Among Donald Trump's most important flaws as a president is how awful he is at consuming information. Any president has to be adept at recognizing what reports are important, which ones are dubious, which should be taken seriously, and which require further study.
As a candidate, Trump struggled spectacularly in this area, embracing all kinds of nonsense he'd find in supermarket tabloids and fringe websites. As a president, the problem is vastly worse. Politico reported in May, "Aides sometimes slip him stories to press their advantage on policy; other times they do so to gain an edge in the seemingly endless Game of Thrones inside the West Wing. The consequences can be tremendous.... A news story tucked into Trump's hands at the right moment can torpedo an appointment or redirect the president's entire agenda."
As we discussed at the time, this is an insane way for a White House to operate. By all appearances, a president lacking in critical thinking skills has been manipulated by staffers -- some bent on mischief, some with their own agendas -- who've discovered how easy it is to exploit their gullible boss' ignorance.
New White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has apparently recognized the problem, and Politico reports today the retired general is determined to curtail "bad information getting into the president's hands."
Since starting this week, Kelly has told aides that anyone briefing the president needs to show him the information first. The Trump West Wing tradition of aides dropping off articles on the president's desk -- then waiting for him to react, with a screaming phone call or a hastily scheduled staff meeting, must stop. He will not accept aides walking into the Oval Office and telling the president information without permission -- or without the information being vetted. [...]In the West Wing, many of the president's most controversial decisions have been attributed to bad information, partially because the president is easily swayed by the last person he has talked to -- or the last thing he has read.
So far, so good. Kelly has recognized an important problem -- Trump is routinely thrown wildly off track by someone handing him nonsense -- and has begun to take steps to address that problem.
And while I certainly wish the chief of staff luck, there's a piece to this puzzle that Kelly can't fully control.
Consider this excerpt from today's Politico piece, for example:
For example, he accused President Barack Obama of tapping his phone line in Trump Tower after seeing comments from a conservative talk show host and a Breitbart News article. He has often posted some of his most controversial tweets while watching Fox News and stewing. He has sometimes seemed to view television accounts of the news as fact more than information from people armed with classified information. He has made decisions about legal matters or major policy decisions while consulting with some aides -- only to reverse them after talking to family members or friends, who he dials late at night.He has been given information of dubious quality, from stories by GotNews.com, a blog written by a right-wing provocateur named Chuck Johnson to segments of debunked documentaries. He has, at times, listened to real estate friends about legislative strategy while ignoring Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Kelly will probably have some success in limiting garbage news from being dropped off at random times in the Oval Office, and I imagine this will help mitigate some of the problem. But the new chief of staff probably won't be able to stop Trump from receiving bad information from conservative media outlets, browsing the web, or placing late-night calls to outside friends who steer him in unproductive directions.
Kelly can only hold the president's hand so much. He won't have access to Trump's television remote or phone, especially during off hours.
If all of this sounds like a parent worried about a child being influenced by the "wrong crowd," the parallels are striking. Reports like Politico's really do make it sound as if the nation's first amateur president is an undisciplined kid who's influenced far too easily by nonsense and unable to show good judgment on his own.
But no matter what it sounds like, this is the reality we, and John Kelly, find ourselves in.