Jared Kushner, both a senior adviser to and son-in-law of the president of the United States, has received a good deal of recent attention, not much of it good. There is the appearance, and possible reality, of conflict of interest given that Mr. Kushner is meeting with people in his official capacity who just happen to be in a position to alleviate his and his family’s financial stress. There is the matter of his operating without a permanent security clearance while having access to sensitive intelligence. There is the cloud of the Mueller investigation hanging over his head. There is the confusion sowed by his being granted a broad portfolio of responsibilities that overlap with the portfolios of others, including the secretary of state and the national security adviser. And there is the question of someone with so little relevant experience being handed such responsibilities in the first place.
All this makes for an untenable situation. Beyond the obvious legal questions surrounding Mr. Kushner’s activities that call out for answers, there should be concerns about how he is operating. White House staff are meant to coordinate and set policy, not carry it out. Such activities should be the purview of the departments and agencies. This, after all, was the principal lesson of the Iran-Contra scandal. (There is the special irony that this is an administration that has abolished dozens of special envoys working out of the State Department but created a super-special envoy working out of the White House.)
There is, as well, the matter of any president employing close friends and relatives in formal senior posts. Doing so should not be ruled out, per se, but a useful rule of thumb would be to do so only in those cases where they would likely be appointed to that job by some other occupant of the Oval Office.
But the challenges facing this administration transcend Jared Kushner. History suggests that policy is in large part the result of the intersection between personnel and process. There are thus real grounds for concern, as the Trump administration is plagued with problems on both fronts.
Process first. Every president chooses his own style of governing, and after nearly fourteen months, it is clear that Donald Trump’s is best described as adhocracy. The bias favors the unstructured and downright chaotic. Options are not carefully vetted, trade-offs are often overlooked, and implementation is given short shrift.
I wrote an article along these lines for the Atlantic some six months ago, and despite a new chief of staff and all the talk of generals providing adult supervision, the reality is that the situation is not getting better. Anyone doubting this only need look at recent contradictory and ill-thought out announcements on gun policy and steel and aluminum tariffs. As is often the case, the French have a phrase for it: plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose. The more it changes, the more it stays the same. It is thus unrealistic to expect any of this to improve meaningfully.
All of which brings us to personnel. Good people cannot fully compensate for bad process, but they can mitigate some of its worst tendencies.
Alas, too many experienced foreign-policy hands with Republican credentials have been barred from serving on the grounds they associated themselves with public statements critical of candidate Trump. President Trump would be wise to change course. The statute of limitations for the blacklist of the critics should be deemed to have expired. This administration desperately needs the best and the brightest to join it.
This is particularly true in the foreign policy and national security realms, as so many of the top hands, including the president and vice president and much of the cabinet, have little or no prior experience with government, diplomacy, or both.
It would help, too, to fill the important posts that remain vacant. Dozens of embassies, including the U.S. mission in Seoul, South Korea, lack an ambassador. This denies us access to the officials in position to make policies that will affect vital U.S. interests.
It would also help if the secretary of state put aside, for the foreseeable future, his determination to reorganize his department. This is hardly the biggest challenge he confronts. State is hemorrhaging senior staff whose historical knowledge is required at the same time it is not bringing in sufficient junior staff whose knowledge will be needed down the road.
There is more than a little urgency that all this get fixed, as the Trump administration faces as daunting an inbox as any administration in modern memory, one that includes a rising China, a revisionist Russia, a nuclear North Korea, a resurgent Iran amidst an unravelling Middle East, and an imploding Venezuela. Some of these challenges reflect what it inherited. But some have been made worse by the administration’s own choices.
Despite all this, the Trump administration has been lucky, as there has been no major international crisis on its watch. But such luck will sooner or later run out, either because things will happen or the administration will trigger something, be it a trade war or a shooting war. One hopes that, in the meantime, it addresses its problems of process and people, as an administration in disarray will have no chance of contending successfully with a world in disarray.