Increasingly, federal officials are deciding to simply ignore President Donald Trump.
As stunning as that sounds, fresh evidence arrives every day of the government treating the man elected to lead it as someone talking mostly to himself.
On Tuesday alone, the commandant of the Coast Guard announced he will “not break faith” with transgender service members despite Trump’s statement that they could no longer serve. Fellow Republicans in the Senate moved ahead with other business despite the president’s insistence that they return to repealing Obamacare. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “we certainly don’t blame the Chinese” for North Korea’s nuclear program after Trump claimed, “China could easily solve this problem.” And Vice President Mike Pence said the president and Congress speak in a “unified voice” on a bipartisan Russia sanctions bill Trump has signed, but not publicly embraced.
“What is most remarkable is the extent to which his senior officials act as if Trump were not the chief executive,” Jack Goldsmith, a top Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, wrote last weekend on lawfareblog.com.
“Never has a president been so regularly ignored or contradicted by his own officials,” Goldsmith added. “The president is a figurehead who barks out positions and desires, but his senior subordinates carry on with different commitments.”
Federal officials aren’t the only ones. Police chiefs distanced themselves from Trump’s public call for rougher treatment of criminal suspects; the White House said the president was joking.
The Boy Scouts apologized for Trump’s odd, politically charged remarks to the group. After Trump claimed in an interview that the Boy Scouts chief had called to declare it “the greatest speech ever made to them,” the Scouts organization disclaimed any such call.
The disconnect between Trump’s words and the government’s actions has been apparent for months. In January, after Defense Secretary James Mattis contradicted Trump on the use of torture, the president said he would acquiesce to Mattis’ view. The next month, after Trump pronounced himself open to something other than a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley corrected him and said the U.S. remains committed to a two-state solution.
But the phenomenon has grown more pronounced as Trump keeps struggling to govern amid special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Trump keeps casting doubt on Russia’s culpability for cyberattacks on the 2016 election campaign. His own national security officials, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, said last month they have no doubts.
Trump has repeatedly expressed a lack of confidence in Attorney General Jeff Sessions over Sessions’ recusal from oversight of the Russia investigation. Sessions has ignored the hint that he resign.
Part of the disconnect flows from Trump’s inattention to, and weak grasp of, complex policy issues. On raising the debt limit — vital to preserving U.S. creditworthiness – the president has left Cabinet members to publicly disagree. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin wants a “clean” debt limit increase while budget director Mick Mulvaney wants it coupled with negotiated spending cuts.
In an interview last week with The Wall Street Journal, Trump said his State Department had done “the wrong thing” in concluding that Iran has complied with a deal curbing its nuclear program. “If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago,” he said.
The president displayed greater familiarity with Jordan Spieth’s winning final round at golf’s British Open than the health-care plan he blasted Congress for not passing, referring to it as “the replace.” On Tuesday, the Senate shrugged off Trump’s threat to withhold Obamacare subsidies to insurers and took initial steps to assure them.
Acknowledgment of official steps to block Trump and not follow his lead has come from the highest levels of his own staff. “There are people inside the administration who think it is their job to save America from this president,” Anthony Scaramucci said during his brief tenure as White House communications director.
Those people may even include his new chief of staff, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly. Ten days after Trump installed Scaramucci with the rare status of reporting directly to the president, Kelly fired him Monday in his own first day on the job.