Be Careful What You Wish For: President as CEO Edition

Trump-1-41
Just look at those tiny hands go. (Photo Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

How many times have you heard the phrase “live each day like it’s your last?” It’s good advice, in theory. Certainly, you should be active in shaping your destiny and not waiting for things to happen to your benefit. Then again, taken to absurd extremes, this could be a dangerous mantra by which to live. At no point is it recommended that your drain your savings, spend it on alcohol, drugs, and other diversions, and throw the party to end all parties. Swimming pools full of liquor à la Kendrick Lamar. Sex with many anonymous partners. Fun, perhaps, yes, but not terribly prudent. If it seems like I’m a bit of a wet blanket in this regard, it’s only because, by all accounts, I am.

President Donald J. Trump, for his part, seems to subscribe to this way of thinking, or at least approaches running the country in this way. Risk the position of the Republican Party by insisting on a replacement to ObamaCare, an unpopular travel ban, a militaristic immigration policy and overall approach to criminal justice, and an expensive wall at the Mexican border, among other things? No big deal—Trump hasn’t been a very faithful member of the GOP, and basically ran his campaign without the full backing of the party’s leaders (in fact, that probably only helped him). Fire off crazy, unfounded remarks regularly on Twitter? Fine—the news media is happy with all the clicks and TV ratings it receives every time he makes his feelings known. Appeal to corporations and workers alike with a pro-business, anti-environment agenda? That’s OK—he’ll probably be dead by the time the worst effects of deleterious climate change hit (though at the rate he’s going, who knows).

More recently, however, it is the firing of FBI director James Comey that has people up in arms, particularly incensed about the decision of a man known for acting suddenly and capriciously. Now, was Mr. Comey a saint? Far from it, as evidenced by his rather brazen actions which directly influenced voters’ perceptions of the 2016 presidential race—which he testified as being absolutely sick about, because he had no intention of doing anything to sway the outcome. Sure, Jim, you’re really helping your credibility there. In fact, after Comey effectively threw hurdles in Hillary Clinton’s lane in the race for the presidency, many were calling for his head. You know, figuratively speaking. At least I think it was figuratively speaking. This past election sure dredged up some powerful feelings—and still continues to, if I might add.

Based on his guilt, then, James Comey doesn’t inspire a great deal of sympathy merely for losing his job. Where the outrage lies, meanwhile, is what the presumed motivations are for Trump deciding to fire Comey at this point in time. The White House has indicated it was because of Comey’s apparent bias and his lack of fairness in dealing with Hillary Clinton, among other things, but come on—nobody believes that. After all, why wait until May 2017 to make the determination to ax Comey if that were the case? Such reasoning is not only illogical, but it’s pretty damn insulting to our intelligence as readers, Tweeters, and viewers of the news.

No, the consensus opinion is that James Comey was fired because he was getting too close for comfort in his investigation of Donald Trump himself and other close associates. It is all but known that Trump and prominent members of his administration/campaign have direct financial ties to Russian oligarchs or had contact with Russian ambassadors prior to the election, and hacks of the Democratic National Committee’s and John Podesta’s E-mails raise serious concerns about whether or not Trump and his team were involved in an apparent plot to screw with American democratic proceedings and sway the election in his favor. In addition, viewed in the context of other firings within the Justice Department, namely those of Sally Yates and Preet Bharara, Comey’s removal is suspicious in that those individuals who have been involved with investigating Trump’s affairs have all been sent packing by the President. Sure, there’s no definitive proof these firings were all politically motivated—well, not yet, at least—but this trend raises one’s eyebrows. Heck, John McCain broke ranks with his fellow Republicans to express his disappointment in Comey proving to be a casualty of the Trump White House. When members of the GOP are publicly casting doubts about Trump’s motives, you know it’s a big deal.

Predictably, a number of his Cabinet members came to Pres. Trump’s defense, as I’m sure his fans on blogs, on Breitbart, and on talk radio did as well. The rationalization that stuck with me the most, though, was that of Nikki Haley, ambassador to the United Nations and, more recently, Donald Trump apologist. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos on his show This Week, Haley said that “[Trump] is the CEO of the country. He can hire and fire anyone he wants.” This is a striking assertion to me, not merely because Trump, as President of the United States, can’t just fire anyone he wants. A significant portion of Trump’s lasting appeal is his identity as a political outsider and a successful businessman (only one of the two is accurate), and in this regard, his presidency is almost an experiment of sorts in applying a business leadership model to a publicly-elected office. In talking with my close circle of friends about Donald Trump (spoiler alert: we’re generally not fond of him), we discussed how Americans who voted for the orange one may have been swayed by vague notions of wanting to see how the country could or would be run if it were handled like a corporation or other business. Given this frame of mind, Trump’s perceived success or failure and the future political prospects of other prominent Republicans could therefore be seen as a referendum on such an industry-focused approach.

Now well past the 100-day mark of Trump’s tenure, it’s worth considering whether or not more and more Americans who voted him into office might be suffering from a case of buyer’s remorse, not to mention contemplating just how well the Trump-as-CEO-President analogy fits. As John Cassidy, writing for The New Yorker, insists, if Donald Trump were a CEO, he’d probably be fired. To this end, and in his assessment of Trump’s tenure heretofore, Cassidy is pretty much unequivocal:

Donald Trump has built his political career on his reputation as a successful businessman, so it seems fair to assess his recent performance as President as if he were a C.E.O. running U.S.A., Inc. The report card isn’t pretty. Indeed, if Trump were the chief executive of a public company, the firm’s non-executive directors probably would have been huddled in a crisis meeting on Tuesday morning, deciding whether to issue him a pink slip.

In such a corporate scenario, the board members would likely decide they had no choice but to oust Trump to protect the reputation of the company and prevent further damage. During the past week, he has twice messed up monumentally, doing grave harm to his own credibility and undermining the country’s reputation around the world. And these were just his latest mistakes. During his four months in the corner office, Trump has repeatedly shown that he is patently unsuited for the position he holds, and he has also demonstrated a chronic inability to change the way he operates.

I would think more moderate Trump supporters and voters would be apt to concede that “the Donald” lacks the qualifications you might desire of a Commander-in-Chief, much in the way reluctant Hillary Clinton voters would likely concede their choice was—how can I put this delicately?—somewhat out of touch with working-class Americans. Those same people would also probably agree that flexibility and Donald Trump do not necessarily come part and parcel, though they might disagree to the extent this is a virtue or vice. For all those individuals who profess to want a negotiator who will work with members of both major political parties and knows how to compromise, there seems to be, if not an equivalent number of people, then a sufficiently vocal minority which believes the opposite: that refusal to compromise is an element of strong leadership, and that sticking to one’s proverbial guns is to be lauded, not decried.

In other words, John Cassidy would be remiss if he did not cite specific examples of how Donald Trump as POTUS and chief executive has failed. Thankfully, at least for his sake, he does not disappoint. Though I’m sure you can imagine which recent events top his list, here are the two big blockbusters that he cites to prove his point:

1. The firing of James Comey

We’ve addressed this in part, but Cassidy points out the incongruity in the public statements about why Comey was fired is a public relations disaster, and, though it almost certainly means nothing to Trump, he really hung Vice President Mike Pence out to dry by contradicting his account of why a vacancy at the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation now exists. Trump’s ensuing Tweets that appear to be warning James Comey that he had better hope there were no tapes of their conversations only further the notion that he (Trump) is the kind of unstable person who you wouldn’t want caring for your pet goldfish, let alone a company or the United States of freaking America. I mean, to put it another way, um, blackmail tends to be frowned upon in our society.

2. The disclosure of classified information to Russian officials

At a bare minimum, this is a case of bad optics, but in a different country or perhaps even in a different era, Donald Trump would stand to be harangued or tarred-and-feathered—or worse—for what some might argue is tantamount to treason. We all know of Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin and other world leaders suspected of crimes against humanity. But seriously, bruh, this is Russia we’re talking about here. You know, the country responsible for hacking our election? As Cassidy puts it, running with the metaphor of America as a corporate entity (realistically speaking, it’s not much of a stretch), “Just how much damage Trump’s indiscretions have inflicted on the company isn’t yet known. But it’s clear that he was guilty of a serious breach of trust, and another stunning error of judgment.”

For most of Trump’s tenure as “CEO,” other executives within the company (high-ranking Republicans like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell) and its most bullish shareholders (Trump supporters) have been willing to roll with the punches, but as of late, #45’s antics have made even them skittish. Thinking in terms of the big picture, there is a clear element of risk here, and in terms of economic hazards, not just political danger. With the unpredictability of Donald Trump’s actions and the civil unrest that has accompanied his rise to power, both domestically-based and foreign-owned companies are less liable to seek to invest in our nation. The same goes for those individuals who would study or travel or work here. If not worried about their physical safety, the fear may well be for what is called, in business parlance, the going concern of the company, or its ability to remain in business for the foreseeable future. In the case of the United States of America, not only are concerns about our debt and our infrastructure more than justified, but the prospects of a climate catastrophe or world war don’t seem all that remote either. The ticking of the Doomsday Clock grows ever louder.


Nikki Haley
Yes, Nikki Haley, you too might suffer for your association with Donald Trump. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s behavior of late has intensified talks of impeachment. In terms of potential impeachable offenses, the reported request made by Trump of James Comey to effectively look the other way on Michael Flynn looms especially large, as it points to a deliberate attempt to obstruct justice. Then again, for months, critics have been circling, highlighting, and putting a bright neon sticky note on Trump’s and his family’s refusal to divest or put Trump Organization assets in a blind trust, saying this alone is sufficient grounds for removal based on violation of the now-famous Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Let it be stressed, though, that these calls for the deposition of Pres. Trump come with their own caveat. For one, cries for impeachment proceedings from the general public will likely need to be amplified by Congress, and the Republicans in the House and Senate don’t seem to give a serious enough shit to act to curb Trump’s wanton disregard for ethics, human decency, and said Constitution. Besides this, getting rid of Trump doesn’t mean that the leadership gets profoundly better based on who’s next in the line of succession. After Donald Trump—just to name a few—it’s Mike Pence (Vice President), followed by Paul Ryan (Speaker of the House), Orrin Hatch (President pro tem of the Senate), Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State), and Steven Mnuchin (Secretary of the Treasury). What a bunch of winners, eh? Hard to know which is slimier or more slippery than the next, and, yes, better than Trump, but as has been well established, that’s a low bar to clear.

President Trump’s reckless behavior, though, while it should be rightly admonished and while it forms the basis of much of John Cassidy’s analysis, doesn’t speak to the full scope of his ineffectiveness as CEO of the company-country. John Micklethwait, Bloomberg’s editor-in-chief, views things somewhat more holistically in terms of how well managed the White House is. As with Cassidy’s findings, meanwhile, the results are similarly unenthusiastic. Micklethwait’s piece is entitled “Would You Let Trump Run Your Company?” and hits on a number of the same themes that thus have been presented. The same antics that Cassidy enumerates are referenced herein, but the author quickly pivots to assessing the Trump presidency purely on its merits as a cohesive unit and the boss’s merits as a facilitator:

Behind this list of individual transgressions sit four larger failings: This CEO-in-chief has failed to get things done; he has failed to build a strong team, especially in domestic policy; he hasn’t dealt with conflicts of interest; and his communications is in shambles.

On the first count, you can basically spin the domestic policy wheel of fortune and pick an area where Trump and Co. have been unable to get substantive policy authored and enacted. The American Health Care Act, the GOP’s putative replacement for the Affordable Care Act, still has yet to be passed by both halves of Congress, and faces stern opposition not only from minority-party Democrats, but concerned constituents regardless of political affiliation. His proposed tax reform has yet to be even fully visualized. Ditto for his infrastructure plan, and to boot, several of his executive orders have (thankfully) been challenged in and stayed by the nation’s judiciary. So there’s that.

On the second count, Donald Trump is much further behind in filling needed posts than Barack Obama was at this point in his presidency. Even putting the drama with the quick-to-resign Michael Flynn aside, John Micklethwait points to a “whiff of cronyism” in the Trump administration ranks, capped off by positions of influence for Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner despite their apparent lack of qualifications for their associated stature. As Micklethwait puts it: “There appears to be little structure in the White House. It’s more like a court than a company, with the king retiring to bed with a cheeseburger and spontaneously tweeting orders.”

On the third count, there’s Trump’s conflicts of interests, to which I’ve already alluded. Micklethwait highlights the contrast between how most—for lack of a better term—normal executives manage their personal investments next to those of their business, and how Trump, ever cavalier, has approached his affairs. In the author’s words once more:

In most businesses, this is something most incoming bosses deal with quickly and automatically. There’s an ethics policy, and you follow it. That policy usually has two levels: first, obeying the law; second, setting standards and following processes that avoid even the impression of any conflict. This second prohibitive level is crucial.

Again, and to make a long story short, the Trump family has failed this test, if you can even say that, because calling them failures implies they have at least nominally tried to comply with ethical and legal guidelines. They haven’t.

On the fourth and final count, there’s the communications aspect. Donald Trump is characteristically unpredictable, a quality he likely sees as a virtue because it keeps his would-be competitors guessing. Unfortunately, in terms of working with his so-called team, when figures like Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson aren’t contradicting one another, Trump himself is Tweeting something that flies in the face of what Mike Pence or Sean Spicer or some other mouthpiece for the President says. Or he’s just flat-out lying, and unlike other CEOs who ultimately cop to their falsehoods and express some degree of contrition, Trump only doubles down on his assertions, and tries to bully or goad dissenters into silence. He’s not just merely falling short on this dimension—he’s helping create a dangerous world where facts are ignored or marginalized in favor of who has the loudest or sexiest argument.

In all respects, therefore, Pres. Trump is not proving an effective leader, and America is not “winning” nearly as much as he boasted we would because of it. In fact, we may be starting to lose outright. Stocks rebounded this past Thursday across major indexes, buoyed by strong economic data, but they had to rebound because uncertainty surrounding Donald Trump and whispers of impeachment sent the Dow Jones, for one, tumbling by more than 350 points. On one hand, two or three or four days does not a definitive economic trend make. Still, with a man in the White House whose penchant is unpredictability, that we might continue to see these individual “shocks” is reasonable, if not probable. When the fate of the markets is largely in the hands of reactionary investors, the question becomes how bumpy is too bumpy a ride before these shareholders want to get off.

In closing his op-ed, John Micklethwait offers these sentiments, essentially telling us it’s up to Republican Party leaders to decide whether or not it’s time to come get their boy Trump. You know, assuming he doesn’t suddenly become more presidential—and one is advised not to hold his or her breath to that end:

There is a semi-charitable explanation for much of this chaos. Trump does not have any experience as a CEO—at least in the sense that most of corporate America would recognize. One telling irony: Many of the banking executives now trying to curry favor with him would never have lent him money in the past. His skills were in dealmaking, rather than running a large organization. The core Trump company had barely 100 people. It’s possible that if he takes on some of the basic management lessons to do with structure, process, and delegation, then he may be able to run America. The question now is whether he has already made enough mistakes for the board to get rid of him. The closest thing America has to a board is the group of Republican senators who must decide what to investigate. Trump will hate the analogy, but at this moment, their leader, Senator McConnell, is his chairman—and the CEO has a lot of explaining to do.

In the lead-in to this post, I referred to Donald Trump leading the country like there’s no tomorrow. The GOP, too, has been playing a short-term game, doing what they can to approve the legislation and nominees they wish to have confirmed, even going as far as to use the “nuclear option”—changing Senate rules to overcome the power of filibuster. Otherwise, they have been performing a balancing act with their policy stances, eager not to alienate Trump supporters in possible bids for re-election. As the rocky road of Donald J. Trump as CEO of the US of A continues, however, how long will it be before they start to panic in their own right? For those who wanted a pro-business outsider from the private sector in the Oval Office, or simply someone who would advance a conservative Republican agenda, be careful what you wish for. You may not get the returns you’ve been seeking, and even worse, you may find your support for the CEO-President only serves to work against you after all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s