old Flynn acolyte, from the post of NSC intelligence director—and was overruled by Bannon and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law.
Across the Potomac, in the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense James Mattis had to withdraw his choice for undersecretary for policy after meeting disapproval from the same duo. (The official story was that a few senators would have opposed her nomination, but their concerns could easily have been overcome.) Mattis has been fuming since the inauguration over White House attempts to stack his deck with political hacks—and over repeated rejections of his own choices.
Remarkably, Trump has not nominated a single second- or third-tier official in the Defense Department. Obama’s deputy secretary of defense, Robert Work, agreed to stay on until a replacement was found. But all of the under- and assistant secretaries left on Inauguration Day—some by choice, others at the insistence of the White House—and the people sitting in their chairs in an “acting” capacity are very junior with no authority to speak for the Trump administration.
The State Department is an even more hollow shell. As with the Pentagon, Trump hasn’t nominated a single deputy, under-, or assistant secretary. Rex Tillerson’s choice for deputy, Elliott Abrams, a former Bush White House official, was rejected by Trump after he learned that Abrams had criticized him during the election. And so Tillerson roams the globe alone, accompanied neither by the press corps nor by a Trump-approved entourage, assuring allies that the United States is still committed to their security. Meanwhile, Trump meets with foreign leaders in the White House or at his Florida resort accompanied by Bannon, Kushner, and sometimes a few others, but not by Tillerson or anyone else from Foggy Bottom (a nickname that has never been more apt).
What can the grown-ups do about this? Not much. Mattis has exerted his leverage on at least two occasions. The first came early on, when he avidly opposed a draft executive order that would have resumed CIA operations at “black” detention sites and reopened the debate over torture. (Mattis learned of the draft from newspaper reports.) Trump backed down, saying that he disagreed with Mattis, but would defer to him, on torture policy.
The second incident occurred more recently when Mattis delivered an ultimatum concerning Mira Ricardel, a Trump defense adviser, now at the Office of Presidential Personnel, who has been blocking Mattis’ picks. Either she goes or I go, Mattis told the White House, according to Wednesday’s issue of Defense News. The White House backed down, moving Ricardel to another position—for now.
Mattis figures he has considerable leverage. The Senate confirmed him, even though recently retired generals are barred by law from becoming secretary of defense unless both houses of Congress pass a waiver, precisely because he was viewed as a counterweight to Flynn and, ultimately, Trump. If Mattis were to resign, national security experts on Capitol Hill, in the think-tank world, and among U.S. allies would panic. However, someone in this position can threaten to resign only so often, and his leverage diminishes—he’s viewed as less and less of a team player—each time he puts his fate on the line.
McMaster is in a more awkward spot still. He gained fame 20 years ago as the author of a dissertation-turned-book that criticized the Joint Chiefs of Staff for failing to give their honest military advice to President Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War. McMaster was a mere major when he wrote that; it could have ended his career except that Gen. Hugh Shelton, the JCS chairman at the time of publication, liked the book and championed its author. McMaster built a solid warrior’s record in the decades since in both Iraq wars, but his wider reputation is based on his insistence that subordinates speak truth to power.
Yet, unlike some other generals who have taken the national security adviser job, McMaster held on to his stars: He is an active-duty three-star and so must view the president not only as the object of his advice but also as his commander-in-chief. As a result, he can only go so far—not as far as Mattis, who hung up his uniform three years ago—in challenging the president, much less in posing demands or ultimatums. (It was precisely for this reason that Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft retired from the military after President George H.W. Bush named him national security adviser: Scowcroft wanted to avoid the potential conflicting perspectives.)
Now, in a sense, Mattis and McMaster are trapped. Looking around, they’ve probably sensed that Team Trump is even more unhinged than they’d expected. On the one hand, their sense of integrity, combined with the betrayals and the chaos, might tempt them to resign. On the other hand, their sense of patriotism might compel them to stay: When some international crisis does occur, better that someone with a clear head is close to power.
Both Mattis and McMaster are in tight spots for another reason: Smart and skilled as they are, neither of them has ever held a powerful job in Washington. (Except for a brief spot on an informal “colonels’ council” to “think out of the box” on the Iraq war, McMaster has never worked in Washington at all.) They don’t know the ways of high-level bureaucratic politics. Outside of the Middle East, where they have spent most of their time in command positions, they’ve had little experience dealing with global politics or foreign policy. They need a strong second-tier of deputies and staff to help shape their positions on the issues and protect their flanks on the homefront. Right now, they have neither—and much of this is Trump’s deliberate doing.
When I wrote on Feb. 9, three weeks into his presidency, that Trump hadn’t yet nominated any officials below Cabinet secretaries, his inaction could be pegged to inexperience. Now, five weeks later, that’s no longer a plausible excuse. Trump has spent his entire life in a family business which he came to control, and he views his current job the same way: as a position of unbridled power, with that power to be delegated only to loyal friends and relatives. (A Tuesday New York Times story reveals just how deep this tendency goes. Trump’s point-man on Israeli–Palestinian talks, for instance, is his company’s longtime lawyer, whose only qualification for the job is that he vacations in Israel.)
Mattis, McMaster, and Tillerson don’t fit into this picture. Trump might have thought they did when he picked them. He’d heard that Mattis’ nickname, from his time in the Marines, was “Mad Dog.” Who knew that he carried around a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations in his rucksack during battles; that he owned a library of 6,000 volumes and regularly consulted them for lessons; and that he opposed torture, once telling Trump that he could get more out of a detainee with a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers? Trump had heard that Tillerson was a great deal-maker at ExxonMobil. Who knew that he’d be so wedded to multilateral organizations like NATO?
We all hoped that Mattis, McMaster, and to some degree Tillerson would add a dash of sane, worldly wisdom to Trump’s unsteady narcissism. And maybe they still will. But Trump is a shrewd player of tight-knit power games. He seems to be rolling them more than they’re containing him.
*Update, March 15, 2017, 8:07 p.m. Eastern: Just after this column went to press, Politico announced (citing administration sources) that Dina Powell has been named deputy national security adviser for strategy. She will be working “alongside” K.T. McFarland, but it seems Powell—currently an economic adviser to Trump and a former Bush official who has developed a close working relationship with McMaster—will lead the interagency meetings of deputy Cabinet secretaries. So, good news for McMaster’s leverage. Will Bannon’s banishment from the NSC be next? (Return.)