Donald Trump is his administration's own worst enemy – Washington Post


President Trump gestures while attending a “celebration of military mothers” at the White House on May 12. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Eight months after he was sworn in, George W. Bush faced the most significant crisis posed to any president since World War II. After the tumultuous 2000 election, Bush’s first few months in office were quieter — not without drama and tension. A spy plane was forced to land in China after a collision, prompting an international incident. A Republican senator flipped to independent, throwing control of the Senate to the Democrats. Tensions erupted at a Group of Eight summit. But nothing that happened during those first few months was even close to the scale of what unfolded the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. From that moment on, his presidency changed — as did the focus of the presidency itself, through today.

President Trump’s first four months in office (a benchmark he hits Saturday) have been saturated with public relations crises that have tested his administration’s ability to respond — and tested its cohesion. Unlike the early crises of the Bush administration, though, what Trump has faced has almost uniformly been a function of missteps by the administration itself. The often-clumsy responses, not infrequently made worse by the president himself, raise the question of how the White House would handle a 9/11-level crisis — or even something significantly less dramatic.

To emphasize the point, here are the crises that have so far loomed over the Trump administration, listed broadly in chronological order.

Investigations into Russian interference in the election

Was this the administration’s fault? Probably not.

The overarching concern of Trump’s time in office so far has been the investigations into how and when Russia tried to influence the 2016 presidential election — and if Trump campaign staffers may have secretly helped that effort. Investigations are underway in the House and Senate after an initial report from intelligence agencies suggested that Russia hoped to influence the election for Trump. The FBI began an investigation into the subject in July 2016  that continues.

For Trump, these investigations have spurred endless irritated tweets — and spun off several other crises. That said, there’s no public evidence that anyone is responsible for these investigations beyond the Russians themselves.

Eroded relationships with foreign leaders

Was this the administration’s fault? Yes.

Shortly after Trump took office, news reports emerged that Trump’s initial conversations with core American allies had not gone well. There was the call with the prime minister of Australia that involved Trump complaining about a refugee resettlement agreement. He reportedly said he’d consider sending troops to Mexico, and seemingly snubbed German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The raid in Yemen

Was this the administration’s fault? Yes.

In late January, Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens was killed during a raid on an al-Qaeda compound in Yemen, along with a 14 hostile fighters and more than a dozen civilians.

The raid was the subject of a lot of criticism, including that the administration had not been sufficiently cautious in moving forward with the operation. Trump defended his actions vehemently, including during his joint address to Congress. But in late February, he pinned the blame for the action on military leaders who, he said, “lost Ryan.”

Trump’s attempted ban on immigration

Was this the administration’s fault? Yes.

The Trump administration’s attempt to curtail immigration from several Middle Eastern countries was rolled out quickly and created a swarm of problems for the administration.

In brief:

• Courts on multiple occasions rejected both the original immigration ban and a slightly amended version.

• The decisions rejecting the bans often cited comments from people within the administration or close to it to demonstrate that the goal was to bar Muslims in particular.

• Acting attorney general Sally Yates refused to defend the ban, leading to her firing.

• Implementation led to the deportations of a number of people and included people who held permanent legal resident status.

• The ban spawned massive protests at airports across the country.

As it stands, the bans are still on hold.

The resignation of Michael Flynn

Was this the administration’s fault? Yes.

Michael Flynn was one of the spinoff crises from the investigation into Russian meddling. His conversations with the ambassador to Russia during the Trump transition period were picked up by the FBI. When details of those calls became public, it became obvious that Vice President Pence’s representation of what was said wasn’t accurate. Flynn was forced to resign 18 days after the White House was first informed of the information that the FBI had learned.

Open-air discussions with the prime minister of Japan

Was this the administration’s fault? Yes.

When North Korea launched a missile at the same moment Trump was meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the two world leaders huddled for a brief discussion of how they would respond. The problem? The huddle was in the middle of the dining room at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

The administration repeatedly insisted that no classified information was shared in that space and that the discussions only dealt with the logistics of holding a news conference.

Revelations that Jeff Sessions misled the Senate

Was this the administration’s fault? Yes.

During his testimony before the Senate as part of his confirmation hearing to serve as attorney general, Sessions says he did not have any communication with anyone from the Russian government during the campaign, a claim he later reiterates in written responses to a senator’s inquiry.

As it turns out, he had, meeting on two occasions with the Russian ambassador. Sessions ultimately recused himself from any investigations into Russia — with at least one big caveat.

Accusations of wiretapping

Was this the administration’s fault? Yes.

Trump was frustrated by the attention paid to Sessions’s comments shortly after his well-received joint speech to Congress. The following Saturday, he lashed out at his predecessor on Twitter, accusing Barack Obama of having wiretapped Trump Tower before the election.

Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017

Over the weeks that followed, this, too, spurred a number of other problems for the administration as Trump tried to retroactively justify his comments. Among those problems:

• Press secretary Sean Spicer echoed a Fox News commentator who suggested that British intelligence had been tasked with the wiretapping, prompting an unusual rebuke from the Brits.

• Rep Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) claimed to have intelligence that bolstered Trump’s revised claims of having staffers under investigation — intelligence that was ultimately linked back to the White House. Nunes was forced to recuse himself from the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia.

Syria’s chemical weapons attack

Was this the administration’s fault? No.

The one crisis for which Trump received broad praise was his decision to respond to a chemical weapons attack in Syria with a guided-missile strike on an air base controlled by that country’s government.

The firing of FBI Director James B. Comey

Was this the administration’s fault? Yes.

Last week, the administration suddenly announced that FBI Director James B. Comey had been removed from his post. At first, Trump spokesmen said that this was a function of a recommendation from a deputy attorney general approved by Sessions. This is the caveat mentioned above: As director, Comey was in charge of the FBI’s Russia investigation, meaning that Sessions having an active hand in ousting him is somewhat questionable.

But as it turns out, Sessions’s role was likely perfunctory. Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt last week that a key motivation for ousting Comey was his frustration with the ongoing investigation, and that he had planned to fire Comey regardless of what the deputy attorney general said.

Trump’s discussion of classified information with Russian officials

Was this the administration’s fault? Yes.

The Post’s report that Trump had inadvertently exposed information provided to the U.S. by an ally is the crisis of the moment at the White House. Trump’s Tuesday morning tweets seem to have undercut nuanced responses offered by the administration on Monday.

Bear in mind, the list above doesn’t include lesser controversies that have themselves occupied the White House’s time.

The attendance at the inauguration.Trump’s fault. This was Trump’s first big obsession, raised during a speech at the CIA in front of a memorial to fallen intelligence officers. It also resulted in an impromptu first news conference in which Spicer excoriated the media for unfairly diminishing the number of attendees at the inauguration — though those reports were accurate.

Suggestions that massive voter fraud affected the 2016 election.Trump’s fault. In an interview in January, Trump reiterated his baseless claim that millions of people had voted illegally in 2016.

Attacking the news media as an enemy of the American people.Trump’s fault.

To wit:

The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017

Questions about the separation of his business interests and his presidential duties.Trump’s fault. One of the ongoing questions hanging over Trump’s presidency is the extent to which he’s separated his new position from his position as head of the Trump Organization. Administration staffers, including adviser Kellyanne Conway and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, have endorsed Trump-brand products in their official capacities. The State Department did as well, however briefly.

See also:

The time Trump has spent away from the White House.Trump’s fault. Trump’s visited a Trump-branded property on each of the past 15 weekends — every weekend from February on. That means a lot of press attention to his properties and at least some government spending at those properties.

Trump impugns Sweden.Trump’s fault. During a rally in Florida, Trump warned people to pay attention to the threat of terrorism, including what had happened “last night in Sweden.” Nothing had happened. He later clarified that he was referring to something he saw on Fox News the previous day.

Embrace of the Turkish referendum.Trump’s fault. After a coup attempt in that country last year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for overhauling the country’s constitution to give himself more expansive — and near-authoritarian — powers. In a vote earlier this year, those changes were approved.

Many Western nations criticized the election, as did the State Department. Trump didn’t.

Any number of erroneous tweets.Trump’s fault.

For example, this one:

122 vicious prisoners, released by the Obama Administration from Gitmo, have returned to the battlefield. Just another terrible decision!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 7, 2017

Trump tweeted this after seeing a Fox News report, but his figures are wrong. Most of those 122 prisoners were released under Bush.

Even the most ardent Trump defender will admit that any number of the items on this list were both problems for the White House and avoidable. Taken on the whole, though, the list above encompasses days’ worth of distractions for a president who won election based on the promise that he would quickly solve the country’s many problems. Had the administration not had to clean up messes it created or made worse, where would it find itself today?

To the introductory point: If the administration can’t help but make its own job harder, what will happen if and when a substantial external crisis arises?

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