The most remarkable of many surprises in Donald Trump’s first week as president was almost invisible — ignored by the media. As a lifetime political scientist, observer and participant, I have never seen a president, well — so humble.
Trump had long believed "enhanced interrogation," sometimes called waterboarding or by some torture, worked and should be utilized to prevent attacks on the U.S. homeland — upsetting the usual suspects.
For one, it is now against the law.
But here was the president swearing in retired Marine Gen. James Mattis as his new Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon, being asked a typical mainstream media gotcha-question: have you changed your mind about torture since your secretary opposes it?
President Trump responded that he still thought the same.
But the chief executive of the U.S. and commander of the free world then modestly added that in spite of his beliefs, he would accede to his secretary since he was now the
"I’m going to rely on him." Has any president ever been so deferential to a subordinate?
Earlier the very same day national security columnist David Ignatius, who is normally quite reasonable for someone at the outrageously anti-Trump Washington Post, criticized Trump for his "thin-skinned, "bombastic," "destructive” behavior, "raging" that torture works, calling his comments "disruptive and destabilizing," even for his own administration much less for the world.
Hours later with one perfect presidential riposte all was well again, at least for now.
If he keeps this up, President Trump might just remake the executive branch as it was intended before it was re-designed by the progressives in the early 20th century.
Until then, the president made the big decisions and, since he put great effort into selecting them, let his cabinet work within very wide bounds to carry out their responsibilities —which were legally granted by Congress to them rather than to a monarchical chief executive.
If the president did not like what they did, he could fire them.
It was called Cabinet government.
This all changed with the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, the earlier brainchild of the progressive Institute for Government Research (later renamed the Brookings Institution), that over time transferred the initial stages of the budgeting process from Congress to the president, initiating the administrative presidency.
A centralized Executive Office of the President was established through its Bureau of the Budget — later Office of Management and Budget — (OMB) whose government experts were to oversee the whole executive branch through control of department budgets, bypassing cabinet heads by dealing directly with agency budget bureaucrats.
While the Act promised more power to presidents, it actually transferred it to its 500, long-serving career experts at OMB speaking in the president’s name but representing the bureaucracy from which they came and whose benefits they enjoy.
I do not know one agency head who did not consider them a major obstacle in administering his office, as opposed to simply setting budgeted totals for operations.
The other new player is the political staff in the White House Office. Once that office had an assistant or two, but now the number is in the hundreds.
All government appointees exist in a Washington, D.C. bubble, but these are hermetically sealed from reality. Its staff works horrendous hours, are totally fixated on the president who can do no wrong, and think they run the world since the only ones who can stand the strain are the exceedingly young who never met a bureaucrat.
The department secretaries and assistant secretaries deal almost with nothing else.
They must have strong resumes to pass Senate scrutiny and they must try to inspire or drive a bureaucracy that is already publicly threatening job disruptions. It is their documents and decisions that are leaked to the media and so they suffer the public embarrassment and possible failure.
The last true Cabinet government was under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, before most staff grandfathers were sentient.
He was a top general and knew how to delegate.
Donald Trump was smart enough not to tell his engineers how to build a hotel but coming from politics and policy, most presidents deal with paper and smiles that cannot fall down and are usually clever enough to blame someone else.
A smart president sets policy and lets his Cabinet run the government.
The White House simply needs a few heavyweights like Stephen Bannon, Reince Priebus, Jared Kushner, Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer to coordinate directly with their matching officials in the agencies through regular sub-Cabinet meetings and eliminate their lower staff.
If President Trump treats his other Cabinet officials as he did Secretary Mattis, he will not only be successful but totally revamp government. Cabinet government is more efficient and responsible, but is even a check on presidents to avoid problems such as Border bureaucrats overreacting to an immigration freeze and its secretary just a few days on the job.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of "America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition and Constitution," and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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