Governing By Impulse

“….Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.”  President Donald Trump’s tweet of January 6, 2018.

“Being, like, really smart,” means, for Donald Trump, trusting his impulses and not listening to others. A myriad of presidential decisions — from nominations for high government positions to important policy initiatives — have resulted from the president relying on his gut instincts. Trump often announces his decisions on Twitter after consulting Sean Hannity or other sycophants during late night calls or watching favorite TV shows such as “Fox & Friends.”

Two recent presidential actions demonstrate the pitfalls of governing by impulse: The hasty decision to nominate — by tweet — Dr. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, to run the mammoth and troubled Department of Veterans Affairs and the surprise announcement that the president was prepared to sit down and talk face-to-face with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, often called “Little Rocket Man” by the president.

Jackson wisely withdrew his nomination, but not before a series of revelations and accusations surfaced embarrassing to the Navy admiral and the president. Trump selected Jackson to head the sprawling V.A. — it has about 365,000 employees, making it the second biggest federal employer after the Defense Department — despite the White House physician’s lack of managerial experience. Embarrassments mounted as Jackson’s appointment neared Senate consideration, with allegations that Jackson drank on the job, handed out prescription drugs without a patient history (he was known to some as “the candyman”), wrote prescriptions for himself, and contributed to a hostile work environment.

White House physician Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson speaks at the press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 16, 2018, on President Trump’s health.

Jackson has been the White House physician since 2006, serving Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama before becoming Trump’s physician. But, competence as a physician probably did not enter into Trump’s calculations when he named Jackson to head the V.A. Instead, all reports indicate that Trump chose Jackson because the admiral delivered a glowing report on Trump’s health— on television, no less, a medium where Trump could see the good doctor perform. Jackson reported that Trump’s Body Mass Index — the ratio of weight to height — placed the president a suspicious one-tenth of a point below obese. Some doubted the accuracy of Trump’s reported height and/or weight, and many were taken aback by Jackson’s gushing comments that the president’s genes were so good that if he ate better he might live to 200. Jackson also testified to Trump’s mental acuity after giving the president a cognitive test for signs of dementia.

Trump-the-narcissist responds to flattery, and while there is no reason to suspect that Jackson had ulterior motives in stroking the president’s ego, Jackson’s performance worked. Trump evidently was impressed, and chose the Navy physician to run the V.A. Reports also indicate that Trump enjoyed Jackson’s company on trips. Jackson clearly caught the president’s attention, hence Jackson’s appointment by the narcissist. What Jackson’s nomination lacked was any traditional vetting. The office that normally vets White House appointments is itself understaffed and populated with inexperienced employees. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un

Trump has proven just as impulsive when conducting foreign affairs. The decision to sit down for talks on nuclear weapons with North Korea’s Kim surprised most observers, but it may be a case of Trump responding — perhaps hastily — to Kim’s recent “charm” offensive. The North Korean dictator recently traveled to China — his first trip outside North Korea in years — and met with South Korea’s leader. Most importantly, Kim invited Trump to a summit meeting. 

Trump said yes because Kim says he is “committed to denuclearization.” No one knows what Kim means by that, but chances are excellent that Kim’s definition will not satisfy the United States. At least, it will not satisfy the traditional American definition of a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons. Trump’s agreement to talk to Kim gives the North Korean leader what his grandfather and father wanted before him: U.S. recognition of his regime as a major player on the world stage. Trump’s decision to talk means that what previously had been a precondition for negotiation — North Korea surrendering its nuclear weapons — now has become the goal of the talks. This is a major softening of the decades-old American position on North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons. 

National Security Adviser John Bolton

Trump accepted the invitation with little input from the experts on North Korea within and without the administration. He previously criticized former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for trying to negotiate with Kim, then fired Tillerson while agreeing to talk to Kim. In Tillerson’s place he appointed Mike Pompeo, a foreign affairs hardliner, and named John Bolton as his new National Security Adviser. Bolton’s policy on North Korea calls for a preemptive first strike to rid that nation of nuclear weapons. Not only is this all rather confusing, but, an agreement to sit down with Kim before lower level negotiators meet means that if the direct face-to-face talks fail (a good possibility), there is no further recourse.

Winston Churchill was right when he said, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war” (it usually is quoted erroneously as “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war”). Trump’s decision to talk to Kim, if it happens (a big if), is preferable to Bolton’s bombing strategy, but the risks are great and demonstrate the problems of conducting foreign policy by instinct. Will Trump even agree to sit down for a briefing to learn what Kim means by denuclearization? Or will he go into the talks cold, trusting his gut? Smart money bets on the latter. And doing that, like impulsively appointing Admiral Ronny Jackson, is not “like, really smart.”

Posted April 27, 2018



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