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National security disarray is no reason to rejoice

It isn't quite a record: in 1844, Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmore died in an accident 9 days after taking office. And in 1869, Secretary of State Elihu Washburne fell ill and resigned 11 days into his tenure.

But after those two, Michael Flynn's 24-day stint as national security adviser tops the list. And he stands alone as the shortest-tenured senior official of any administration to be fired by his own president.

At least on the surface, Flynn lost his job for conducting allegedly unsanctioned and arguably illegal pre-inauguration negotiations with Russia's ambassador, then lying about it publicly and to White House colleagues, including the vice president.

But well before that episode, rumors were circulating about Flynn's arrogance, volatility, and inability to play nicely with others, notably the president's two Steves, Bannon and Miller. Since the NSC adviser's key function is to quarterback policy formulation and execution, he probably wasn't an ideal choice for the job in the first place.

At this writing, Flynn's successor hasn't been announced. For the moment, his deputy, retired Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, is acting as NSC adviser and presumably is a candidate for the job. 

A career infantryman, Kellogg retired as a 3-star in 2003 and has spent the past 13 years as a private defense contractor, including a stint as chief of staff to Paul Bremer, boss of Iraq's short-lived and much-criticized Coalition Provisional Authority. About his political and policy views, little is known apart from his support of Mr. Trump's candidacy.

Other names that have been circulated include those of retired Navy vice admiral and former SEAL Robert Harward and retired Army general and former CIA director David Petraeus. Any of the three would satisfy Mr. Trump's visible predilection for surrounding himself with former military officers.

Meanwhile, to describe the national security apparatus as an organization in disarray, as several Republican legislators have recently done publicly, probably would be generous. 

Several NSC staffers on loan from other agencies such as the Pentagon and State Department have returned to their departments. Of those who remain, not a few are career military officers on temporary assignment. Others are Flynn hires who almost certainly will follow him out the door, voluntarily or otherwise.

To top things off, we have the picture - no, I should say the pictures - of the president and his senior aides conducting what amounted to a rump crisis decision-making meeting at his dinner table on the terrace of his Mar-a-Lago golf club, surrounded by paying guests and accompanied by the doubtless astonished prime minister of Japan. 

 We have them courtesy of Mar-a-Lago member Richard DeAgazio, seated nearby, who shared his own amazement at the sight of this al fresco Situation Room meeting by tweeting photos of it on Facebook over the caption, "Holy Moly," which may have been the understatement of the day.

Mr. DeAgazio subsequently declared loyally that the episode showed the president to be "a man of the people" - which, I suppose, is true enough if, like Mr. DeAgazio, you happen to be one of those people who can afford Mar-a-Lago's $200,000 initiation fee.

All in all, it's hard to blink the evidence that Mr. Trump and those around him - at least those involved in the business of conducting foreign policy - are winging it, which doesn't exactly breed confidence among allies and other major international players.

 The Keystone Cops quality of all this probably won't bring down the Republic. But even Mr. Trump's most ardent supporters surely can't have anticipated that the principal achievement of his first month in office would be challenging the producers of Saturday Night Live to decide which senior administration official to lampoon next.

As I pointed out in this space a few weeks ago, the NSC is the president's creature, to use as he pleases. And, as one correspondent annoyed by what he sees as unremitting attacks on the president complained to me this week, it's still early days.

Both are statements are correct. But it's also true that, on current evidence, anyone who might have bet that Mr. Trump's approach to decision-making would change once he shifted from campaign to presidential mode would have lost his or her money.

Mr. Trump isn't the first president to demonstrate an idiosyncratic operating style. Abraham Lincoln famously had his "team of rivals," and Franklin D. Roosevelt was notorious for pitting his senior advisers against each other.

In the end, however, it's less today's organizational turmoil that worries folks than the off-hand leadership it reflects. Few presidents have been so cavalier about managing their senior staffs. That needs to change.

It's no secret that many in the foreign policy establishment opposed Mr. Trump's election. But opponents relishing his current embarrassment need to recalibrate. The one thing about which Gen. Flynn was right is that it's a dangerous world. In dealing with that world, Mr. Trump's failure would be ours, and that's a risk that we really can't afford.

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