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Somehow, on Valentine’s Day, while he was trying to find a new national security adviser to replace the one he’d just fired, and while he was staring down multiple investigations over potential collusion with Russia, and while he was dealing with the fallout from having conducted missile diplomacy with the Japanese in the public dining room at Mar-a-Lago as if it were one of those party games where everyone got to dress up as a country in World War II … somehow, with all this swirling around him, President Trump managed to lunch with his old friend Chris Christie.
I don’t know what they talked about, exactly, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the opioid crisis, which was the stated reason for the meeting. If Trump’s half as smart as he always says he is, then he offered to send a moving van to Trenton.
Because Trump needs a guy like Christie to come in and grab the wheel of this careening presidency, and he needs it to happen now.
Oh, believe me, I know: Just the mention of Christie is enough to send his legion of critics into feral fits of rage and mockery. He came within inches of an indictment for having presided over the basest kind of political retribution, which ultimately undid both his presidential campaign and his second term as New Jersey’s governor. Even his supporters were stung by how brazenly he swung behind Trump and how small it made him seem.
We wouldn’t even be here were it not for Christie’s vengeful streak. If he hadn’t decided to publicly disembowel Marco Rubio in that last debate in New Hampshire, as payback for a raft of negative ads, Trump would probably be back on the “Apprentice” set right now, ogling the interns.
But whatever else you want to say about Christie (and I’ve always found him to be a more complicated and gifted politician than his detractors can stand to admit), the man knows how to bring focus to a political operation, and how to advance a governing agenda, and how to balance public bluster with backroom pragmatism.
And if there’s anyone on Trump’s senior staff who actually knows how to do any of that, by all means, get to the part of the ship that’s still above water and wave your hands frantically so we can see you.
I’m not saying Reince Priebus isn’t a decent guy in a difficult situation. But Priebus is a Wisconsin political operative who did a creditable job fundraising for the Republican Party. When it comes to running the vast federal government or navigating global alliances, he knows about as much as Omarosa.
Either Priebus deserves credit for assembling the rest of this misfit team or he’s too much of a supplicant to get control over staffing the operation. Whichever it is, he must know by now that he isn’t exactly fielding the A-team.
Kellyanne Conway proved herself to be an elite campaign strategist, for sure, but her descent into “alternative facts” has been painful to watch, and her rebuke from the government ethics office, three weeks into the administration, has to set some kind of record.
Sean Spicer, the press secretary, comes off so hostile and disingenuous that Melissa McCarthy’s impression is actually more sympathetic. Steve Bannon provides a whole lot of hifalutin neo-fascist craziness chaos theory, but that stuff tends to come in handier when you’re fomenting campus revolt than when you’ve got a Russian spy ship menacing the coast of Delaware.
And let’s not leave out Stephen Miller, who not so long ago was a press aide for Michele Bachmann, and who is somehow now in charge of domestic policy (and occasionally presides over national security meetings, just because). In a typical moment from his startlingly bad debut on the Sunday shows last weekend, Miller told CBS’s John Dickerson: “I think to say we’re in control would be a substantial understatement.”
What does that mean, exactly? Are they declaring martial law? Have they mastered telekinesis?
All through the fall campaign, governing Republicans told me that Trump could be a fine president, because he would surround himself with all the smartest and most capable people. Really, they were telling themselves that. They hoped it was true, and so did I.
But that turns out to be the biggest Trumpian illusion of them all, and it’s not hard to see why. Since Trump had never run for even a seat on a condo board before, he didn’t have the kind of longtime, trusted political team that virtually every other president has counted on, for better or worse.
And since the party elite considered Trump’s candidacy a fringy exercise almost until the moment he won the nomination, his campaign mostly attracted fringy talent. And since Trump never really planned to win the fall election, he had no real plan in place to upgrade his entourage with some of the party’s more experienced hands.
So what we have now is basically a renegade campaign team trying to administer and reform the most complex government in human history. And they actually believe their rhetoric — about how lame politicians are, about how useless experience is, about how business is so much harder than governing.
They thought the whole thing would basically run itself. They literally threw Christie’s transition plan into a trash bin. (Um, hey … has that garbage truck come yet? Anybody up for some dumpster diving?)
The whole mini-debacle at Mar-a-Lago last weekend, when Trump and Shinzo Abe conferred on North Korea in full view of dinner guests, would never have happened if anyone sitting in that room had experience in crisis governing. Days of damaging headlines, all of which amounted to very little, could have been avoided by a modicum of expertise.
Instead, Trump finds himself, for the first time in his political life, in a position where he can’t just change the subject with one controversial tweet, and where he couldn’t just ignore the calls for Michael Flynn’s head. The days of being impervious to criticism are over.
If Trump wants his approval ratings to keep sinking, he should definitely stay the course. Or, like the Fonz in those classic episodes of “Happy Days,” he can admit he was wr … wr … wrong. And then he can make it someone else’s problem to fix the mess.
Why force yourself to fire another senior aide every few weeks or months, like a slow bleed? Better to replace poor Priebus now and let Christie deal with the unpleasantness of fixing things. (If there’s one thing Christie doesn’t mind, it’s unpleasantness.)
A chief of staff can elegantly reboot the system in a way a president can’t. A chief of staff can simply say: “I didn’t hire any of these guys, and I’m letting them go.” Done.
Look, it’s not my job to offer Trump advice on his presidency, and it’s not like he’d listen. Maybe it’s true that we’re all better off if the whole experiment craters in the first six months.
But that’s a pretty big risk to take, and if I were Trump, I’d call Christie back today and tell him I need some order and professionalism in the West Wing.
Which, by the way, is a substantial understatement.
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