The Tower of Babel

After its disorganized entrance into office, the new government will need to improvise. Though Barack Obama’s last press conference was benign, he weighed his words: “[Being president of the United States] is a job of such magnitude that you can’t do it by yourself.” He added that the new president will no doubt need to rely on his team to deal with complex issues.

Decisions will be made in the West Wing, with Donald Trump, of course, and especially with his advisers.

On Friday, the United States turned the page on an intellectual president who called upon a plurality of advisers and let them debate; he tackled issues by considering their complexity during a sometimes (too) long process, and refused to throw himself into the fray of domestic politics and haggling with Congress.

The transition process was completed on Friday with the transfer of power, which confirmed an unsettling feeling: Trump hadn’t planned to occupy the White House any more than George W. Bush had planned to invade Iraq. You can’t start with a plan to bring a cable news network into the Oval Office within the first 24 hours.


The Trump team had to improvise and could only deploy beachheads in various departments (536 people), as it couldn’t replace 4,000 White House staffers. In crucial areas like national security, the Trump team decided to keep more than 50 key personnel from the Obama administration, such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work and Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Nicholas Rasmussen.

Improvisation was evident during Senate hearings for cabinet members, which also revealed the incoming government’s incoherence. It’s how Betsy DeVos could justify the presence of guns in Wyoming schools because of grizzlies, and how she didn’t know anything about the program for children with learning disabilities in public schools; and it’s why Rex Tillerson couldn’t answer Sen. Marco Rubio’s questions about the situation in the Philippines or Iran’s nuclear program.

The hearings also demonstrated the ideological gulf among cabinet members, and the dissonance between the president’s new team and the Republican Party. But significant tension also exists between the “secretaries” and advisers in the West Wing.

Some unfilled Pentagon positions are behind the disagreement between James Mattis, who was confirmed by the Senate a few days ago, and Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner on the advisory team. It’s hard to believe that economist Peter Navarro, head of the National Trade Council, won’t butt heads with the billionaires’ club, even though the latter appointees barely have any more government experience than the president they’re serving.

’We’re Going to Be OK’

“We’re going to be OK,” Obama said last Wednesday. But if one crisis follows another, the government could sink within a deleterious environment. U.S. politics, by their very nature, are unpredictable. New and different enemies appear one after the other; the distinction between foreign and domestic politics is sometimes blurred; issues can become increasingly volatile.

A president can react to unforeseen situations by depending on the intuition and experience of seasoned advisers, and by using a real decision-making process that takes different opinions into account.

In 1962, Kennedy chose Khrushchev’s informal channels rather than official ones during the Cuban Missile Crisis, barely avoiding a nuclear showdown. On that note, scientific studies show that a president’s personality and administrative style are important factors.

Two Consequences

There are two consequences to this institutional cacophony. Policies may, particularly during crises, be completely improvised, and advisers may fight each other when faced with a narcissistic, centralizing president. Some may leave and never look back, while others become omnipotent.

Because some can’t have their voices heard at the top and show the cabinet the complexity of an issue, the bureaucratic Tower of Babel can find other outlets. The Washington Post, by reorganizing its team, and The New York Times, by devoting a page of its website to secure communications with its reporters, have seized the opportunity.

Cast aside by an agitator-in-chief while they are still investigating his election, the FBI and CIA will offer neither allegiance nor loyalty, much like during the Nixon years. The tweeting government will react to the undisciplined government’s leaks.

About this publication

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply