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In Trump’s Washington, the rogue actors are the real players — and the experts are increasingly irrelevant

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/24/2019 Greg Jaffe
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Two years ago, President Trump shared a version of his foreign policy philosophy with a Fox News interviewer who asked about widespread vacancies at the State Department.

“I’m the only one that matters,” the president said.

Dozens of hours of impeachment testimony over the past two months have revealed the true import of Trump’s boast. When he first took office, most assumed the new president would adapt, perhaps against his will, to the ways of Washington, its bureaucratic processes and legions of subject matter experts.

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Instead, the president has turned the U.S. government into a version of the Trump Organization, full of wheeler-dealers inside and outside the official ranks who exist to do his political bidding. In this version of Trump’s Washington, the rogue actors are the real players and the traditional professional class in the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon are largely irrelevant.

This lesson was driven home last week for Fiona Hill, Trump’s top adviser on Russia and Europe, as she watched the impeachment hearings and prepared for her public testimony.

Hill had labored in the White House for more than two years but said she didn’t fully grasp how the Trump administration actually operated until she watched Gordon Sondland, a Trump donor turned diplomat, testify before Congress last week.

In the White House, Hill had seen Sondland as an impulsive neophyte overseeing an off-the-books campaign to pressure Ukraine to open investigations that would be politically beneficial to Trump.

Sondland’s testimony showed something else. As Hill watched, it dawned on her that Sondland was running a different policy channel that didn’t include her and was working, at Trump’s behest, toward a very different goal.

“I realized that I wasn’t really being fair to Ambassador Sondland,” she testified. “He was carrying out what he thought he had been instructed to carry out.”

He was the true actor; she was the outlier.

Hill’s epiphany, which she shared with lawmakers, drew a rebuke from Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who, like Trump, had come to view the country’s civil servants as unelected, insidious bureaucrats working to thwart the president’s will.

The president, Nunes suggested, had turned to Sondland because the experts in his government had dismissed, as conspiracy theory, his real concerns about Ukrainian meddling on behalf of the Democrats in the 2016 election.

“I understand that people at the NSC and people at the State Department had issues with that,” Nunes said. “But at the end of the day, isn’t it the commander in chief who makes those decisions?”

Hill replied she’d been given a directive by her boss to stay out of domestic politics.

The terse exchange revealed the intense pressure that Trump’s style of governing has put on U.S. institutions and civil servants struggling to make policy across the federal government. From the moment he took office, Trump has shown little interest in working the traditional levers of state, which he views as slow, cumbersome and untrustworthy.

His national security advisers, meanwhile, have struggled and largely failed to adapt to his unusual approach to governing. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who was fired by Trump in 2018, sought to leverage the foreign policy bureaucracy’s expertise on behalf of a president with virtually no national security experience.

He convened frequent meetings of government experts from the CIA, State Department and Pentagon that Trump had little time for and drafted detailed decision memos that Trump never bothered to read.

After a year, Trump concluded McMaster’s collaborative approach to foreign policy was inefficient and prone to producing embarrassing leaks.

John Bolton, McMaster’s successor as national security adviser, opted for a more personal approach, jettisoning briefings by specialists in favor of informal one-on-one meetings. Foreign policy experts still put in long hours at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House but rarely made the short walk to the Oval Office.

In her testimony, Hill revealed that Trump had not only never met the top Ukraine expert on his staff, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, but that the president also had been led to believe that Kash Patel, a former Republican Capitol Hill staffer working in the White House, was filling that role.

She became aware of the misunderstanding only when she learned that Patel, who has no Ukraine expertise, had been feeding Trump documents on the country. She then warned her staff to be “very careful” about communications with the Republican operative and tried with little to no success to learn what Patel had handed the president.

On Saturday, Trump’s fourth national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, promised to bring back some of the bureaucratic structure that had atrophied under Bolton. He said he would reinstitute regular meetings of top officials, including the president’s national security cabinet. But he also defended Trump’s use of nontraditional and nongovernmental envoys, likening Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, to Harry Hopkins, the architect of the New Deal, whom Franklin D. Roosevelt tapped to serve as his chief diplomatic troubleshooter and liaison to Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin during World War II.

Without a coherent process to set policy and communicate the president’s intent to diplomats around the world, Trump’s Twitter feed and his off-the-cuff pronouncements to the press have come to play an outsize role.

In the first months of Trump’s presidency, senior officials in the Pentagon and State Department instructed subordinates to ignore the president’s tweets and work through official policy channels. By 2019, that approach had become increasingly untenable for Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador in Kyiv, who was fighting off a smear campaign fomented by self-interested Ukrainian politicians and Giuliani.

Worried that the attacks were undermining her authority, Yovanovitch asked the State Department to put out an official statement of support.

Her request was denied, she testified, because it “could be undermined.”

“By whom?” asked the Democrats’ lead counsel.

“The president . . . in a tweet or something,” Yovanovitch replied.

In April, Yovanovitch received a frantic order from Washington, telling her to get on the first plane home from Ukraine. She wasn’t in physical danger. Rather, State Department officials were afraid once again of Trump’s Twitter feed.

“They were worried that if I wasn’t physically out of Ukraine that there would be some sort of public tweet or something else from the White House,” Yovanovitch testified. “And so this was to make sure that I would be treated with as much respect as possible.”

During the first two years of his presidency, Trump’s top advisers tried to keep people carrying right-wing conspiracy theories and other poorly sourced documents out of the Oval Office.

“In the beginning, there were all of these free radicals running around the White House, and none of us had any idea what their jobs were, but they injected chaos and strange ideas into the policy process,” said a former White House official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid thoughts. McMaster and former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly waged campaigns to “root them out,” the official said, “but really they and their influence just went underground.”

Today, the focus in the White House is on weeding out the civil servants and diplomats called before Congress. When the hearings shifted to public testimony, Trump and his allies took to Twitter to disparage them.

“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” the president wrote of his former Ukraine ambassador as she answered lawmakers’ questions.

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President Trump has long been hostile to Washington’s bureaucratic processes and subject matter experts. © Tom Brenner/Reuters President Trump has long been hostile to Washington’s bureaucratic processes and subject matter experts. Trump attacked Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Pence, and Vindman, two experts on Ukraine and Eastern Europe who are still working in the White House, as “never Trumpers.”

Republicans, eager to defend the president, amplified the president’s fulminations. “Vindictive Vindman is the ‘whistleblower’s’ handler,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) tweeted Friday.

O’Brien downplayed the attacks on his professional staffers, noting that “politics is rough and tumble and always has been. . . . It’s a tough political environment we’re in now.” He encouraged those considering public service to “get involved.”

Even if the House votes along party lines to impeach Trump, it seems unlikely right now that the Senate will vote to convict him and remove him from office. With the exception of Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), most Republicans have either been silent or supportive of Trump, who retains the fervent backing of the party’s base.

The prospect of an angry and mistrustful Trump alarms old Washington.

“Unfortunately, the impeachment will make the president hellbent on the destruction of the civil service if he wins a second term,” said one former State Department official who spent two years serving in the Trump White House. “It’s terrifying.”

greg.jaffe@washpost.com

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