The coronavirus outbreak at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is just one facet of a much deeper presidential malaise.
Nearly everyone remembers the old cliché: If you can’t trust someone to get the little things right, how can you ever count on them to do the big things?
President Donald Trump had better hope that bromide, invoked everywhere from youth sports teams to sales training sessions, doesn’t apply to him.
As his presidency lurches toward a climactic judgment on Nov. 3, the little things lately have rarely gone more pervasively or embarrassingly wrong — at a time when public confidence in Trump’s handling of the big things is hardly robust.
That’s in part because, as his first term comes to a close, the professionals around Trump are not all that professional. It is now the exception in key staff and Cabinet posts to have people whose experience would be commensurate with that of people who have typically held those jobs in previous administrations of both parties. This major weakness has been revealing itself in a barrage of minor errors that summon Casey Stengel’s incredulous question about the 1962 New York Mets: Can’t anybody here play this game?
There have been prominent misspellings in official White House statements (the pharmaceutical company whose treatment Trump took is Regeneron, not Regeron). Trump bungled the name of a well-known Republican senator (that’s James Inhofe, not Imhofe) in a video message. Communications Director Alyssa Farah did much the same in a television interview, repeatedly mispronouncing the name of Trump’s physician (it’s Dr. Sean Conley, with two syllables, not Connelly with three).
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow on Wednesday contradicted each other in public remarks on whether a recuperating, but still possibly infectious, Trump had been in the Oval Office the day before. (Kudlow thought he had, Meadows was apparently right that on that day Trump hadn’t.)
Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s briefings are largely dismissed as mere entertainment by reporters, not a source of reliable information or, on frequent occasions, any information at all. Earlier this month, she didn’t know at her own briefing that presidential counselor Hope Hicks, to whom she had been exposed, had tested positive for the virus. After Farah publicly promised to release the numbers of White House aides infected with coronavirus, a few hours later McEnany said they wouldn’t provide those numbers for “privacy” reasons.
Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, told a university audience on Wednesday that the U.S. would draw down troop levels in Afghanistan to 2,500 by “early next year,” only to be contradicted by Trump a few hours later in a tweet that the U.S. would have all troops out of Afghanistan by Christmas.
What’s been going on in recent days is not an anomaly, but it does represent a new apogee in a trend that has been building for nearly four years. Trump has been waging an internal war within his administration since his first days in office. Often the targets have been people with independent judgment or significant records of achievement before joining the administration.
With few exceptions, Trump has won this war, and now has the team he wants. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory: He finds himself surrounded by people whose résumés typically would not land them in jobs at senior levels of the White House or Cabinet. Never mind the A Team. At this point, even the B Team would represent a significant upgrade.