For a guy with as many new presidential panels under his belt as full months in office, President Donald Trump sure is comfortable mocking them. A day before his administration trotted out his latest such panel — this one built to craft policy responses to the Parkland school shooting that’s occasionally put Trump crosswise with his NRA allies — the president slagged such approaches off to a crowd of supporters in Pennsylvania.
“We can’t just keep setting up blue-ribbon committees with your wife and your wife and your husband, and they meet and they have a meal and they talk, talk, talk, talk,” Trump said at a rally Saturday near Pittsburgh, after re-upping his past proposal to have drug dealers executed. “Two hours later, then they write a report.”
Whatever you make of the content and delivery, Trump’s joke came with undeniably lousy timing. Barely 24 hours earlier, Trump had announced a new presidential commission to study the hurdles former prisoners face on re-entering society. Within another day, his White House announced a new commission on school shootings, chaired by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. They were the 10th and 11th such bodies Trump has created in his young presidency.
Neither of these newest commissions has a firm timeline, and each has a broad and vague brief. The two might or might not recommend any given action, and Trump might or might not listen when they do. They have all the hallmarks of the political subterfuge that have long made blue-ribbon committees a target of easy derision for politicians of all stripes.
Trump has already fathered a litany of committees, including the Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion he launched last June and the Presidential Advisory Council on Infrastructure, born the following month. Trump has convened commissions on agricultural policy, trade policy, technology, and crime. He has also used executive orders to fiddle in the margins with numerous existing bodies, including tweaks to the Obama-era Threat Mitigation Working Group in February 2017, an overhaul of the longstanding President’s Council on Physical Fitness that erased former First Lady Michelle Obama’s signature “Let’s Move” campaign, and the relocation of a presidential panel on historically-black colleges and universities from one part of the executive bureaucracy to another.
The approach speaks to Trump’s understanding of how to manipulate the media, as University of Texas political science professor Bruce Buchanan told the New York Times after one early round of such orders. “He wants to be in the papers for having endorsed things he is generally in favor of, even though there’s nothing really new,” Buchanan said.
Trump has even brought one defunct panel – the National Space Council – back from the dead. And in a single executive order last September, he extended the charter of 32 separate commissions, advisory councils, and interagency groups convened by his predecessors – the exact kind of perfunctory move almost all presidents make to zero astonishment, but which makes this president’s stage bluster seem duplicitous.
A leader can either believe in the value of consensus, expertise, and delegation, or he can reject those things. Trump’s record of executive actions signals he sees political value in the presidency’s convening power, even if his speeches veer in the opposite direction.
Even if you discard the low-profile iterations of Trumpian commissioneering, you’ll still have a healthy stack of shaggy new groups with little accomplishment to their names.
Take the Office of American Innovation, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s signature undertaking. Unveiled in March 2017, Kushner’s new White House group was supposed to revamp technology solutions and management techniques across the manifold functions of the federal government. A year later, BuzzFeed reported Monday, the group initially billed as a “SWAT team of strategic consultants” has done zilch. “Over a dozen people inside or close to the White House…said they had no real idea what the Office of American Innovation was there for and couldn’t point to any major policy wins,” reporter Tarini Parti summarized.
Ditto Trump’s commission on opioid policy, led by former rival turned sycophant Chris Christie (R-NJ). Christie’s team managed, less than six months after launching, to issue the kind of report Trump mocked on stage Saturday. But the president didn’t take up the group’s substantive recommendations for major policy change and funding injections, instead declaring a public health emergency, claiming credit for a number of investments begun under the prior administration, and then sitting on his hands for the rest of 2017. The latest White House budget calls for investing several billion dollars into opioid policy work, but even those aspirations are far from the funding levels experts say the problem requires – and they come tailored to the exact kind of old-school lock-em-up War on Drugs mentality that several members of the Christie commission want to replace with modern thinking. The commissioners themselves have derided Trump’s opioid commission as a paralytic sham.
The highest-profile Trump panel is also one of his most prominent humiliations. In January, Trump quietly rescinded authorization for the Presidential Commission on Election Integrity just eight months after creating it. The body was intended to vindicate Trump’s own claims that millions of Hillary Clinton voters had cast ballots illegally, a baseless lie that went much further than even the most ardent conspiracists who insist voter fraud is a major problem despite all evidence to the contrary.
In Saturday’s speech, Trump seemed to imply that such presidential panels are a sign of unseriousness or weakness.
It stands to reason that he thinks they’re a tool for signaling rather than for substance – that if a president really cares about something, he’ll put his own political capital on the line by campaigning for it personally. And Trump’s behavior is consistent with that theory. He’s crusaded for trickle-down tax relief and a physical barrier at the U.S.-Mexico border. He’s even lent personal attention, albeit in more spastic and temporary form, to the future of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children.
But on opioid deaths, violent crime, farmers’ issues, technological innovation, infrastructure, and now even the mass murder of schoolkids, he’s seen fit to pass the mic.
These are things for other people to talk about, maybe over a dinner or two, and then crank out reports. Trump doesn’t really care about them, or doesn’t like the political math of becoming intimately involved in the details of the work. It’s hard to say which, in part because the Trump record on presidential commissions is so scattershot and inconsistent.