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EDITORIAL: Improv is no way to run the U.S.
Smart-alecky critics have oft referred to the current administration as some variation of “Presidential Apprentice” — a mashup of President Donald Trump’s former television show and his current occupation. Unfortunately, the program that increasingly best defines the president’s performance is “Evening at the Improv.”
Because, especially this past week, Trump seems to be policy-making on the fly.
According to a New York Times report, even the White House was caught off guard when on Tuesday the president tweeted about the ouster of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The Times reported that a White House spokesperson had on Monday "berated a reporter for suggesting there was any kind of split between Tillerson and the White House."
You’d think they’d know better by now. One of the first, hardest lessons — or, at least, it would have been had they learned anything from it — was the president’s abruptly announced travel ban.
Trump’s January 2017 executive order — sprung not only on the nation but many of his own advisers — created widespread confusion among security officials, concern among overseas travelers and congestion at airports both at home and abroad. It was shot down by the courts and has been replaced by subsequent revisions, which have also been legally challenged. The Supreme Court is to hear arguments on the ban next month.
But the initial confusion, the immediate protests, the subsequent legal challenges — none of these made any evident impression on the man in the White House.
Trump has continued to act as his own best counsel — to not only the nation’s but his own detriment. From firing FBI Director James Comey to announcing — on Twitter, no less — that transgender troops would be banned from serving in the military, Trump has fired off policy decisions of major import with seemingly minor forethought.
In addition to the Tillerson bombshell on Tuesday, Trump was practicing policy making on the fly last week, as well, on not one but two occasions.
First, the president announced hefty new tariffs on steel and aluminum. The decision, according to The Associated Press, “caught some top White House officials off guard and left several aides scrambling for details” — aides like chief of staff John Kelly, for instance.
Among those criticizing the move, which came following a meeting between Trump and aluminum and steel interests, were many in his own party, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, who raised the possibility of a trade war and warned of unintended consequences.
The debate was quickly eclipsed, as are so many in Trump World, by an even more surprising announcement. The president had accepted an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to discuss nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula.
This was no long-deliberated policy decision, hashed out among the president, foreign-policy experts and advisers. This was Off-the-Cuff Trump, tossing aside decades of U.S. policy, disregarding what his aides might counsel and, well, winging it.
U.S. presidents for decades have declined to meet with North Korea’s leadership so as not to lend their dictators the prestige of a presidential audience. Granted, that prestige may be tarnished given the current office holder, but it exists nonetheless, and Kim craves it. (And he may get it in spades: the White House hasn’t ruled out hosting him!)
Further, it would be imprudent at best to agree to talks without the promise of North Korean concessions — something the White House understands even its chief occupant does not.
Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee said conditions would have to be met before the meeting took places, something that was not suggested by — and, for all we know, may even be news to — the president.
“The president will not have the meeting without seeing concrete steps and concrete actions take place by North Korea,” she said at Friday’s press conference. “So the president would actually be getting something.”
Granted, it’s better to have the two sides talking concessions than tweeting threats. But there would be greater optimism were this meeting of the, ahem, minds the result of ongoing diplomatic discussion between the two nations, rather than a presidential whim.
House Speaker Ryan’s concern about “unintended consequences” is not limited to the pending tariffs — as Trump’s travel ban, impulsive firing of Comey and too many other decisions have demonstrated.
Whatever the result of the North Korean meeting, if it even comes to pass, the decision to pursue it should have been the result of sober, in-depth study, not presidential dice-rolling.
Improvisation is no way to run a country.