Will Trump defy experts on how many crises he can endure?

If Trump doesn't adapt his style of governing, staff infighting and other avoidable crises in the White House could eat into officials' time and energy to push his policy agenda.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Donald Trump listens during a joint news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the East Room of the White House in Washington, on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017.

After three weeks in power President Trump may be finding that the blunt talk and unorthodox style that won him the election don’t work nearly as well in the White House itself.

The resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn following revelations that he misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about his conversations with the Russian ambassador is but the latest in a string of controversies that have roiled Trump’s short term in office and exhausted and dismayed opponents as well as some supporters.

From the rocky rollout of Trump’s partial travel ban to truth-stretching press appearances and the use of a Mar-a-Lago patio table as a crisis-management center amid wedding festivities, the administration’s actions seem to reflect a White House team that has yet to embrace an organized approach to governance.

Its longer-term success may hinge on how, or whether, Trump adapts his style of governing. Otherwise officials may be consumed with infighting and other avoidable crises and lack the time and energy to push a policy agenda.

“When you don’t really understand government you get these huge distractions and make unforced errors,” says George C. Edwards III, Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University.

Trump won by defying the experts, of course, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he resists the notion that he needs to change his management style, or adopt a more traditional organization that features a preeminent chief of staff. As the Monitor’s Linda Feldmann wrote earlier this week, Trump is an insurgent president who came to office determined to shake things up. His management style is to set up competing power centers and let them fight it out.

Backing away from bluster?

But there is already some evidence that Trump will back away from his campaign bluster if circumstances warrant. Take foreign policy.

Since taking office Trump backed away from indications that he might revisit US commitment to the One China principle. That policy recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China, and under it, the US maintains only unofficial ties with Taiwan.

He has moved cautiously in the Middle East, despite early overtures to Israel, and has yet to fulfill his promise to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. His response to North Korea’s provocative missile test has been muted.

“When you start looking around the world at the big countries and the Middle East I don’t see a lot of change,” says Prof. Edwards.

And for their part Republicans on Capitol Hill may be growing weary of dealing with an administration that creates mini-crises faster than CNN’s Jake Tapper can say “controversial.”

How the turmoil could affect GOP agenda

Trump’s criticism of the federal judges who have ruled against his travel ban will probably make it harder for Senate Republicans to get Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch through the confirmation process, for instance.

Trump’s references to an apparently nonexistent administration health proposal have flummoxed GOP lawmakers working on a replacement for Obamacare.

If it goes on much longer the disarray in the White House could complicate Republican efforts to get Obamacare repeal and tax reform through Congress in a timely manner. For every White House, power is generally a declining resource. Passing legislation becomes more difficult as years go by.

“They need to become more disciplined and more focused on their messages, and they have to get more active on policy development,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R) of Pennsylvania told the Washington Post this week.

GOP concerns, criticism

Meanwhile, Russia – and specifically Flynn’s connection to its government – remains a worry and overarching concern for Washington Republicans.

The revelations that Trump’s former national security adviser discussed the issue of sanctions with the Russian ambassador prior to the election raises a number of questions whose answers could pose trouble for the administration. Did the president know that Flynn made those calls? Did he authorize discussion of sanctions?

Acting Attorney General Sally Yates told the White House late last month that the Justice Department believed Flynn had misled officials about his Russian conversations. Was Trump told this? If so, why did Flynn keep his job as long as he did?

Overall, the turmoil in Washington may indicate that the greatest danger of a Trump presidency may not be a turn towards authoritarianism, but a power vacuum caused by weakness, writes Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith today at the national security blog Lawfare.

The Flynn resignation, the botched travel order, and developing congressional pushback are all evidence of an administration that isn’t operating as effectively as it should, according to Prof. Goldsmith, himself a conservative.

“The US government cannot work well to respond to society’s many complex problems . . . without a minimally staffed, well-organized, energetic and competent Executive branch. Right now we don’t have such an Executive branch,” writes Goldsmith.

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