The Reality Show President and His Acting Cabinet

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President Donald Trump listens during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House. 

Anonymous sources inside the executive branch, cited in numerous news reports, are painting a picture of a White House ruled by tantrum. Consequently, President Donald J. Trump finds himself increasingly abandoned by the few members of his cabinet and a coterie of aides who possessed credibility in the world beyond Trumpland. Additionally, three cabinet agencies are now run by acting chiefs—people who have not been confirmed by the Senate to serve in their current roles—and two others in cabinet-level positions are also serving in the “acting” capacity.

In case you weren’t already made dizzy by the events of the week leading up to Christmas—the government shutdown, the sudden announcement of the withdrawal of troops from Syria, the exit protest of James Mattis from his role as secretary of defense, the tanking of the stock market—President Donald J. Trump threw one more tantrum just ahead of the holiday, pushing Mattis out of his post immediately and naming an acting defense secretary. (Mattis had set his resignation date for February 28, so he could be part of an orderly transition, especially given the sudden order for a drawdown in Syria.)

At issue was Mattis’s searing letter of resignation—in which he made no secret of the fact that he thought the president’s recent decisions on defense priorities were wrongheaded—and the attention in received in the news media.

But Mattis was hardly the only cabinet secretary in the president’s sights. Consider poor Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, who was apparently so battered by the president’s criticism over the sorry state of the stock market that, in what he intended as a move to reassure the markets, went about calling the heads of banks to inquire of their ability to meet the demands of borrowers. On Christmas Eve, we learned how reassured the markets felt: The three major U.S. indices shed more than 2 percent of their value that day. 

Trump (via Tweet, natch) blamed Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, for the market downturn because of the Fed chair’s interest rate hike, however incremental in scope. And Trump picked Powell at Mnuchin’s urging. An anonymously sourced report alleged that Trump was asking advisors if he could fire Powell, prompting Mnuchin to tweet that the president said he had no intention of doing so. As Mnuchin and his family vacation in Mexico, a report in The Washington Post features an unnamed official all but laying odds on how much longer Mnuchin will serve in his post. In addition to an acting secretary of defense, an acting interior secretary, an acting chief of staff, and an acting attorney general, we could soon have an acting treasury secretary pinch-hitting at an economically and politically unstable moment, here and throughout the world. From the report by Damian Paletta and Josh Hawsey in The Washington Post:

Trump has been obsessed with the stock market’s performance, asking aides and advisers what could turn the trend around. He has, for now, resorted to blaming publicly and privately the government’s top economic figures. One senior administration official said Powell was “not quite at Jeff Sessions level but is getting close,” referring to the former attorney general who was frequently berated and second-guessed by the president.

So that was an engaging bit of drama, right? Almost enough to distract you from the fact that with the naming of former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan as acting secretary of defense, nearly half of Trump’s cabinet these days comprises chiefs whose titles include the word “acting”—which used to mean that these appointments are stopgaps until such time as a permanent successor can be named and confirmed. While that may remain true with the appointment of Matthew Whitaker to the post of acting attorney general (William Barr has been nominated to the permanent post), the rest of the “acting” cast could drift along in that status for months. For those positions that require Senate confirmation, this seems like a bit of a constitutional stretch. Imagine, then, that Mnuchin gets the ax, and an acting treasury secretary is named. Oh, yeah, the markets are gonna just love that.

Beyond the significant issue of the chaos Trump has created with his cabinet of unconfirmed yes-men, there’s a constitutional one. The Senate is being deprived of its role to advise and consent. Given this president’s proven disdain for the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law—just look at his defiance of U.S. law on asylum claims—this is no small thing. It amounts to a seizure of power from the legislative branch.

As he made his earlier-than-planned exit from the Defense Department this week, Mattis sent a brief farewell message to the troops and Pentagon staff that implicitly called on them to defy unconstitutional orders. Quoting a telegram sent by President Abraham Lincoln to General Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War, Mattis wrote, “‘Let nothing which is transpiring, change, hinder, or delay your military movements, or plans.’” He continued: “I am confident that each of you remains undistracted from our sworn mission to support and defend the Constitution while protecting our way of life.”

That Mattis should deem such a message to be necessary speaks to an existential threat to American democracy. Its name is Trump, who seeks to refashion the presidency as a monarchy. In a government of yes-men and sycophants, the lunatic is king.

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