The evidence is clear and persistent. Whatever benefit there may be to electing non-politicians to high public office, the risk is that they face a steep and critical learning curve.
So it is with President Trump. He may have been big league in business, but he is showing he needs seasoning in government, most recently through the Michael Flynn fiasco and the mistake at Mar-a-Lago.
Flynn is the more immediately serious of the two infractions. Trump’s national security adviser, a retired Army lieutenant general, wasn’t universally admired, but he appeared to have the qualifications for the job.
For reasons that remain unexplained, Flynn spoke in late December to the Russian ambassador to the United States about U.S. sanctions against Russia. He then misled Vice President Pence and other top White House officials about the conversation, insisting there was no discussion of substance. Pence repeated the denial earlier this month.
But the truth caught up. The Justice Department warned the White House about Flynn’s deception, cautioning that it could leave him open to blackmail by Russia. Late Monday, he resigned, after less than a month on the job.
It was the right decision following two disastrous ones. But it is important to know why he had that conversation and why he tried to conceal it. Did he speak to the ambassador simply on his own, or was he influenced in some way to have that conversation, and then to dissemble about it? The White House says Trump knew about the deception weeks ago, but if so, why did it wait so long to act?
Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, says it’s “time to move on” from this controversy, but it’s demonstrably not. When the top administration official overseeing national security opens himself to blackmail, critical questions arise.
The other incident, possibly of less immediate concern but auguring trouble, was Trump’s carelessness in conducting sensitive government business in public at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort.
While dining on the club’s terrace with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Saturday, the president and his guests were informed of North Korea’s provocative missile test, which they openly discussed in the unsecure setting.
An onlooker took pictures and posted them on Facebook. Aides gathered over their computers and the president spoke on his cellphone. Staffers used cellphone flashlights to illuminate documents, creating a security risk if any of the phones had been hacked. It’s not significantly different from Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, a foolish decision for which candidate Trump threatened to jail her.
In some ways, this is no surprise. Trump shoots from the hip, often without apparent consideration of consequences. It’s one of the things that many supporters like about him, but it comes with obvious hazards. And in the presidency, he has entered a foreign world for which his business background offers little preparation.
That is hardly unexpected of someone with zero government experience. It was that way in Minnesota and California, after all, when wrestler Jesse Ventura and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger were elected governor. But it’s more dangerous when the subject is national security.
Trump will have to learn quickly if he is to succeed, defined at least in part as keeping the country safe. At a minimum, he needs a better system for selecting and directing top administration officials. He needs to stay close to aides who know how to proceed when the unexpected occurs – as it will, over and over and over – and then to take their advice. This is reality, not reality TV.
Trump must now quickly fill Flynn’s position, looking for someone with the right background, but who is also honest and who has a high degree of common sense. And he needs to tell Americans everything he knows about Flynn’s recklessness.