Sunday , February 11, 2018 - 5:00 AM
In this Jan. 20, 2017, photo, White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, center, hands President Donald Trump a confirmation order for James Mattis as defense secretary, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, as White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, right, watches. Porter is stepping down following allegations of domestic abuse by his two ex-wives. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
English monarchs are often known by their names and their most conspicuous traits, from William the Conqueror and Richard the Lion-Hearted to Bloody Mary and Edward Longshanks. If presidents followed that custom, the incumbent could borrow his title from the medieval king Ethelred, going down in history as Donald the Unready.
President Trump has an assortment of grave flaws: a conspiratorial mindset, an irrepressible streak of racial and religious bigotry, thin skin, and consuming narcissism. But no characteristic dominates this administration more thoroughly than his fundamental incompetence.
The case of staff secretary Robert Porter is damning not just because of his importance in the White House but because his record of domestic abuse elicited scant notice or concern from his superiors. It stemmed from a series of failures by multiple staffers and ended in a debacle.
As The Washington Post reported, "Porter was kept in a key role in which he had access to classified information and helped determine which articles and policy proposals made it to the president's desk while top Trump officials were aware for months of at least some of the serious allegations against him."
When more information about the allegations of violence came to light, chief of staff John Kelly staunchly defended him. It took a shocking photo of one ex-wife with a black eye to force the White House to finally cut him loose.
Porter got his job under Trump's first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and continued under his second, Kelly. Neither did the due diligence that should have occurred when his security clearance didn't come through — or else they didn't think the allegations were any big deal. They either failed to inform themselves or didn't act on what they learned. It was just the latest from a president who is a master of the own goal.
Priebus, notorious for his inability to impose order on Trump's schedule, visitors or decision-making process, eventually got the ax. Kelly has proved the wisdom of past chiefs who did their best to stay out of the limelight. Nearly every time he has voiced his opinions — on the Civil War, on treatment of women, on the "dreamers" — he has sounded like a callous fool. The serious mistakes the two have made speak volumes about Trump's judgment in hiring them.
No White House in memory has generated more needless turmoil in its first year. Think of all the Trump underlings who have flamed out: national security adviser Michael Flynn, chief strategist Steve Bannon, labor secretary nominee Andrew Puzder, press secretary Sean Spicer, communications director-designate Anthony Scaramucci, counterterrorism adviser Sebastian Gorka, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and public liaison Omarosa Manigault Newman.
If Trump had his way, Attorney General Jeff Sessions would also be gone, and possibly Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Most of his departed appointees left with their reputations, not necessarily sterling at the start, in ruins.
Brookings Institution fellow Kathryn Dunn Tenpas calculated that first-year turnover among his senior officials was 34 percent. That's worse than any of his past five predecessors had — and double that of Ronald Reagan, who had the second-highest rate.
Many of those who have stayed are not exactly an advertisement for Trump's executive savvy. His Middle East envoy, Jared Kushner, got the job by marrying the boss's daughter — and still doesn't have a security clearance. Ben Carson is about as qualified to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development as he is to teach ballet.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke opened up nearly all of the East and West coasts to offshore drilling, only to clumsily backtrack to make an exception for Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican running for re-election. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told a Senate committee she didn't know whether Norway is predominantly white.
Trump's blunders have alternated between tragedy and farce. His administration could have been invented by comedy writers as an uproarious departure from reality. But trashing the environment, flirting with nuclear conflagration and enabling neo-Nazis could be funny only as fiction.
A corporate chief executive who exhibited such mystifying priorities and rampant sloppiness, as well as a penchant for bad hires and constant turmoil, would be evicted without delay. But anyone so badly prepared to be a CEO would never get the job in the first place.
The president brings to mind what the 19th-century British statesman Benjamin Disraeli said when he was told that one colleague was out of his depth. "Out of his depth? He's 3 miles from shore!" When Trump sinks, he may take us all with him.
Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. Twitter: @SteveChapman13.
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