Just over a week ago, Robert Gates spoke at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce event. Of course, the first days of the Trump presidency were high on the list of questions he received, and he responded with unique perspective.
You have to think Mr. Gates view is balanced. A lifetime republican, he served both Bush adminstrations as head of the CIA and Defense Secretary respectively. But after the next transition, he was retained by Obama to run the Defense Department. Last, September he loudly criticized candidate Trump in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, but more recently advised the transition team, and, evidently, put forth Rex Tillerson and General Mattis for their cabinet positions.
Much of the discussion in Boston was about advice Gates would give the new president during that first week in office. About the White House and the media, he stressed the importance of a free press (and Congress, by the way) as the guarantors of liberty and that it is a mistake to make the press an enemy. Candidly he disclosed that most presidents privately share some of the feelings with which Trump has been so very public. But, rather than getting hostile, he advised that Trump should consider whether the media may be right. In fairness, he also thinks the media needs to take it down a notch and get their heads out of the Twitterverse.
Asked for his advice on implementing change, Gates was very clear that President Trump needs to listen to the career pros who have been at this for a while. Gates has concerns about foreign policy going forward. Isolationism is popular because foreign policy is so outside most people’s day to day; it’s up the president to bring a global perspective to the people. He pointed to Tillerson, Mike Pompeo, John Kelly, and General Mattis as tough minded individuals who will tell him what he needs to hear.
So how’s it going? Not great viewed through the lens of Secretary Gates’ advice. The day after this talk, Steve Bannon suggested the “opposition party,” aka the media, should “keep its mouth shut.” Relations have continued to spiral down with the latest hub bub over the Bowling Green “massacre” and subsequent travel ban, both fictional which drove the press bonkers. And @realDonaldTrump still tweeting about “FAKE NEWS” in the wake of his awkward phone call with Malcom Turnbull.. Almost unbelievably, one of today’s early morning tweets from realDonald was:
After being forced to apologize for its bad and inaccurate coverage of me after winning the election, the FAKE NEWS @nytimes is still lost!
Is the press blowing some of this out of proportion? Yes, I think so, but such is the nature of an adversarial relationship.
On the foreign policy front, Oy vey! According to the AP (a credible source in my mind if not Bannon’s) with regard to the seven country travel ban:
At least three top national security officials — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Rex Tillerson, who is awaiting confirmation to lead the State Department — have told associates they were not aware of details of the directive until around the time Trump signed it. Leading intelligence officials were also left largely in the dark, according to U.S. officials.
The reorganization of the National Security Council suggests the likelihood that the President will, now officially as well as unofficially, discount input from the experienced folks that the former Defense Secretary says he should be relying on. In the wake of that move, Gates himself went public calling the demotions of the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs “a big mistake.” Senator McCain (Republican chair of the Armed Services Committee) is “worried about the NSC” for the same reasons.
So, who is the President listening to? In Judy Woodruff’s Wednesday NPR interview with Vice President Pence, she inquired about the extent of Bannon’s influence. He responded that the President “asks for input from everyone in the senior circle, and a lot of people outside the circle.” Pence is a master of staying on message, but honest, in my estimate. Still, the “a lot of other people” seemed like a bit of an afterthought, and it’s unclear to whom he was referring. I’m sure the Presdident is calling the shots. My concern is that he is only listening to his like-minded, tight inner circle most of whom have little experience in the business of running a country (and playing nice with others). Trump took some good advice from Gates on some key appointments; it would be great it he were to listen to him and them.