View from the Street: Trump’s Empty Presidency
In different circumstances, the Scottish-American relationship would now be the best, most productive it has ever been.
Long in the shadow of our Irish cousins when it comes to lobbying for investment and accessing US decision-makers, Scots have often stretched credibility in trying to claim American presidents as one of “oor ain”.
Much was made, for example, of the fact that Barack Obama’s ancestry could supposedly be traced back to Scottish king William the Lion, who reigned from 1165-1214.
The Scottish Government invited Obama to the first Year of Homecoming in 2009, but unsurprisingly he didn’t show up.
So the election of a president whose mother grew up on Lewis should have been a godsend in helping to turn sentiment for Scotland stateside into hard commercial and cultural outreach.
Unfortunately, of course, the president in question is Donald J Trump.
I attended the excellent 4 July celebrations organised by the US Consulate-General in Edinburgh, and the VIP speakers all talked eloquently and knowledgeably about the links between our nations, about how each has been and remains important to the other, about tales from the past and hopes for the future.
The theme of the reception was innovation, and we even had a senior NASA official beamed in to wish us a happy Independence Day.
But it was striking that, despite having a president who is half-Scottish, nobody mentioned Trump at all in the official proceedings.
Yet the other striking thing was that our enthusiasm for the US was undimmed. For a start, the event packed out the function rooms of Edinburgh’s city chambers, and it had a number of impressive sponsors.
We were blinded by the science of the man from NASA, and bowled over by the one of the consular staff’s rendition of the Stars and Stripes.
It was as if Trump didn’t exist.
While President Trump is obviously all too real, in a curious sense his presidency is at least only partly formed.
An unprecedented number of some of the most crucial jobs in government – including senior diplomats, commissioners to regulate trade and the economy, airport security administrators and officials who deal with natural disasters – have yet to be filled by a presidential appointee.
A disturbing feature in Vanity Fair by Michael Lewis exposes the Trump White House’s chronic neglect of the Department of Energy (DOE).
Despite its name, around half of the DOE’s budget is spent on maintaining and guarding America’s nuclear weapons, and around $2bn of that goes into hunting down weapons-grade plutonium and uranium at loose in the world. In the past eight years the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration has collected enough material to make 160 nuclear bombs, and the department trains every international atomic energy inspector.
Yet as Lewis reports, Trump’s people didn’t grasp any of this, and even worse didn’t seem to care.
After being elected, Obama and Bush had nominated their top 10 people at the DOE by now and installed most of them. Trump has nominated three and installed just one: former Texas Governor Rick Perry as Energy Secretary – who used to want to abolish the department.
There is a lot of drama happening in Washington just now but not much governing being done by the White House. Government is happening elsewhere.
When Trump announced that he was pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, Michael Bloomberg and California Governor Jerry Brown launched America’s Pledge, a new initiative that will report on the individual efforts taken by US states, cities and businesses to drive down greenhouse emissions “consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement.”
And Trump even hinted during his Bastille Day visit to France that he might reverse his decision. So much for consistency.
We had his odious announcement this week via Twitter of a ban on transgender people serving in the armed forces. But the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, has informed service members that there will be “no modifications to the current policy until the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidelines.” In the meantime “we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect,” Dunford wrote in a memo to the military.
Who knows when – or even if – it will happen.
In a late night sitting, the US Senate rejected a measure to repeal parts of the Obamacare health system, thanks to three Republicans voting against the Bill, including John McCain. That scuppers Trump’s number one promise. Of the border wall, there is, thankfully, no sign yet.
There are many other issues of course, but the question – which I guess we will only be able to answer in the run-up to the next presidential election in 2020 – is whether it’s possible to have a presidency that doesn’t make any difference and doesn’t actually accomplish anything; that is all sound and fury, signifying nothing. That may raise bigger questions about a balanced system and structure of government that Americans take great pride in.
But in the meantime, it may be the best that America, and the rest of the world, can hope for.