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We learned something extraordinarily valuable last week about Donald Trump’s qualifications to be president when, in the words of oh-so-many news reports, there was another shake up of his tiny campaign team. Sadly, most all of the breaking news reports and initial opinion columns missed it.
The gist of the news reports concerned the firing of one campaign manager – who evidently had been an unregistered, deceptive and highly paid foreign agent for a Moscow-leaning Ukraine government – and the hiring of a new one, the overseer of a fringe website that makes up fantastical “news” reports which Trump regards as factual.
The widely reported significance: Trump was blowing off the Republican establishment and retaining inexperienced enablers who would, as the saying goes, let Trump be Trump.
That’s important news, but the focus on personalities, style and the inside baseball of the campaign missed the much bigger story, the one that matters to America and the rest of the world.
What the latest campaign staff changes made indisputable is that Donald Trump does not have a plan to win the White House. He never has.
Ponder that for a moment. A man who brags about his supposed business acumen seeks the most powerful job in the world by the seat of his pants. Trump has publicly lusted about occupying the Oval Office since 1985, yet he never put in the time to develop a strategy to win the presidency.
Politics reporters love to invoke the clichés “road to the White House” or “roadmap to victory.” Trump doesn’t consult campaign roadmaps. It is not even clear he knows how to read one, especially after spurning experienced campaign hands in choosing as his campaign CEO one Stephen Bannon, who was chairman of Brietbart.com, a pugnacious promoter of “news” created from whole cloth and a former Goldman Sachs-er. The last is especially curious given Trump’s insistence that something is amiss about his opponent’s getting paid for speeches before Goldman Sachs-ers.
A candidate with a plan would run from Bannon fast, in good part because Bannon wants voters to reject House Speaker Paul Ryan, described at Breitbart as a “double agent" in league with Hillary Clinton. Were Trump elected, none of his grand promises – that wall on the Mexican border, tariffs on Chinese goods, barring Muslims from entering the country – could have even a slim chance of becoming reality without the approval of the Speaker, who controls the flow of all legislation in Congress.
Presidents court Speakers regardless of what they think of them personally or politically. They certainly do not publicly attack them and embrace their foes.
The wrong lesson to draw from this would be that Trump doesn't really want to be president. He does. What Trump doesn't know is how to win the votes that would put him in the Oval Office just as, were he to be elected, he doesn't have a clue about the duties, limitations and responsibilities of the presidency as laid down in the Constitution.
Despite three decades of time to plan for a successful presidential campaign, all Trump offers is bluster, bullying and pure bull.
Keep in mind the presidential debates last December when Trump was asked about his nuclear triad priorities. His answer revealed a total ignorance about nuclear deterrence. Sen. Marco Rubio, something of an empty suit himself, then schooled Trump on America's ability to deliver nuclear weapons three ways – from submarine-based missiles, land-based missiles or bombers.
Even more disturbing, as my book "The Making of Donald Trump" reveals, is that Trump was asked the same question four months earlier by the same questioner, the very smart right-wing radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt. Trump’s answer on the radio was the same kind of gibberish he delivered on television
Hewitt, when I ran into him the other day, marveled that Trump did nothing in the intervening four months to learn about the nuclear triad.
Then there’s the campaign itself. Trump is running a Wag the Dog campaign, a reality-show version of an actual campaign that depends on lots of television coverage of his outlandish statements and long stretches where he retreats from public sight.
Every major party candidate for president in modern times has set up offices around the country to identify and cultivate voters who might be swayed, to reach out to donors and then to get supporters to the polls on election day. But as the political reporters covering the campaign keep pointing out, Trump has no significant ground game. His campaign is a mirage.
Compare Trump’s bumbling, fumbling and stumbling on the campaign trail to the unlikeliest president of modern times, Barack Obama. As a black freshman senator from Illinois, Obama had the audacity just two years into his first term to declare for the White House. Obama’s team had little money compared to the presumptive 2008 Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. Both Obama and Clinton, however, had well-developed plans to get their party's nomination.
Obama was, for all practical purposes, a political novice and yet he executed with precision a plan that won him the Democratic Party nomination in 2008 and the general election.
The Obama team understood the party rules in the primaries and the general election rules in the general election. They also knew how to use social media and rhetoric to win with grace and dignity. Trump has none of this.
Richard Nixon had ten fewer years than Trump to go from thinking he could be president to taking the oath of office. Nixon had a plan in 1960 that almost worked. In 1968 his much more thoroughly developed plan — unfortunately one built on deception and dirty money – put him in the White House.
In business and in the nonprofit world, competent executives plan for the future. To get from here to there, they study and think, gather data, assign subordinates to make studies, ask hard questions, write out plans and then change them as the facts and circumstances dictate. The smartest and most successful executives solicit contrary opinions and pay attention to warnings, just as military officers are trained to solicit options from their subordinates. Competent executives maintain focus on what is realistic.
The biggest job in the world is president of the United States yet the Republican nominee treats it as less worthy of preparation, planning and thoughtful execution than the development of a golf course.
Ask not what Trump can do for America, ask what you can do to ensure that in the future only well-prepared candidates get either major party's nomination for president.
Pulitzer Prize winner and recipient of an IRE medal and the George Polk Award, David Cay Johnston is author of five books. His new book, The Making of Donald Trump, was published on August 2, 2016. His next one will be The Prosperity Tax: A New Federal Tax Code for the 21st Century Economy. Johnston is a Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law and Whitman School of Management, and also writes for The Daily Beast and Tax Notes.
This essay first ran in The Daily Beast.