Elephants in the Room

Our Missing President

Two crises in the past week demanded leadership of the singular sort that only the president can supply. Trump failed on both counts.

US President Donald Trump disembarks from Air Force One upon arrival at Raleigh County Memorial Airport in Beaver, West Virginia, July 24, 2017, as Trump travels to speak at the National Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump disembarks from Air Force One upon arrival at Raleigh County Memorial Airport in Beaver, West Virginia, July 24, 2017, as Trump travels to speak at the National Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

There is a perpetual debate among scholars and commentators about how much the institution of the presidency matters for statecraft and the strength of our republic. Those who would contend that the presidency is less consequential can rightly point to the constitutional constraints placed on the chief executive at America’s founding. These include the two other co-equal branches of the legislative and the judiciary, the enumerated powers granted to Congress and denied to the presidency especially over the writing of laws and the power of the purse, and the early custom (later codified by the 22nd Amendment) that the presidency would be limited to two terms. Then there is the federalist structure of our government, with the 50 states holding jealously to their constitutional prerogatives and limits on the federal government’s reach. Add to these the modern growth of the executive branch and rise of the administrative state, with departments and agencies that operate semi-autonomously and often in either ignorance or even defiance of presidential direction. Taken together, these constitutional and institutional realities point to the relative unimportance of the presidency.

In the case of President Donald Trump, the case for the weak presidency is accentuated by the comparatively favorable character and competence of several of his top officials, such as Chief of Staff John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joe Dunford, and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. How many times since January 20 have we heard the hope that the collective experience and skill of these leaders can keep the ship of state sailing true while mitigating Trump’s deficiencies?

On the other hand, there are weeks like the past one which serve reminder of how essential the presidency still is. Two crises, in North Korea and Charlottesville, demanded leadership of the singular sort that only the president can supply. President Trump failed on both counts.

The slow simmer of the North Korea crisis started to boil over with Pyongyang’s latest intercontinental ballistic missile test and the new intelligence estimate that the Kim regime can now miniaturize a nuclear warhead to fit on a missile delivery system. Trump’s intemperate Twitter feud with North Korea’s propaganda apparatchiks dominated the headlines, but less appreciated was the president’s failure to perform a primary role of the commander-in-chief: articulating and leading America’s North Korea strategy, and aligning his government to implement it.

In recent weeks, the administration’s national security team has quietly been putting together a strategy to confront Pyongyang based on a customary mix of increased economic and military pressure and inducements to diplomacy. This Wall Street Journal op-ed by Mattis and Tillerson lays out the parameters of their plan. Instead of using his presidential pulpit to define and implement that strategy, Trump distorted and undercut it with his juvenile chest-thumping. This almost completely eclipsed the good efforts of Mattis, McMaster, Pompeo, Dunford, and Tillerson to carry out their respective policy lanes. Meanwhile, the White House fulminator-without-portfolio Sebastian Gorka only added to the confusion with his peevish and uninformed sniping at Tillerson.

Trump’s fevered rhetoric also failed in the strategic imperatives with key international audiences. He had the challenging task of simultaneously sending a clear deterrent message to North Korea, admonishing China to quit playing its double-game of propping up the Pyongyang regime while pretending to pressure it, and reassuring Japan and South Korea that the United States would honor its alliance commitments while also avoiding reckless moves that imperil them. Mattis, Tillerson, McMaster, Pompeo, and Dunford all ably played their parts in communicating the relevant messages, but the unhinged presidential megaphone swamped those efforts. Instead, Trump left North Korea violently emboldened, China smugly complacent, and Japan and South Korea fearful and uncertain. The president would do well to recalibrate substantially and soon, and to formulate policy more in the Situation Room and less on Twitter.

Saturday’s dreadful events in Charlottesville revealed Trump’s other presidential failing this past week. What our nation needed was a president to speak with moral clarity in condemning racism and white supremacy, and to promote national unity by appealing to the best of our ideals and historical traditions. Instead, he engaged in calculated equivocation, and was loathe to single out for denunciation those white supremacists who initiated the crisis and whom he counts among his political base. His delayed and reluctant response only deepened our nation’s divisions. (The statement he finally released this afternoon was an improvement, but it was made with evident reluctance and much too late to shape national attitudes. It also raises further questions about why he waited so long).

To those among Trump’s supporters who still defend his vague and vacuous weekend statement that “many sides” were to blame for the Charlottesville unrest, consider the following alternative. Suppose there had been a march in Charlottesville of militant Islamists calling for violent jihad and the imposition of sharia law in America. And that one of them (employing a favored tactic of jihadists) deliberately drove a car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing one and injuring 19. And that the American president merely issued a statement chastising “many sides” for the violence, embracing a moral equivalence between both sides while not even mentioning Islamist terrorism.

You would be outraged, and you would be right to be so. One of President Barack Obama’s signature failings was his doctrinaire refusal to publicly acknowledge the Islamist roots of jihadist terrorism. One of Trump’s signature failings was his doctrinaire refusal to publicly acknowledge the vile racism of his alt-right enthusiasts — and to unambiguously disavow their support for him. (I am happy to see that my fellow conservatives at National Review make a similar point here in their principled editorial, as does the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg here).

In short, this past week served reminder of why the presidency remains a singularly important office, and why temperament, character, and convictions matter as much in a president as do particular issue stances and personnel selections. To our nation’s detriment, on these grounds President Trump failed in both of his tests. He did not act like a president at moments when we needed a president the most. I pray — a word I use literally — that he change course soon and rise to the responsibilities of the office. If not, the office of the presidency will continue to be missing a principled and effective leader.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Will Inboden is Executive Director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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