It’s hard to find good help these days, at least if you’re President Donald Trump. People who work for the executive branch — people he’s appointed — feel free to criticize him, distance themselves from him, disagree with him, or just refrain from defending him and his policies.
Writing in Politico Magazine, Rich Lowry says that Trump has an “insubordination problem.” His evidence includes Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s pointed refusal to say that President Trump speaks for American values and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s contradiction of him on North Korea.
Lowry thinks that Trump weakened his sway over his own subordinates by first harshly criticizing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then failing to follow through on that criticism. The original action made his other appointees less inclined to feel loyal, and the subsequent inaction made them less afraid to act on their feelings. Lowry concludes that White House chief of staff John Kelly needs to crack some heads to keep the administration from disintegrating.
The phenomenon to which Lowry is pointing is real. But the root problem isn’t insubordination; it’s a lack of presidential seriousness.
A new example came in recent reports that Trump is angry with his aides over Chinese imports. He keeps telling them he wants tariffs, he reportedly said, and they keep moving forward with milder policies.
Yet it is within a president’s power to make himself be taken seriously by his underlings. Other presidents have all done it — or, rather, they have been taken seriously by default. They have rarely had to exert themselves to make sure their commands are being executed.