During his first 17 months as president, Donald Trump has grown ever more confident in his fitness for the job — while remaining resolutely unwilling to execute the most basic responsibilities of his office.
This is a significant problem for the United States (and the world, and, quite possibly, humanity). America has weathered non-functioning presidents. Woodrow Wilson spent his final years in the White House incapacitated by a stroke. But Wilson did not make policy while in that enfeebled state — let alone, unilaterally. Decision-making authorities were delegated to his Cabinet.
Trump is not incapacitated by brain damage; but he is debilitated by nigh-superhuman sloth and incuriosity. Fortunately, for much of his first year on the job, the president appeared to be cognizant of his own limitations. Awed by the awesome responsibilities of his new gig, Trump routinely deferred to the expertise of his advisers — allowing the Republican Establishment to dictate his legislative agenda, and the putative “adults” in the West Wing to overrule his instincts on the Iran deal, trade policy, and a variety of other matters.
But then, his tax bill passed — and the first-year jitters passed with it. Now, the president is unilaterally imposing tariffs on Europe and Canada, taking unprecedented meetings with the North Korean leadership, and handing out pardons like candy.
But the president’s newfound assertiveness — and disinterest in his advisers’ counsel — has not been accompanied by any newfound diligence. The leader of the free world still begins his day by binge-watching cable news until 11 a.m.; still spends official meetings nattering on about anything other than the subject at hand (even when said subject is how to ensure that this year’s hurricane season does not result in mass death this time around); and, most critically, still cannot be bothered to learn the pertinent facts about a given situation, before dictating a policy response to it.
One of the president’s chief complaints about H.R. McMaster was (reportedly) that the former national security adviser had the temerity to brief him with “a PowerPoint deck dozens of pages long, filled with text” — rather than “simple, short bullets, or a graphic or timeline.” White House aides have grown so desperate to get the commander-in-chief to ingest the most remedial information about the geopolitical affairs he’s mindlessly disrupting, they’ve whittled the bullet points in his briefing book down to “basically slogans,” one administration source told Axios.
And just in case those slogans prove too wonky or uninteresting, the book provides Trump with a few less demanding sources of information:
“The Book” typically includes briefing sheets about events the president will attend the next day; his schedule for the day, week and month ahead; and a sheaf of policy papers.
• Separately, the press and communications staffs assemble clippings — often positive, to contrast the bad news he may be seeing on cable news.
• “If he reads something in the press, like if he sees it on TV, that grabs his attention,” said a source close to the president.
• The packet can even include screen grabs of cable news chyrons.
The man we’ve authorized to preside over thousands of nuclear warheads gets his information about the world from printed screengrabs of cable-news chyrons.
We are living in some French novelist’s heavy-handed satire of the George W. Bush–era United States. Here’s hoping we don’t die in it.