Army Gen. H.R. McMaster, President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, seems to be widely respected by conservatives and liberals.
This was also true of Adm. Robert Harward, who was offered the job last week but turned it down. And, if it weren’t for that whole showing-classified-materials-to-his-mistress thing, it would also have been true of Gen. David Petraeus, who was in the running for the job.
All of which is to say, while retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn is kind of a nut, Trump does not seem to have been intent on having a nut as his national security adviser. He showed himself to be capable of identifying qualified candidates and offering them the job, which is more than some of us expected from the president.
Harward appears to have turned the job down for a reason — he was concerned that Trump had set up a management structure that would not let him do the job well. White House chief strategist Steve Bannon would be given too much power to interfere, and he wouldn’t have enough control over staffing.
We will see, over the coming months, whether McMaster finds a way to use his talents for good within the confines of the Trump administration — and whether Trump learned anything from the fact that so many people were ready to turn down what would ordinarily be one of the most coveted jobs in Washington.
When talking about government, people often say “personnel is policy,” but I don’t think that means quite the same thing in the Trump administration that it does in most contexts.
In the context of Trump, the main way I think “personnel is policy” is this: The low overall quality and quantity of personnel in the administration will tend to reduce the amount of policy that it makes.
Partly, this is because Trump’s judgment in personnel is not always good (Ben Carson as Housing and Urban Development secretary, Betsy DeVos as education secretary, Bannon). Partly, this is because he doesn’t give power to the right people in his organisation; and partly this is because his indecision and disorganization mean that many positions are simply going unfilled.
Trump complains about Democratic obstruction of his appointments, but as you can see from The Washington Post’s tracker, Trump has not even proposed a nominee for 515 of the 549 key jobs in his administration that will require Senate confirmation.
Personnel problems are showing up as unfulfilled objectives for the administration.
You saw this with the travel ban. Issued without an attorney general or a solicitor general in place and produced in a way that excluded the usual legal and bureaucratic channels, the ban ended up being a logistical and political nightmare and got stopped by the courts.
And you are beginning to see this on tax policy and healthcare policy. Sticky issues like these that affect many interest groups tend to require an active White House to help resolve infighting in Congress. It took the heavy hand of George W. Bush to move the Medicare prescription drug benefit through Congress, and it took Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel to get Congress to stitch the Affordable Care Act together.
It won’t be all Paul Ryan’s fault if Republican initiatives in these areas fall apart, for example due to disputes with Republican senators over Ryan’s proposal for a destination-based cash-flow tax. It will be in large part due to the lack of leadership and clarity from Trump’s White House, which will in turn be in large part due to the lack of empowered subject-matter experts in the administration.
You could think of this as good news for liberals, but it can only be good news in those areas where policymaking is optional.
Trump can flounder on tax policy and the country can acceptably stick with the status quo for four years. But situations where national security policy must be made will be foisted on the National Security Council, whether we like it or not.
Which is a reason that we should hope that, in McMaster’s case, personnel really is policy.
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