Vast government conspiracies are fiction, best confined to the X-Files or an Oliver Stone movie. In reality, what seems to be a government conspiracy generally is the result of stupidity, incompetence, inexperience (or all three). The allegations of collusion between Trump and Russia, from what we know so far, may fall into the latter category.
While there is a lot of talk about the allegations, thus far, there is no direct evidence of collusion or conspiracy. The former Directors of the FBI and of National Intelligence, and Democratic and Republican lawmakers who have seen the classified information have all said as much.
What we do know raises suspicion, but doesn’t amount to a smoking gun. Mr. Trump had an inordinate number of people around him with close business ties to Russia. Then there’s the series of meetings between people in Trump’s orbit, the timing of which raise questions, as does the tendency of Team Trump to display a peculiar amnesia about them. The phone calls with Russia’s Ambassador and appearance fees accepted by former National Security Michael T. Flynn from Russian state-sponsored media outlet RT, which Mr. Flynn initially omitted from his financial disclosure form, have raised eyebrows. But, it could all be a mixture of coincidence and a consequence of a uniquely inexperienced administration not aquatinted with international diplomacy or the operations of the Federal government.
Lack of Federal Appointments
Political insiders point to the lack of Presidential appointments as an example of how unprepared the incoming Trump administration was for the task of governing. White House adviser Steve Bannon and Mr. Trump himself have railed against the deep state – embedded liberal career bureaucrats out to undermine President Trump’s agenda who they have claimed are responsible for the Trump-Russia narrative. Given that, you would expect Mr. Trump to populate the bureaucracy with his own people. He hasn’t.
There are 1,212 presidential appointments that require Senate approval, 559 of which are considered key by the Washington Post. Mr. Trump had nominated 64 people for those key positions as of June 6th. Just 39 had been confirmed and were in place. Mr. Trump has only nominated 8.73% of the people he legally can.
This is not a new issue for Mr. Trump. As of early February, the White House reportedly still was vetting appointees. A month before the election, the Hillary Clinton transition team had a target number of appointments, and a list of candidates that it submitted on a weekly basis to be vetted for hundreds of the key positions. Had Clinton won, she would have had a full slate of vetted people that Clinton could immediately nominate on inauguration day.
No One with Significant Executive Branch Experience
People who have served in both Republican and Democrat administrations as far back as Reagan say one of the keys is to have people with prior significant White House experience. Those people know how the federal government works, and have many friends within Congress to help pass the president’s legislative agenda. Mr. Trump has employed few people that meet that description.
The only Trump White House personnel who previously have worked there are Joseph Hagin, deputy chief of staff for operations, Dina Powell, deputy national security advisor, and Michael Anton, spokesman for the National Security Council. Mr. Hagin, who served a similar role in Bush’s administration, is primarily concerned with making the Presidential trains run on time. Ms. Powell worked in the Presidential personnel office. Mr. Anton wrote speeches for Condoleeza Rice when she was Bush’s National Security Advisor. None have previously served in roles that would qualify them as the kind of Washington grandees who are normally tapped to guide a President’s agenda.
Washington insiders privately say the Trump administration needs people with significant White House experience who can take control over the much-reported infighting, shepherd the hiring process, and work with the Hill.
. . . Or With Presidential Legislative Experience
President Trump has struggled to implement his legislative agenda outside of the Senate confirmation of Justice Gorsuch. Trump is not entirely to blame for that. The inability of Speaker Ryan to get his conference in order, and Senate rules that allow Democrats to use the filibuster to check the President’s agenda also play a major part.
But the White House bears some responsibility for the lack of legislative progress. Once again, the lack of depth of Trump’s bench is at least partly to blame. Mr. Trump’s deputy chief of staff for intergovernmental relations is Rick Dearbourn, who has a 25-year congressional career, including stints working for two members of Senate leadership. The President’s chief Hill lobbyist is Marc Short, who worked for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, and in the Republican Conference under Vice President Pence.
Those are impressive credentials. But there is a major difference between working for a senator – even one in leadership – or the conference and being the President’s point person on legislation. They require different skill sets, and there is no time for a learning curve when your job is to have Congress approve the President’s policy and legislative agenda.
The bottom line…
All we do know with any certainty is: Russia attempted to influence the election and Trump and his team maintained a highly unusual level of contact with Russian officials that they have often tried to hide and in some cases have been caught lying about. Yet, it very well may be that Mr. Trump’s contrarian instincts, lack of advisors schooled in Presidential decision-making, and a string of coincidences conspired to make things look worse than they are.