This is a real sequence of events that have unfolded over the course of the past 72 hours or so:
- On Sunday, Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley went on CBS’s Face the Nation and, relying on White House talking points, announced the US would impose new sanctions on Russia.
- President Donald Trump, who was apparently watching TV, became furious. He hadn’t yet approved the sanctions, and apparently hadn’t seen talking points his own administration had produced, so he immediately demanded to know what Haley was talking about.
- On Monday, the White House announced that Haley was not correct and that sanctions weren’t approved. National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow then told reporters on Tuesday afternoon that Haley had had an episode of “momentary confusion.”
- On Tuesday night, Haley issued a statement blasting Kudlow, saying, “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”
- Kudlow apologized to Haley and clarified in a comment to the New York Times that she wasn’t confused — just out of the loop on a vital policy initiative. “As it turns out, she was basically following what she thought was policy,” Kudlow said. “The policy was changed, and she wasn’t told about it.”
None of this — not one of these things — should have happened. The UN ambassador is one of the most important diplomatic posts in the government; she should not be going out announcing policies that haven’t been fully approved. She should not be corrected by another high-level staffer and then get into a public spat with him where they both end up looking uninformed. And the president should not be hate-watching television news.
“It is bizarre,” says Loren DeJonge Schulman, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “When I was in government, people were deeply conscious of where every senior official was in terms of making [a] policy decision.”
Clearly, the Trump administration is not as tight a ship as the Obama administration (in which Schulman served) or even the Bush administration before it. But this incident isn’t just a matter of bad optics; it speaks to a deep and fundamental dysfunction plaguing the way the Trump administration makes decisions — one that will likely, at some point, lead to a far more serious error.
The Trump administration doesn’t have a functioning policy process
In theory, the White House’s process for deciding on a new policy is clear. The president, in consultation with advisers, figures out what objective they want to accomplish. Cabinet members and their aides come up with concrete policy ideas that could accomplish those objectives and then present them to the president in private meetings. The president picks one of those options, and then the rest of the government implements it.
In practice, things don’t always work that way. Sometimes situations change on the fly, or new information comes to light; presidents must make quick decisions, and sometimes statements get overtaken by events (see Obama’s infamous comment that ISIS was the “JV team” of terrorism).
But in the Trump White House, things almost never seem to work the way they’re supposed to.
Trump doesn’t have a clear vision for what he wants his foreign policy to accomplish, and often seems unfamiliar with the details of major foreign policy issues. He exercises little control over Cabinet members, which means sometimes they move toward policies he doesn’t like and goes on to publicly denounce. And he watches so much TV that aides have a strong incentive to go on television to make their case to the president, which can lead to public disputes over policy.
“It’s horrifying to see a president whose policymaking agenda is set so trivially,” says Paul Musgrave, a scholar of US foreign policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “We all thought that modern White Houses had built elaborate systems of vetting and checking to prevent reactive thoughts from becoming policy, or from disclosing the president’s ideal point without some measure of calculation. But the Trump White House is a glass house.”
Sometimes this isn’t actually that big of a problem. All the people involved get some egg on their face, but everyone moves on. There’s almost always a bigger scandal in Trumpworld.
But the cumulative result of this process is that no one — not in Congress, not in the press, not even in foreign capitals — knows who is speaking for US government, or what policy they’re going to land on.
Signaling is a really important part of foreign policy; if you want, say, North Korea to slow down or shutter its nuclear program, you need to signal in a clear and credible way what the United States is willing to do to make that real. If Pyongyang doesn’t know who in the White House speaks for Trump, or what the US’s North Korea policy actually is, this could lead them to (unintentionally) do something that derails talks or sparks a crisis.
“We’re seeing again a real-life example of what happens when there either is no decision process at the White House,” Schulman says. “Usually it doesn’t matter and just creates a fun Beltway moment. [But] what if, instead of sanctions ... we were talking airstrikes?”
There is a cost to be paid for a profoundly mismanaged foreign policy process. It’s just a question of when the bill comes due.