Having a poor opinion of Trump’s overall capabilities, it is pretty easy for me to explain the incoherence of Trump’s choices for his national security team.
Trump likes guys who strike him as tough, no-nonsense, plain-talking practical types. He sees himself as a man of that mold, and he likes the idea of being surrounded by such men. Retired General James Mattis and Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson are not only perfectly cast for those roles, they actually are tough, no-nonsense, plain-talking practical types. You can agree or disagree with their views about this or that matter, and you can fret about having a recently-retired general in charge of Defense or someone with such deep corporate ties running State. But in terms of individual capacities it would be hard to find more capable stewards of their respective departments.
But Trump also likes extremist crackpots with a penchant for conspiracy theories. He has a weakness for conspiracy theories himself, and he seems to associate extremism and crackpottery with open-mindedness and a resistance to political correctness. I suspect listening to them makes him feel smart in a way that listening to proper intelligence does not, because proper intelligence trades in probabilities and possibilities while the crackpot offers certainty. Retired General Michael Flynn and Ambassador John Bolton are about as cracked a pair of pots as you are likely to find at their level of experience, and they will have ample opportunity to pour their chosen poison into the President’s ear. The amount of damage they could do is hard to fathom.
How could the same individual make both sets of appointments? It makes no sense at all if you assume that it’s an informed strategy of some sort. But it makes perfect sense if it’s just a matter of psychology, of how they make the boss feel.
Now we have to hope that the tough, practical types have a strategy for isolating, undermining and ultimately disposing of the crackpots. My only comfort is that they both probably know that this is a key part of their job descriptions, as well as their patriotic duty. My fear is that the crackpots know just as well that their job is to undermine their boss’s confidence in the sober men’s loyalty, and that it’s a job they know they are good at.