If President Trump Really Doesn't Read Memos, That's A Huge Problem

I used to deliver President Obama's briefing materials and know what those documents contain.
02/11/2017 09:28 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2017
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

I used to manage President Obama’s briefing materials, delivering them late in the evening through the Colonnade at the White House or down the narrow hallway aboard Air Force One. I know what presidential briefings contain, and regardless of what you think of President Trump’s policies, reports that he has trouble concentrating on these materials should be a matter of concern.

The daily flow of presidential memos not only prepares the president for each day, it is central to decision-making and policy planning. The White House paper process carries recommendations from his advisors, through relevant White House offices for review, and finally to the president’s desk for consideration – from trade deals and treaties to military matters.

Mr. Trump has reportedly requested that his memos be no longer than one page, containing no more than nine bullets. The brevity of recently leaked memos regarding the president’s early immigration actions suggest this ‘CliffsNotes’ approach may already be in place. By way of comparison, Mr. Obama received a 57-page memo when considering his early administration priority: how to rescue the economy. The leaked memos for Mr. Trump contain far less information than comparable documents that I saw reach Mr. Obama’s desk, and suggest that his advisors do not think Mr. Trump will bother to read even the very brief memo they have written.

Mr. Trump’s reported inability to focus on written materials has revealed itself in more important ways than embarrassing anecdotes that have emerged from his calls with world leaders. His disengagement reveals itself in ways that can affect people’s lives, like in Mr. Trump’s hastily crafted and poorly executed order on immigration. By not actively engaging with written material, he is failing to pass a basic test of competence in a few ways.

Leaked memos for Mr. Trump contain far less information than comparable documents that I saw reach Mr. Obama’s desk.

First, if the president does not demand a meaningful analysis and rollout plan to accompany his actions, his advisors are more likely to draft and execute them in a haphazard manner. Mr. Obama, and I suspect any other president, would have refused to approve executive actions he felt were not fully thought through.  

For example, a leaked memo reportedly presenting Mr. Trump with the proposed ban on travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries seems to conform to Mr. Trump’s one-page rule. Setting aside the wisdom of this policy, this document is woefully inadequate in explaining such a sweeping and sudden change. The memo does not offer an analysis of real world impacts, a detailed rollout plan, dissenting views, or possible adverse consequences, all of which clearly would have been useful to consider given the resulting confusion and ongoing legal challenges. Stunningly, the document does not even include discussion from the National Security Advisor on potential ramifications to our relationships with the seven countries affected by the ban – even Iraq, where our troops are still serving. Any executive, let alone the president, should know to ask these types of critical questions before signing off on a new policy.

Second, although almost painfully obvious, Mr. Trump should read executive actions before signing them. His reported anger over not knowing what was in an executive action that he signed reorganizing the National Security Council ― and elevating Steve Bannon to the NSC’s Principal’s Committee in the process ― suggests that the president is not performing this straightforward task. It is easy to imagine the president’s advisors continuing to take advantage of his willingness to rubber-stamp policies he does not take the time to understand.

Finally and simply, the president’s meetings and calls are enormously consequential. Reports of German Chancellor Angela Merkel ‘educating’ the president about the United States’ obligations under the Geneva Conventions may merely be an unfortunate aside during a conversation with an ally, but the same lack of preparedness could be downright dangerous when speaking with an adversary who will look to exploit any perceived weakness.

Like all Americans with a Twitter account, I know very well what Mr. Trump chooses to spend time on instead.

During the campaign, Mr. Trump suggested he might be too busy to read. Like all Americans with a Twitter account, I know very well what Mr. Trump chooses to spend time on instead. One could argue that the president could simply receive all briefings verbally instead of in writing. In my experience, it is not a question of ‘either-or’ – both are essential. Entering office without the benefit of government experience, Mr. Trump in particular would seem to stand the most to gain from disciplined review of briefings, especially given his late night phone calls to determine whether a strong dollar or a weak dollar is better for the U.S. economy. More importantly, when the president begins attending summits with his counterparts around the world, he cannot rush out of the room to confer with an aide every time someone asks for his view on a policy he did not bother to read about ahead of time.  

President Nixon described the demands of the presidency as a constant struggle between “getting on top of the job, or having the job get on top of you.” But instead of wrestling with the substantive demands of the job like other presidents, Mr. Trump reportedly chooses to watch cable television to inform himself. The job appears to be on top of him.  

The American people have entrusted in Mr. Trump a solemn responsibility ― to carefully weigh the pros and cons of decisions that affect each of us. Mr. Trump owes it to the American people to gather all of the information he can when making decisions that affect our lives and livelihoods. Reading is part of the job description.

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