The Administration

Trump’s chief antagonist is nuance of bureaucracy

Less than two weeks into the Trump presidency and it has been anything but boring with two nationwide protests, a deluge of leaks from White House staffers to the media, and a flurry of executive orders and presidential directives. The media has concluded that the president and his senior aides have fumbled away the political honeymoon consistent with the “first 100 days” of other presidencies. If there is any singular reason for it that rises above the others, it has to be the relative lack of substantive governing experience held by key players in the White House.

At the beginning of the weekend came an executive order placing temporary bans on the admission of refugees, visa holders, and green card holders from seven different countries. The resulting chaos at airports on Saturday was not surprising. People who had valid paperwork allowing them access to the United States discovered upon landing that while they had been in-flight the rules had changed. Department of Homeland Security officials were not provided with sufficient advance notice of the impending executive order and were scrambling throughout the day Saturday to figure out exactly how they were supposed to be implementing the new directive from the White House. Travelers impacted by the executive order were detained and prepped for potential deportation back to the countries from which they had arrived or – in the case of refugees – fled.

{mosads}By Sunday evening, four different rulings by four separate federal district court judges imposed partial stays on President Trump’s “refugee ban.” The judges ordered that none of the individuals who had arrived and been detained could be deported, at least for now (although it appears DHS defied that ban with respect to at least one individual). Those rulings are only the first step in the expected legal fight that will challenge the constitutionality of the Executive Order in and of itself.


Despite having waged his presidential campaign as a businessman who – unlike his politically experienced opponents – understands how to efficiently and competently run a bureaucracy, the media, political and legal fallout of this weekend has raised new concerns that Trump and his advisors are in over their heads. The moving parts that are required to ensure the federal government operates with some measure of coherence and competence require extensive and complex coordination, something that was lacking in this case. 

CNN and other media outlets began reporting Saturday evening that the executive order itself was written almost exclusively within the White House, and without the standard vetting by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel or interagency coordination across the government. Coordination with DHS was disturbingly absent, with Secretary John Kelly only seeing the details of the executive order when it was nearly finalized. 

Senior Advisor Steve Bannon reportedly even overruled DHS with respect to interpreting the scope of the executive order’s application, concluding that green card holders would be subject to the executive order and would only be admitted on a case-by-case basis. It was, in short, a recipe for a logistical and human disaster.

The president and his senior advisors just learned that no matter how easy governing a constitutional republic may seem, the reality is something completely different. Just because something sounds good on paper does not mean it is a worthy idea. It doesn’t mean it will pass legal scrutiny and it doesn’t mean that a behemoth like the federal government can implement it overnight without proper advance coordination and implementation. 

There are details to be ironed out, agency-specific interpretations to be prepared, and advance notices sent out warning travelers so as to avoid calamities like what transpired at airports across the country on Saturday. These details aren’t sexy, and they aren’t what you tend to see in television dramas, but they are the nitty-gritty reality of how a bureaucracy operates. 

Trump may have made a name for himself as a businessman, but he has less command of the nuances of a bureaucracy. He is, as so many warned during the presidential campaign, a salesman and a marketing genius. There is perhaps no better salesman on the planet than the president. What he is not – and what he has never been – is a details-oriented person.

Presidents, however, typically have to be just that, and if they are not they often then rely upon an experienced senior leadership team who knows how to keep the proverbial trains running on time. Trump is surrounded by advisors such as Jared Kushner, Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon, none of whom have substantive experience in government. 

His presidency is just beginning, but Trump would be well advised to learn some critical and humbling lessons from the mess erupting out of his executive order. If he does not adjust his methods, he is going to find just how lonely a place the Oval Office can be for an unpopular chief executive.
Bradley P. Moss is a partner at the Law Office of Mark S. Zaid, P.C., through which he has represented countless individuals (including whistleblowers) serving within the intelligence community, and is deputy executive director of the James Madison Project, through which he has represented media outlets such as Gawker, Daily Caller, and the Daily Beast in FOIA lawsuits against the Bush and Obama administrations.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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