Lawfare

All the President’s Men of the Year

Donald Trump is pining for Time magazine’s recognition, but he has competition in his own White House.

Donald Trump holds a copy of Time Magazine outside the John Wayne Birthplace Museum in Winterset, Iowa, on Jan. 19, 2016. (Aron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)
Donald Trump holds a copy of Time Magazine outside the John Wayne Birthplace Museum in Winterset, Iowa, on Jan. 19, 2016. (Aron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

It’s that time of year, and U.S. President Donald Trump has returned to his perennial obsession: Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Aglow with gratitude following the Thanksgiving holiday, the president tweeted that “Time Magazine called to say that I was PROBABLY going to be named ‘Man (Person) of the Year,’ like last year, but I would have to agree to an interview and a major photo shoot. I said probably is no good and took a pass. Thanks anyway!” Time, for its part, disputes the assertion.

Trump’s fixation with Time magazine covers is long-standing; he even hung fake Time covers featuring his face at his hotels. But being named Person of the Year is actually a somewhat dubious honor. Time selects the individual who has “for better or worse” most influenced the events of the year. So Adolf Hitler received the distinction in 1938. And Trump has actually been named Person of the Year before — last year, in fact. But it appears that, despite having finally achieved this goal, the commander in chief remains unsatisfied.

The trouble for Trump this year is that there’s real competition — not just from Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping, but also from Trump’s own crew. Trump has, after all, overseen an administration chock-full of astonishing, if untraditional accomplishments by a range of actors, any of whom Time could plausibly select over him. Trump obviously hates being outshined by his subordinates, but that’s inevitable when you hire “the best people.”

If the powers that be at Time are reading, here’s a list of the top 10 candidates for 2017 Person of the Year from inside Trump World:

#10—Steve Bannon: It’s hard to point to a single tangible achievement from Bannon’s eight months in the White House. He oversaw the politically and legally disastrous travel ban. He managed to get himself appointed and then promptly removed from the Principals Committee of the National Security Council. His Strategic Initiatives Group — purportedly a shadow NSC — appears to have accomplished little beyond annoying the actual national security advisor, H.R. McMaster. And he got himself fired with relative dispatch. Bannon’s latest triumph is imperiling a Republican Senate seat in deep-red Alabama by pushing an accused child molester — who probably didn’t need his help anyway — to the party’s nomination. And yet Bannon has somehow spun this series of failures into a widespread perception that he is Darth Vader incarnate — perhaps because he keeps saying it. Rarely has so much incompetent bumbling seemed to so many like an evil genius pulling the strings. In terms of his PR prowess, color us impressed.

#9—Ivanka Trump: A strategic mastermind, Ivanka is acutely aware she has finite political capital with which to change her father’s mind. She must be extremely careful to not squander it. She was heartbroken after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against Syrians, but wisely chose to accede to her dad’s strategy of empty signaling. Despite her fervent wishes, she couldn’t waste her influence to convince Trump not to withdraw from the Paris climate accords or to not impulsively ban transgender troops from serving in the military. Ivanka Trump truly is the General George McClellan of our day. McClellan famously wouldn’t use his army, and Ivanka cannot spend down her good influence — by using it. When the better future opportunity arises, we’ll surely thank her. No need to wait until then, however. Ivanka’s restraint alone — unique in the Trump world — qualifies her for consideration by Time.

#8—Mike Pence: A pioneer of gender studies, the vice president of the United States shows up in the news most often these days in connection with the “Pence rule.” At a time the nation is convulsed with talk of sexual assault and harassment, the man has figured it all out and given us a simple path to keeping everyone safe and all reputations intact: Act as if all girls have cooties.

#7—Michael Flynn: Flynn might have colluded with Russia, and he might have plotted a kidnapping. But one thing’s for sure: Flynn set a big-league record this year. Serving only 24 days as national security advisor is an accomplishment unlikely to ever be matched in our lifetimes.

#6—Jared Kushner: The president’s son-in-law has pulled off a series of astonishing feats over the course of his short career. The jewel of his family’s real estate empire is more than a billion dollars in debt, and he managed to transform an influential newspaper into a little-noticed blog. Moving that magic touch into government, he has spent the last few months shrinking an initially sprawling White House portfolio, which once included a wide range of goals including addressing China policy, modernizing federal IT systems, solving the opioid crisis, and bringing peace to the Middle East. If being the living embodiment of the old joke that the best way to make a small fortune is to start with a large one counts for anything, Kushner is a shoo-in for Person of the Year.

#5—Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III: Sessions deserves the honor for sheer perseverance. He has proved this year that there is simply no indignity, no insult, no humiliation he will not bear in his efforts to return to President Trump’s good graces. Of course, the more he pursues Trump’s praise, the more the president appears to hate him and publicly question the attorney general’s competence and worth. Yet Sessions’s devotion remains inspiring. The heart wants what it wants — even when “he’s just not that into you.”

#4—Ty Cobb: Trump’s lawyer already has a lock on Time’s lesser-known Mustache of the Year award. But he is also a contender this year for the big prize because of his unprecedented crusade for transparency in legal practice. From sending bizarre, late-night, on-the-record emails to journalists, to engaging every prankster who writes to him, to holding meetings about privileged client matters in public within earshot of New York Times reporters, to confidently predicting the end of the Mueller investigation to anyone who will listen, Cobb has offered the public an unparalleled look inside the inner thinking of the Trump legal team. The Freedom of Information Act does not apply to the White House. It turns out, as long as the president has Cobb, the public doesn’t need it.

#3—Rex Tillerson: Presidents stretching back to Franklin Roosevelt have struggled to get the independent-minded career officials of the State Department to effectuate the will of the White House. Tillerson has come up with an ingenious solution to the problem: burn the whole thing down. In a dangerous world, the former ExxonMobil CEO’s top — and seemingly only — priority has been a series of internal reorganizations that amount to a full-on war against his own department. The agency has effectively eliminated core functions in matters ranging from democracy promotion to, well, diplomacy. And as a result, foreign service officers are resigning in droves. In 10 short months, Tillerson went from being poised to be the State Department’s savior to being the most hated person in Foggy Bottom. He deserves real credit for this conceptual breakthrough, which will profoundly affect the world for years to come.

#2—Kellyanne Conway: Between inventing the Bowling Green Massacre and coining the phrase “alternative facts,” Conway has this year set an altogether new standard for lying on behalf of the president. Yes, some commentators contend that by this criterion, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her predecessor, Sean Spicer, are dark horse candidates as well. But Conway is playing in a different league; she’s playing three-dimensional chess while Spicer and Sanders are still playing checkers. They are mere shadows of Conway’s brazen disregard for the truth, which will shape for a generation what presidential representatives believe it is acceptable to say on national television.

#1—and our nominee for Time’s Person of the Year—Sergey Kislyak: Ok, so he’s not technically a part of the Trump administration. In fact, as Trump might say, “a lot of people are saying” that Trump is part of the Kislyak administration. But, man, was the former Russian ambassador to Washington good at his job! Only the very finest diplomat — the kind Tillerson is busy purging from our own State Department — could come to the United States and so masterfully play the very weakest of hands. Kislyak’s tenure in D.C. was jam-packed with compromising meetings with everyone in Trump world, though no one seems to remember them. He got President Trump himself to dish on sensitive Israeli intelligence programs in the Oval Office. He left Washington with a president in the White House who to this day won’t say a bad word about Kislyak’s boss, Vladimir Putin. Who else has done so much to shape a presidential administration, and all without leaving a trace?

Susan Hennessey is managing editor of Lawfare.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare.

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