Russia debacle destroys the last rationale for Trump, the myth of the genius CEO

Matt Bai
President Trump arrives at Newark International airport earlier this month. (Photo: Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Let’s begin this week with a question that has nothing to do with a single House election in Georgia, even though it was apparently the most critical and consequential local election in the history of elections, going all the way back to the Greeks.

What have we really learned to this point about the ties between President Trump’s campaign and the Russians, and what does it tell us?

My former colleague David Brooks, no fan of Trump’s, wrote thoughtfully on this subject a few days ago. In a column titled “Let’s Not Get Carried Away,” Brooks argued that — at least as of now, which is an important caveat — all the leaks and revelations about the Trump campaign haven’t actually turned up any evidence of collusion with Russian hackers looking to influence last year’s election.

Rather, if I’m paraphrasing Brooks correctly, Trump has played right into the hands of his many critics in Washington, foolishly trying to discredit or even impede an investigation that probably leads nowhere. And in doing so, all he’s managed to do is crank up the modern machinery of scandal politics, which can whir away for years in a search for something — anything — that rises to the level of a crime.

I tend to agree with this analysis. Unless the special counsel, Robert Mueller, has unearthed something we don’t know about, there’s not much here to suggest that Trump himself had any idea of what the Russians were up to, or that any of his pro-Kremlin advisers were actively coordinating with foreign spies.

The closest thing we have to a crime right now is Trump’s sleazy attempt to influence and then destroy the FBI director, and even that feels less like obstruction of justice than like the clueless machinations of a land developer who thought he could push around the Justice Department as he would an unaccommodating city inspector.

In the end, though, if Republicans are going to argue that the whole Russia fiasco has nothing to do with Trump, and is really just a story of incompetence and greed among a few cowboy operatives working for the campaign, then they have to acknowledge something else, too.

Which is that this version of events further obliterates the entire premise of Trump’s campaign, not to mention his party’s principal rationale for having supported him in the first place.

Remember, Republicans in Washington never labored for a minute under the illusion that Trump knew anything about governance or even shared their bedrock ideology. What they settled on, when they finally embraced his candidacy, was that the country could use a CEO who knew how to run a business.

This is what Trump himself kept saying, too. “The best people” — that’s what he promised.

If I had a dime for every conservative insider and voter who told me last year that Trump would surround himself with all the sharpest minds and most experienced hands around, I’d build a garish, exorbitantly expensive hotel and stick my name in fake gold at the top.

What’s become abundantly clear, though, is that Trump didn’t run his campaign like a shrewd corporate titan with a keen eye for talent. He ran it like a sucker, easily played by anyone who knew how to stroke his ego.

OK, so maybe the party’s best and brightest weren’t exactly knocking down the door at Trump Tower last year. Maybe the Jim Bakers and Condoleezza Rices of the world wanted nothing to do with Trump at that point.

But isn’t that supposed to be Trump’s superpower — getting people to “yes”? Don’t you think he would have sought out those folks and determined the bottom-line price of their loyalty, the way a great negotiator would?

Instead, he turned to misfits and marginal characters. He hired Paul Manafort, a long-forgotten consultant who’d lately been doing shady work in Ukraine for a dubious paycheck. He turned to Michael Flynn, a former general with conspiratorial tendencies and murky relationships with foreign despots. He collected people like Carter Page, the gadfly foreign policy aide who was, in effect, if inadvertently, a Russian asset.

These guys used Trump for the purposes of their overseas friends and clients. Just four years after the last Republican nominee had called Russia the greatest threat to American security, the new nominee was praising Vladimir Putin, while Russian spies hacked his opponents.

The only thing Republicans can really argue is that Trump didn’t know. He was new to the political world. How could he have guessed that Manafort was so venal? How could he have known that Flynn wasn’t being straight?

According to the testimony of James Comey, the now deposed FBI director, Trump later said he wanted to know if any of these advisers had betrayed him (and, incidentally, their country).

Only he didn’t, really. Because even after Trump had given Flynn one of the most vital and sensitive posts in American foreign policy, and even after Trump had been personally warned by his predecessor and his Justice Department that Flynn was a blackmail risk, he did nothing.

He personally lobbied Comey to leave Flynn alone. And even now, after Flynn has been publicly disgraced and faces legal jeopardy for the conflicts he failed to disclose, Trump is said to be ruminating on a way to bring him back.

No, the president may not have been complicit in this dirty foreign intrigue. “Clueless” and “ineffectual” are the words that come to mind.

None of this should surprise us, though. Because the whole surround-yourself-with-geniuses theory was always just a wishful canard, with zero basis in reality. Trump himself, in a much-quoted interview with CNBC in 2007, offered a truer sample of his management philosophy:

“I hear so many times, ‘Oh, I want my people to be smarter than I am.’ It’s a lot of crap. You want to be smarter than your people, if possible.”

Well, he certainly is making it look possible — I’ll give him that.

Trump’s White House, like his campaign, has nothing to do with recruiting top-rate talent, and everything to do with making the president feel loved and unchallenged.

Just this week, Trump’s 36-year-old son-in-law, whose collective expertise is limited to buying a bunch of buildings in Manhattan with family money, gave a little speech about reorganizing the federal bureaucracy, just before jetting off to the Middle East in a bid to broker world peace.

(By the way, since Trump so admires the House of Saud, it’s worth pointing out that the Saudi king just ousted his crown prince in favor of his 31-year-old son. If I were Mike Pence, I might take this opportunity to spend some quality time with the boss.)

Meanwhile, Trump continues to moan privately about the dysfunction and incompetence among his own senior staff, though he seems at a loss to fix it. He still can’t seem to fill most of the critical jobs at his Cabinet agencies, assuming he even wants to.

To be clear: I’ve never been opposed to this notion of a CEO president, in theory. I agree with Republicans — and maybe some Democrats, too — who think Washington could use some leadership from another arena, especially if it involves a leader who knows what he or she doesn’t know, and who understands the powerful currents reshaping the society, and who can bring imaginative thinking and top-rate intellects into government.

But that’s not this president. What the revelations around Russia are proving is that Trump doesn’t actually run things well. His success in business comes not from being some management guru, but from being a relentless opportunist and a bit of a con man.

His only defense now is that he’s the one who got conned.

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