President Donald Trump is facing a lot of imminent and difficult policy choices: North Korea, tax reform, disaster relief in Puerto Rico and, eventually, the debt ceiling and the budget. There are also additional political challenges: bad poll numbers, the failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, the defeat of a Trump-endorsed candidate in a GOP Senate primary, etc.
Increasingly, however, Trump’s bloody-minded jihad against the NFL must be seen as an attempt to distract from something far more dangerous to Trump: the malfeasance of his Cabinet and White House staff.
Trump loves to recall his presidential campaign, so he should remember that he campaigned on two themes: draining the swamp and Hillary Clinton’s sense of entitlement. His administration was ostensibly going to be above the cozy perquisites of power of previous administrations. Team Trump would swear off the arbitrary application of rules to others but not to themselves. Trump’s inaugural address blasted how “the establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country,” and declared: “January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”
Let’s just review how this populist project has been going in the past two weeks:
• Politico has reported on Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s love affair with chartered planes. This apparently started due to a commercial flight canceled due to inclement weather but grew to be such a habit that Price chartered a plane to fly the 160 miles from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia. Which is nuts. The reports are so bad that Price was forced to acknowledge that “the optics in some of this don’t look good” and suspend the practice. Price’s allergy to commercial travel is so bad that even this White House is distancing itself.
• Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is being investigated for using a government plane to fly to Fort Knox to possibly obtain a primo view of last month’s solar eclipse. Mnuchin also started the paperwork to request a military plane to fly him to Europe for his honeymoon. He also used a government plane to fly from New York back to Washington after Trump’s news conference at Trump Tower. Mnuchin has insisted that he needed these aircraft for secure national security communications. As a former Treasury employee, I’ll just say that I doubt that assertion. Oh, and Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt is facing a similar investigation into his frequent travel back to his home state of Oklahoma.
• We learned from Politico that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, set up a private e-mail account that he used occasionally to conduct official business with other White House officials. We learned from Newsweek that his wife, Ivanka Trump, did the same thing. And then the New York Times reported that at least six White House staffers did something similar. That includes this priceless anecdote: “Most of Mr. Trump’s aides used popular commercial e-mail services like Gmail. Mr. Kushner created a domain, IJKFamily.com, in December to host his family’s personal e-mail.”
So, to sum up: Trump’s Cabinet officers sure seem to be enjoying the perquisites of power, and the Trump White House thinks that the rules do not apply to them in the same way they claimed the rules did not apply to the Clintons.
Writing in the Atlantic, David Graham enunciated a theme that seems increasingly clear about the Trump administration:
“Trump’s aides and advisers seem to have come to believe that the force-field of gravity distortion that protects the president will apply to them too. Whether they are right is less clear. …
“A common knock on the Clintons was that they behaved as though the rules did not apply to them. Already, some members of Trump’s inner circle are acting the same way. Feeling immune to ordinary strictures can be alluring, but as Hillary Clinton learned, sometimes you only discover too late that it’s an illusion.”
During the transition there were fierce debates among journalists about how to cover Trump’s Twitter feed. Politico’s Jack Shafer argued that it was a massive misdirection engine from real stories. Others argued that it would be inappropriate to ignore them. Eight months into his administration, I think the epiphany should be obvious to everyone. Sure, maybe Trump is trying to pick and choose Twitter fights that he thinks he can win, but there is too much malfeasance and incompetency to deflect.
If I were Trump I would be tweeting about the NFL, too. I would be tweeting about anything that distracted people from my administration, which has accomplished nothing populist in its first eight months. But no Twitter account, no matter how provocative, can distract from the entitled, God-awful mess that is Trump’s presidency.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He wrote this for the Washington Post.