When Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced in January that then-President-elect Trump had asked him to chair a committee on vaccines, health-care professionals and other people who don’t enjoy watching their children contract measles went nuts. The frenzied reaction was certainly justifiable: Kennedy is a full-on conspiracy theorist who, like the president, has long believed that vaccines are linked to autism and other disorders, despite all evidence to the contrary. The prospect of Kennedy chairing a committee devoted to dangerous, tinfoil-hat medical theories was another sign that the Obama administration’s judicious approach was about to give way to a new age of ignorant darkness.
But on Monday, the health website Stat News reported that, more than seven months later, the promised committee has not materialized. “I’ve had no discussions specifically about the vaccine safety commission, probably since February,” Kennedy told the site. “You’d have to ask the White House. It may be that it’s evolved.” Kennedy, the story reports, has met with various pro-vaccine health officials in the last few months, but only in a “listening tour” capacity. (The fact that Trump’s picks for head of the Centers for Disease Control and surgeon general believe in vaccines counts as surprising but welcome news in this administration.)
The RFK Jr. story illustrates at least two important truths.
The second truth is that the Executive branch of the federal government is so inept that it’s best to give it the opposite of the benefit of the doubt on any policy objectives.
“Malevolence tempered by incompetence,” Benjamin Wittes’s now-famous explication of the Trump administration’s modus operandi, is still as applicable as it was during the earliest days of the administration. Examples of aborted, curtailed, or mangled executive policy abound: the disastrously executed travel ban, which inspired Wittes’s phrasing, the promised yet thus-far-nonexistent trade war with China, the still-in-place Iran deal — for now, anyway — and a host of other broken promises. (It’s true that Trump officials never confirmed that the president had asked Kennedy Jr. to chair the vaccine commission, but it’s hard not to believe a conversation took place.)
Trump’s euphemistically named Commission on Electoral Integrity may yet do serious damage, and it has already inspired some people to stop casting ballots. But it has also been plagued by the almost comical level of chaos that has been a hallmark of the West Wing since January 20.
The most tangible damage to the country isn’t being committed at the White House, but at the agency level, where Trump managed to nominate some brutally efficient ideologues along with amateurish characters like Ben Carson. Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA, is rolling back environmental regulations at a brisk pace, and mostly in secret. Tom Price, the secretary of Health and Human Services, is an anti-Obamacare propaganda machine whose refusal to carry out the law effectively has led to costly uncertainty. John Kelly, before becoming chief of staff, led a depressingly effective immigration crackdown at the Department of Homeland Security. And, as Alec MacGillis reports, Carson’s Department of Housing and Urban Development is turning into a case study of neglect.
Just on Monday, the Interior Department canceled a study on the health risks of mountaintop coal-mining, an example of the little-noticed but consequential actions that federal agencies carry out while most people are focused on the presidential outrage of the day.
With Obamacare repeal seemingly dead in Congress and other major legislation looking increasingly unlikely to pass this year, it’s the agencies, not the Executive branch, that can be counted on to most successfully execute the Trump agenda. An ineffective White House riven by upheaval doesn’t quite count as good news, but it’s a reminder that, if a disciplined version of Trump existed, things could be much worse.