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Trump may bark orders, but that doesn't always mean they're followed

Trump announced two weeks ago that he was revoking former CIA Director John Brennan's security clearance. It hasn't actually happened.
Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office
President Donald Trump speaks before signing an executive order establishing regulatory reform officers and task forces in US agencies in Washington, DC on February 24, 2017.

Two weeks ago, driven by political spite, Donald Trump announced that he was revoking former CIA Director John Brennan's security clearance. It's not altogether clear, however, whether the effects of the president's directive are real.

Brennan appeared on MSNBC yesterday and explained that since the White House's announcement, he hasn't heard from any officials, in any capacity, notifying him about his status. "Whether or not my clearances have been stripped, I'm still uncertain about," he said.

Politico published a piece that summarized the larger dynamic nicely.

The president is not known for his follow-through. Many of his proclamations and promises, which are beamed to his supporters in the form of early-morning tweets or off-handed comments in interviews, eventually fade from view, never to be brought up again after Trump has made a political point. Administration officials are often befuddled by the president's statements, uncertain how to interpret and implement them.

I realize many of us have grown inured to the bizarre circumstances we find ourselves in, but I'm inclined to stick that excerpted paragraph in a time capsule. The amateur president of a global superpower just says things, and no one -- including White House officials -- has any idea what to make of his orders or whether anyone intends to act on them.

As we discussed a few weeks ago, this comes up with alarming regularity. For example, Trump announced in June that he had "instructed" U.S. officials "not to endorse" an official G-7 communique negotiated by diplomats from member nations. Officials didn't much care about the tweet and they proceeded to ignore Trump's online instructions.

This is far from the only example.

In April, the president announced via Twitter that Russia should “get ready” because he was poised to launch a military offensive in Syria. White House officials found Trump’s declaration “distracting,” and proceeded “as if nothing had happened.”

A couple of months earlier, Trump asked Defense Secretary James Mattis to provide him with military options for Iran. The Pentagon chief reportedly “refused.”

Making matters slightly worse, last summer, the president published missives barring transgender Americans from military service. Soon after, the Joint Chiefs effectively ignored it, leaving the status quo in place.

“What is most remarkable is the extent to which his senior officials act as if Trump were not the chief executive,” Jack Goldsmith, a top Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, wrote last summer. “Never has a president been so regularly ignored or contradicted by his own officials…. The president is a figurehead who barks out positions and desires, but his senior subordinates carry on with different commitments.”

In fairness, it's entirely possible that Brennan and his security clearance don't fall into this category. We don't know whether there's been some behind-the-scenes bureaucratic delays, whether officials have blown off the president's orders, or whether there's some other explanation.

But therein lies the point: we're not supposed to be uncertain, but it's impossible to have confidence in Team Trump's commitment to following through on the president's often strange demands. This is the first presidency in recent memory in which the chief executive may declare, "We're doing x," only to leave the rest of the world to wonder, "Yeah, but are they really doing x?"

In Brennan's case, the former CIA chief is considering legal action in response to the revocation of his security clearance, but there can be no lawsuit until the White House follows through on Trump's directive -- and at least for now, that hasn't happened.

The Politico  piece quoted Benjamin Wittes, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and editor in chief of the blog Lawfare, saying, "In any other administration, the words of the president are presumed to have intrinsic actionable meaning -- that is, they are themselves policy and agencies will respond to them as such. With this president, there is an almost total disconnect between what the president says in public and the actions of the executive branch."