Trump will have a hard time draining the swamp

Published 11:28 am Saturday, November 19, 2016

by John Micek

The internet justifiably lost its collective mind this week with the news that President-elect Donald Trump had appointed Stephen K. Bannon, a leading voice of white nationalism, to a senior White House position, seemingly dashing hopes that the populist billionaire would strike a more conciliatory tone in office than he had on the campaign trail.

But even as civil rights groups charged that Bannon, the former top executive to the alt-right site Breitbart News, was in position to whisper racist, anti-Semitic and globally destabilizing views into the ear of the most powerful man on Earth, some slender hope also emerged that one of the oldest forces in Washington might align to counter it:

Namely, the Capitol’s tendency toward inertia.

With his election last Tuesday, Trump, 70, became the first man to win the White House without ever having served in elected office or the military.

And while his outsider status thrilled supporters, it presents a genuine challenge as Trump scrambles to fill the roughly 4,000 appointed vacancies needed to keep the government running after President Barack Obama leaves office in January.

That means that Trump, who does not have the same extensive network of contacts within government that Hillary Clinton would have boasted had she won election, will likely have to turn to the very establishment figures he denounced on the campaign trail.

“To get Republican candidates with relevant executive branch experience,” Trump will have to “choose former Bush administration officials,” Noah Feldman, a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University, wrote in a piece for Bloomberg View this week.

As a result, “Trump’s presidential agenda is therefore likely to be filtered through mainstream Republican personnel,” Feldman observed.

And those officials are, by and large, more moderate than their likely boss, throwing into question whether Trump will be able to fulfill some of his key campaign promises – like building a wall and getting tough with China on trade.

“No Republican whose first name wasn’t George and whose last name wasn’t Bush has been president in an astonishing 28 years,” Feldman wrote. “That means any Trump appointee who held a prior Republican political appointment basically had to have worked for Bush as a matter of mathematics and longevity.”

At this early stage, it’s clear that Trump is rewarding loyalists with plum administration appointments.

This week, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani emerged as a leading contender for secretary of state, The New York Times reported.

The potential for global catastrophe, of course, seems limitless with the fiery and combative Giuliani at the negotiating table.

But that’s where Feldman’s thesis, and that of another expert, Michael J. Glennon, offers some reassurance.

Glennon, a Tufts University professor, former Senate Foreign Relations Committee counsel and State Department consultant, had something of a moment during the campaign when he observed that an army of professional bureaucrats, mostly in the national security infrastructure, make up one half of a “double government” that acts as a significant check on executive power.

These bureaucrats exert so much authority, in fact, that in his new book “National Security and Double Government,” Glennon devotes the first three pages to cataloging a range of policies, including drone warfare, that have remained unchanged between the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

“The presidency itself is not a top-down institution, as many people in the public believe, headed by a president who gives orders and causes the bureaucracy to click its heels and salute,” Glennon told The Boston Globe last month. “National security policy actually bubbles up from within the bureaucracy. Many of the more controversial policies, from the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors to the NSA surveillance program, originated within the bureaucracy. John Kerry was not exaggerating when he said that some of those programs are ‘on autopilot.’”

In an interview with Slate this week, Glennon acknowledged that Washington’s traditional unwillingness to rock the boat might also enable Trump to implement some of his more controversial national security proposals — such as executing terrorists’ family members.

But the significant hurdles Trump will have to cross to meet those goals, as outlined by both Glennon and Feldman, strongly suggest that the nation’s 45th president might have a harder time than he thinks draining Washington’s swamp.

That’s probably good news for Democrats and Trump’s GOP critics. But it might leave the residents of Trump nation with a case of buyer’s remorse.

An award-winning political journalist, JOHN L. MICEK is the opinion editor and political columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at