If someone had asked you a few years ago who you thought the most incompetent president of your lifetime was, your answer would likely be "George W. Bush." But now, with the arrival of Donald Trump, we are seeing incompetence at a level that is making even former Bush 43 officials stand up and take notice.
Michael Chertoff was Bush's second Secretary of Homeland Security. A short while ago he spoke with Politico's Isaac Dovere regarding his concerns over Trump's ability to handle a crisis. If you have been having trouble sleeping since the Orange Emperor arrived at the White House, nothing Chertoff has to say will make you rest any easier.
Dovere notes that Chertoff has praise for the people currently in place on Trump's national security team.
When I ask Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security during President George W. Bush’s second term, whether he wakes up in the morning feeling safe, given what he’s seeing out of the White House, he talks about a lot of people: John Kelly, the man doing Chertoff’s old job as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security; Defense Secretary James Mattis; and what Chertoff calls the "strong architecture of security."
But one name that isn't included is that of Donald Trump. Chertoff just doesn't seem to have a high comfort level with Trump's ability to remain cool and make quick decisions in a crisis.
We know Trump values loyalty over expertise and that he has surrounded himself with family members and trusted associates. Chertoff worries that could cause a disconnect between Trump and his experienced national security advisors. Would Trump and his inner circle get in the way of the experts on security matters? Chertoff says he doesn't know. "You know, I'd be guessing," he told Dovere, which is not exactly reassuring.
"I draw comfort from the fact that the leaders of the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security have military experience, they’ve been in combat, they’re not going to get flustered, they understand how to make things work operationally. And that’s cause for optimism, provided that, you know, you don’t get young kids in the White House trying to get in the way and play cowboy."
"Cowboy" is a term that has been used to describe the administration Chertoff worked for. But in the case of George W. Bush we know he made the important decisions, and for better or worse, he stuck by them. Trump, on the other hand, seems to waffle on major issues, often taking on the opinion of whoever he is talking to at the moment.
Couple Trump's love of loyalty and the trust he puts in his family and close associates with his frequent indecision and you can see why Chertoff is worried. None of Trump's inner circle has any experience in the national security field. But it's entirely possible that in a crisis, unless there is consensus among the parties, those are the people he might choose to listen to instead of the experts.
It also concerns Chertoff that the lack of people with national security bona fides in Trump's inner circle could cause them to believe they are prepared for a crisis when in fact they're not.
"If you go for a period of time without a crisis, often when a crisis occurs, you’re a little rusty, and one of the things we learned was to do a constant process of exercising, even in the absence of a real event, because that’s how you retain your muscle memory when you’re responding to an emergency. And frankly, it’s something that this administration ought to consider doing as well."
Chertoff doesn't mention it directly, but a big concern about Trump's ability to handle a crisis is his lack of focus. We saw that recently when he tweeted about his upcoming interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network during the Yemen raid that resulted in the death of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens. Given his history it's not hard to imagine Trump, during a moment of national crisis, turning away from dealing with that crisis in order to attack a critic, or draw attention to himself.
It is that lack of focus that was obviously on Chertoff's mind when he expressed support for Trump's overall policy objectives, but raised the issue of the Tweeter-In Chief's frequent rants on Twitter.
"In the more kind of deliberate moments, the approach is one that I think is a reasonable approach. And in some ways, you can even point out that having a somewhat disruptive effect on the settled order of things can be positive. Now, then there are times we get Twitter flurries that I don’t know that I would be, you know, likely to endorse."
Trump has promised to keep America and Americans safe. But almost every day it seems there are more questions raised about whether he has what it takes to actually do that. It's easy to dismiss the comments of former Bush officials out of hand, given that administration's track record on many issues. But when someone like Michael Chertoff speaks out about Trump, with the implicit message "Boy, you thought we were bad" hanging over the conversation, you just might want to take notice.