Right idea, bad execution? That seems to be a developing theme in the first few days of the Trump administration. Earlier today, House Speaker Paul Ryan defended the pause in processing visas and refugee applications from seven high-risk nations, reminding reporters that the House passed a bill in 2015 on a bipartisan vote that would have mandated it. True enough: the SAFE Act passed 289-137, but got filibustered in the Senate.
Ryan then said that the chaos around the rollout was “regrettable,” and then further asserted that “no one” wanted green-card holders included in this pause. That’s …. not entirely true, and was a major contributor to the chaos that ensued:
"What is happening is something we support… we need to make sure that the vetting standards are up to snuff," Paul Ryan says of travel ban pic.twitter.com/iX6YkOLkLl
— CBS News (@CBSNews) January 31, 2017
"It's regrettable that there was some confusion on the rollout of this. No one wanted to see people with green cards" be affected, Ryan says pic.twitter.com/KtZBTqqVPG
— CBS News (@CBSNews) January 31, 2017
The ongoing confusion over legal permanent residents is just one of the ambiguities that has allowed a reasonable policy to result in unreasonable — if temporary — outcomes. Most of those are getting resolved after several days of confusion, Reuters reports:
The U.S. government has granted waivers to let 872 refugees into the country this week, despite President Donald Trump’s executive order on Friday temporarily banning entry of refugees from any country, according to an internal Department of Homeland Security document seen by Reuters.
A Homeland Security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the waivers, noting that the refugees were considered “in transit” and had already been cleared for resettlement before the ban took effect.
How are these different than the 109 that got stuck in transit?
Refugees preparing for resettlement typically have severed personal ties and relinquished their possessions, leaving them particularly vulnerable if their plans to depart are suddenly canceled.
The waivers, granted by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), came amid international protests against Trump’s rushed executive order. Critics said the order in some cases was not clearly communicated to the agencies responsible for implementing it.
This policy was going to be controversial no matter how smooth its implementation, but the lack of coordination and confusion in its execution has made it exponentially worse. One material impact of it was to allow an opportunity for the courts to intervene, and another was to give Sally Yates, an Obama holdover as acting Attorney General, the opportunity to embarrass the White House. Did no one think to check whether Yates should be asked to leave ahead of time, as other political appointees routinely are in presidential transitions?
Firing Yates was also the right move, but executed poorly in terms of public relations:
How about “betrayed” as the word choice for Yates’s refusal to enforce the travel ban? There’s no question that Trump was well within his rights to jettison Yates. But, to describe what she did as a “betrayal,” considering that she spent nearly three decades serving in the Justice Department, feels like unnecessarily incendiary language.
But the Trump White House was just getting started. The statement goes on to note that Yates is “weak on borders” and “very weak on illegal immigration.” There’s no evidence cited for that slam on Yates. …
There’s no problem with the Trump White House disagreeing with the past administration’s stance on immigration. That is, of course, their right. But, again, the scorched-earth condemnation of Yates strikes me as rhetorically overboard and, dare I say it, not terribly presidential.
Indeed, and it fits a pattern this week that has seen good policy direction from the White House combined with head-scratching behavior. It’s no longer campaign season; Trump and his team have to establish credibility in governance now. As I argue in my column at The Week, policy matters in that respect — but so does competence, and this episode has not demonstrated a lot of it:
Almost none of this had to happen. Had the White House provided a short warning period — no more than a week — before implementing the order, travelers would not have gotten stuck in airports around the world and provided the media sensational optics for the temporary policy change. Had the White House worked more closely with the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, they could have avoided the questionable decisions to include green-card holders and military interpreters as part of the travel suspension. Had the White House brought Yates into the huddle from the beginning, knowing full well that legal action would result from these changes no matter how smoothly they rolled out, they could have had the opportunity to replace her more quietly, rather than get blindsided by her refusal and making the opposition even more public than before.
Supporters of President Trump, and even some of his skeptics, have plenty of reason to cheer his Cabinet appointments and the policies he’s already put into place. The lack of organizational competence, however, threatens to undermine those gains. Much of what Trump pledged to do relies on his expertise and success as an executive, especially in slashing regulations in a manner that allows for greater freedom without losing the ability to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse. Voters will allow a new administration some growing pains, but the series of errors in implementing this order strains the boundaries of any honeymoon period.
Trump does have an opportunity as his Cabinet gets confirmed to hand over policy implementation to experienced deputies. That can’t happen fast enough. George W. Bush learned the hard way during Hurricane Katrina that some mistakes are so egregious they can’t be walked back, even when some of the responsibility for those mistakes should get spread around. Trump has time to right the ship. But for now, he ought to slow down, take a deep breath, and stop writing executive orders for awhile. He has four years — at least. There’s no need to do everything so fast and furious. It’s time to let the chaos subside.
Trump has appointed impressive figures to run policy. Senate Republicans need to expedite their confirmations to give the president the organizational competence he needs.