Observations from Washington

Editors note: this article details why the US trade Representative‘s office is the most effective agency in the administration.

As announced earlier, I spent the last two weeks or so traveling about. Most of that was in Washington and its environs. While in DC I had the opportunity to brunch, coffee break, and do all those DC things with a fair number of interesting people. This included the expected bevy of writers and reporters, but also some folks involved in developing or implementing policy for various federal agencies and departments. Included were individuals on both sides of the legislative/executive divide. From these discussions I gleaned an unexpected lesson: the overwhelming importance of people. I submit that misunderstanding on this point has led to a lot of flawed commentary on President Trump and his administration. 

[October 30, 2018 | The Scholars Stage]

American political commentary trends towards one of three modes. The first, and these days the most common, is the politics of the circus race. Circus racers are spectators. They reduce politics to the stadium chant. What matters to them is victory. But they, like all spectators, have so little control over who wins and loses. In the end, their political expression is less about managing power than affirming identity. Rare is the analyst who can separate the facts of the circus race from the feelings they have for its players. Wonkery is the natural opposite of these stadium chants. If race-ground spectators cannot divorce policy from their own sense of self worth, the wonk yearns to abstract policy away from politics altogether. Wonks see the world in terms of ideas. Politics is the battle between policies (preferably policies they helped devise), not people. Lost on them is the lesson of this post: the best ideas matter far less than the best people.  Good people can develop new ideas to match the situation at hand; ideas disconnected from a network of people that can realize them are useless.

This is not an original observation, but it goes a long way towards explaining why things are the way they are in Washington right now. Some parts of the US government have been far more effective at realizing Trump’s vision than others. Likewise, some individuals have been far more successful at getting Trump to match his vision with their own than others have. The rare commentator that attempts to explain why this is so usually adopts the third mode in contemporary political analysis: the court chronicle. Court chroniclers tend to describe Trump in Byzantine terms. Like all aged, mad emperors, Trump stands sequestered off from the real world, his actions mediated by the close coterie of advisors planted about him. Policy success is mostly a matter of personality. Those whom the President favors find their policies favored. Policy swings track the rise and fall of individual cabinet members in the eyes of the President.

There is something compelling about this sort of narrative, but I now think this is fundamentally wrong way to understand what is happening. Let me sketch out an alternative viewone which focuses less on cabinet personalities and more on the personnel one to two rungs below them.

Donald Trump came to power with a problem: he was not of Washington, knew few in Washington, but now suddenly was charged with filling hundreds of empty positions in Washington. In contrast to Team Hillary, who had been quietly building a shadow government months before the election was decided, Trump’s election caught Trump’s transition team flat-footed. The Trump campaign team was marked by its instability. Expecting a loss and not eager to associate themselves with a doomed and tainted movement, few potential appointees had worked with Trump or his team in the lead up to his election. The NeverTrumpers run a lot of the think tank patronage machinery in DC; neither they nor their recommendations were welcome.  Trump had few close relationships in congress; Senator Sessions was the only man or woman there he really trusted, and a single senator’s staff is not large enough to fill an entire administration.

So Trump adopted expedients. As several sources described to me, what happened next went more or less like this: Trump or a deputy would call up a senator or congressman to exact his tax. They all had full staffscould they not sacrifice one man to help the administration out? Of course their help in this matter would be remembered. And so the congressional staffs were raided, with one man from this office and another woman from that one sent to the White House. There they were joined with the remnants of the old Trump campaign and the occasional insert from DoD that McMaster or Kelly was able to stick in. These were the folks that were called upon to make Trump’s vague and often contradictory campaign pronouncements into a concrete policy program.

They have had a difficult time doing this.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider why this may be so. Part of the problem was the deep-seated hostility of the career bureaucracy to Trump and Trumpism. No administration has leaked like this one has. This has created intense distrust at all levels of almost every department. But the distrust is not just between the political appointees and the old hands. The political appointees themselves have very little trust for each other. And why would they? Few had met before they were all squished inside their chosen agency. They had no experience working together and often had widely different motivations for accepting their role. It was difficult to work or conceive of themselves as a team. Likewise, very few of these appointees knew or had previous connections with the top career personnel now working for them. They also tended to have a rather poor understanding of the bureaucracies they had been tasked with managing. The more wonkish among them might even have had crisp policies in mind, but unfamiliar with the morass of laws and possible bureaucratic maneuvers governing their new home, it was easy for rivals or underlings to frustrate their aims. The less wonkish among them had a even harder time of it, despised as Trump toadies in over their heads. Finally, many of them, especially those who had worked for the last decade as part of the congressional staff, simply do not have much experience actually producing things. “They spent the last eight years saying ‘No!’,” one person told me. “They are very good at producing arguments and stopping a bill in its tracks. But when it comes time to make their own policy, they are lost.”

This is a general, stylized picture. It describes what has happened in several executive agencies. For the sake of my sources I won’t say which, though I don’t think it will be too hard to guess which ones I am referring to. I describe all this as necessary background for my next example—the example of the department that has done it right: the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

 USTR’s meteoric rise over the last two years is miraculous. Compared to what has happened with most executive agencies and departments, it seems almost magical. USTR’s staff does not leak. They are far and away the most productive member of the executive branch. Trump and his kind have talked for years about overturning the old order. In their sphere, USTR has not only managed to actually do that; they also maneuvered America’s trading partners into going along with them. In contrast to just about everyone else, they regularly produce tangibles for the President to trumpet about. They do this without any of the indecencies that other agencies and their leaders embarrass the President with. Their influence is now immense. Robert Lighthizer is probably the single most important person in the U.S.-Chinese relationship (NSC’s Matt Pottinger likely comes in at second), and is clearly the most important voice in setting the terms of America’s economic engagement with the broader world. Since its creation USTR has played second fiddle to Treasury and State. Now it leads them. For the first time in the post-war world, American trade policy is leading foreign policy instead of the other way around.

 How did this happen?

Part of the reason is that Trump likes all of this. Trump is happy to see foreign policy take backseat to trade policy. Part of the reason is the character and intelligence of Ligthizer himself, something that outsiders recognized set him apart from many administration picks even before he was confirmed. But Lightizer is more than just one manhe is the leader of a small network of men and women who think like he does. Lightizer does not just have policy ideas. He has the people he needs to make turn those ideas into realities.

If you spend time looking at the biographies of the USTR appointees, a few things stand out: a large number are veterans of Skadden Arps, an international law firm who represents U.S. companies in trade fracas. This is the firm Lightizer himself worked at before he took on his current role. The remaining appointees are either from other international law firms that Lightizer had a close relationship with or are from within USTR itself. Consider why this background matters: as trade lawyers, Lightizer and his team are experts in the details of international law and international trade. They know as much about the topic as their own bureaucrats. If they are being pedaled crap by their subordinates, they would know it. Working in Washington on the cases that they did, Lightizer and his team already had a personal relationship with many of the career USTR subordinates they now rely on (and will surely maintain those relationships once they leave). They know both the players and the game as well as any bureaucrat. However, they are not bureaucrats. They come straight from the private sector and are thus used to working with private sector time pressures. They know how to produce

Most important of all, however, is that Lightizer and his team are a team. His top staff all know each other and have past experiencing working with each other. None of the distrust that has plagued other agencies is to be found in their office. Lightizer built the network he needed to upend decades of American policy long before he was in a political position that let him do so. This is what makes his Office so much more successful than the rest of the administration. The victory or defeat of a political programs is less about the policies employed than the people you find to employ them.

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