Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: A Study in Contrasts

The President of the United States and the most-talked-about freshman Representative in ages could not be more different.

Two stories out overnight highlight important differences between the President of the United States and the most-talked-about freshman Representative in ages.

Samantha Vinograd, a CNN National Security Analyst who served on President Obama’s National Security Council and at the US Treasury under President Bush (“Hanoi Summit Failed Because Trump Refuses to Prep“):

President Donald Trump’s failure to engage in the most basic preparatory work for this summit—and his longstanding penchant for putting personal convictions ahead of his experts’ opinions—meant that there was no way that he could have come out of this summit with a denuclearization deal.

I helped prep President Barack Obama for high-level meetings, and President Trump’s failure to engage in the first step of any presidential meeting prep was a strong indicator that this summit was doomed to fail.

Typically, summit prep begins with the president and his intelligence community agreeing on a baseline assessment of the state-of-play, in this case the status of North Korea’s nuclear program and Kim Jong Un’s intentions. The intelligence community’s assessment that North Korea will not denuclearize, the open-source analysis that Pyongyang is still proliferating weapons of mass destruction, and reporting that North Korea is taking extra steps to disburse its arsenal seemingly fell on deaf ears.

In January President Trump said that his intelligence community was wrong on North Korea and there’s reporting that he put more faith in Vladimir Putin’s North Korea analysis (which is never unbiased) underplaying North Korea’s missile threat than he did in the U.S. intelligence community’s analysis.

Without presidential agreement on a baseline assessment on North Korea’s program and Kim’s intentions, it was clear that President Trump couldn’t have been fully prepping with his own, home team. Absent an agreed upon assessment, there was no way to identify a realistic goal for the summit or a strategy to achieve it.

Because President Trump still thought that denuclearization was possible heading into the Hanoi Summit-based on his own personal assessment (or Putin’s) of Kim Jong Un’s intentions-his goals for the Summit were out of touch with reality.

The intelligence community assessed that Kim wouldn’t denuclearize, but instead of taking a step back and reassessing what we could realistically get from Kim—a nuclear freeze vs. denuclearization for example—President Trump went into the summit with unachievable goals.

Because he didn’t prepare appropriately and fully understand his counterpart’s intentions in this complex negotiation he pushed for something that none of his intelligence experts thought he would ever get.

There’s quite a bit more but you get the gist. This fiasco of a summit was a microcosm of the Trump presidency. Leaving aside concerns about corruption, cozying up to our nation’s adversaries, making common cause with autocrats, and the other nefarious things with which many accuse him, this administration fails to achieve even the legitimate goals which it should have because of Trump’s laziness and inability to utilize the enormous talents and informational advantages that come with heading up the Executive branch of government.

Yesterday morning, I got into a Twitter conversation about this very issue with several national security hands, notably Steve Metz and Steve Saideman. Metz made an offhand tweet wondering when it is that the notion that a President could go to a summit meeting without the outcome already in hand. I noted that Barack Obama actually campaigned on that very notion in 2008, to the ridicule of his eventual Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and his future Republican opponent, John McCain. Saideman pointed out that it’s very different to go into a summit without preconditions and quite another to go without preparation.

I agreed wholeheartedly. While Obama’s early campaign position was naive, it was well-intentioned. And while he insisted that he never abandoned it, he actually did quite early in substance. And that’s because, while I thought Obama lacked the experience and seasoning for the office, he was both incredibly smart and a natural grind. He took the job seriously and worked studiously to learn the ropes.

Similarly, while there’s ample room to criticize Obama for relying too much on his inner circle and not enough on career experts, he instinctively understood that, while he may actually have been the smartest guy in the room most of the time, he wasn’t the smartest on any given issue. As Vinograd says, he let people who knew what they were doing lay the ground for his success. And, to the extent they were successful in doing so, he rightly reaped the credit.

Contrast that with this story by Daniel Marans and Paul Blumenthal at HuffPo (“Behind Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Masterful Interrogation Of Michael Cohen“):

The freshman New York congresswoman “expertly laid a trap” to get President Donald Trump’s tax returns, and “won” the Cohen hearing, according to two raving press accounts.


Notwithstanding her impressive performance, the secret to Ocasio-Cortez’s success was remarkably prosaic ― a team effort informed by the desire to uncover truth for the public’s benefit, according to staff.

“If there was one person that wasn’t involved in this question preparation and committee preparation, it wouldn’t have been as successful as it was,” said Klarissa Reynoso, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief legislative correspondent who supervised the congresswoman’s preparation for the hearing.

Working alongside intergovernmental affairs chief Randy Abreu, Reynoso began her research on Cohen last Thursday when the staff learned the date of Cohen’s committee testimony.

The professional staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform worked nonstop last weekend to draft a list of 35 questions that each Democrat on the panel could choose from, and put their own stamp on.

On Tuesday, after conferring with Ocasio-Cortez, Reynoso met with committee staff to select a question. She chose to pursue the line of inquiry about Trump’s efforts to devalue golf course property to lower his taxes.

“If we didn’t ask those questions we would be doing an injustice for the American people,” Reynoso explained. “We wouldn’t be doing our jobs.”

I redacted a lot of the substance of the questioning—which was indeed masterful—because it’s tangential to my point here. Leaving aside the fanboy breathlessness of the reporting and self-serving nature of her staff’s answers, we see rather clearly what’s driving Ocasio-Cortez’ meteoric rise. Yes, she’s young and attractive. Yes, she’s glib on social media. But it’s also clear that she has a very strong work ethic and heavily relies on her staff.

A few weeks back, Dan Drezner tweeted admiring how good AOC is at Twitter—replying to attempts to “own” her with awesome rejoinders that not only embarrassed the opponent but reinforced her Progressive message. I replied that, at worst, she had a staff that was very good at it. Some of her fanboys jumped in berating me for daring to challenge the notion that a young woman could be good at something. No, I replied, it was actually intended as a compliment. AOC is clearly quick on her feet and incredibly poised. But it’s much important for a leader to be able to utilize a team to achieve their goals. I frankly don’t want my political leaders sitting around on social media all day coming up with clever quips. To the extent she has surrounded herself with a good team and allows them to serve her well, it enhances, not diminishes, her.

Even more so than Obama, AOC came to the job without the typical seasoning. She has made numerous silly gaffes stemming from naivete and ignorance. But she appears, like him, to be willing to put in the work to get better and, just as importantly, surround herself with people who know what they’re doing and take advantage of their advice.

The contrast with the 45th Presdident of the United States couldn’t be more stark.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. mattbernius says:

    I’m not sure there’s much to add James. I agree on all points.

  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    Intelligence isn’t experience or judgment but it’s the superpower that allows one to quickly absorb and adapt to new situations and accelerate the acquisition of experience, whether directly or indirectly. Obama was intelligent. AOC is intelligent. Trump is stupid.

  3. Eric Florack says:

    If Trump and come out of there with the deal that was being offered by Kim yes, we’ve been hearing Non-Stop about how it was a horrible deal and he signed off on it just to get out of the hot mess that the Democrats were generating in those Congressional show hearings.

    Sorry, not impressed

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Nailed it.

  5. Moosebreath says:

    Well said, James.

  6. mattbernius says:

    @Eric Florack:
    The point is that the summit should never have been held. You keep breaking your back to compare Trump at Hanoi to Reagan at Reykjavik. But that’s utter ahistorical bullshit and frankly an insult to Reagan. Going into Reykjavik the two sides were largely aligned on their goals. It was the sticking points that Reagan walked out over.

    The two sides entered Hanoi completely out of alignment. EVERYONE knew that. It’s just Trump thought he could wing it and get a deal when there wasn’t base agreement. And it demonstrated again that his deal making abilities — especially in situations where he doesn’t have any real leverage — are nonexistent.

    The result was that embarrassment — not to mention the entire Otto Warmbier embarrassment. Which just caused the family to speak out and undercut Trump? Or are you about to decide that their enemys of the state and their son deserved to die?

  7. grumpy realist says:

    @Eric Florack: Trump is a lazy idiot who can’t be bothered to prep for international “negotiations” because he thinks he’s a genius. When in truth he’s easily manipulated by anyone who tells him how marvellous he is.

    Very much like you, I suspect. Signed up for any Nigerian spam letters recently?

  8. Kathy says:

    Let’s try an analogy.

    If you want to buy a used car, you’d do well to know the going price for the make and model you want, and to bring a mechanic who can tell you what condition it’s in. This keeps you from overpaying for a lemon.

  9. Paul L. says:

    AOC is good at reading the questions provided to her. == She is a genius.

    Extra points for quoting Dan “WE must pass TARP” Drezner.

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Do you still believe “We have reached the Nixon Tapes moment” in Mueller raiding Cohen’s office?

  10. MarkedMan says:

    But it’s much important for a leader to be able to utilize a team to achieve their goals.

    This. A thousand times this. And not just on the front end. This team is even more important on the back end.

    I know I keep coming back to this as an example but it’s really a master class in how to legislate. The public thinks of Obamacare as almost exclusively about the insurance, but there are volumes and volumes of regulations concerning many, many other matters. Prep work on some of those went back to Hillary Clinton’s task force when Bill was president. I was very aware of certain areas, because some of what I was working on at the time would be significantly more or less viable depending on how the final regs were written. For instance, the law required hospitals and clinical groups above a certain size to a) adapt electronic medical records and b) achieve “meaningful use”. The corporations lobbied really hard to keep that “meaningful use” fuzzy and kum-by-yah-ish, but the Obama and Congressional teams had spent decades watching how legislation worked or didn’t work. When the rules came down, some were disappointed that they weren’t more aspirational. But I thought they were brilliant because they were very specific, very measurable, and they started in year one with only five measurements. (I think by year 4 they were up to 19, but my memory is fuzzy on this). And they were backed by incentives if they were achieved and fines if they were not, fines that increased over time and incentives that decreased over time. And I know of a couple of dozen other things in that legislation that followed similar pathways.

    In the end even a mediocre win executed by a crack team has a much larger impact than a showy splash with poor followup. I can’t imagine that by this time even Trump supporters would claim that he “selects the best people” or that “he strongly motivates a team to excel”. My god, he can’t even get a qualified person to accept the Ambassador to the UN position, and instead first nominated some rando Fox News clown, who literally seemed unaware that the US and Germany were on separate sides in WWII.When she proved to be too much of a loser for even the pathetic and weak Republican Congress-Critters to stomach, he nominated someone who’s only real qualification is that she was a campaign donor to Trump. Yes, the best Trump can do in filling the second highest state department position in the most powerful country on earth, is to nominate someone with all the qualifications of Ambassador to Fiji.

  11. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Eric Florack:

    If Trump and come out of there with the deal that was being offered by Kim yes, we’ve been hearing Non-Stop about how it was a horrible deal

    It was a horrible deal. The North Koreans wants no US Troops in the Korean Peninsula(In part because these troops can be used to block Chinese Ports or block the only Russian port in the Pacific in warm waters) and enforcing it on the North Korean side would require endless inspections of every possible site, and they, for obvious reasons, would not want it.

    If North Korea opens only a little bit Kim Jong Un would have the same fate as Mussolini or Nicolae Ceaușescu, and they know it.

  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Paul L.:
    Oh, dude, we are way beyond that. Way, way beyond that. Nixon was guilty of conspiracy re: the break-in, and obstruction of justice. We have Trump on money-laundering, financial fraud, election fraud, suborning perjury, obstruction of justice, the taking of bribes and collusion with a hostile foreign power to rig the election.

    If Trump were anything other than president he’d already be in jail awaiting multiple trials with a likelihood of dying in prison. And two years from now, guess what? He won’t have that immunity anymore.

    More fun: the Trump Org. has no presidential immunity. Neither do Don Jr. and Ivanka and Jared. So on top of everything else, his company will be annihilated and his brand rendered even more toxic than it is. It’s a thing of beauty. Then what does the POS do? Write books on policy, like Nixon? Hah. If he manages to avoid prison he’ll be a paid speaker for right-wing fringe groups who’ll put him up in the nearest Holiday Inn Express. You’ll be able to see him down at the breakfast bar trying to figure out the toaster.

    Pardon, resign, flee. I was right when I first said it more than two years ago. It’s still his only path, and even that has been compromised by the Attorney Generals of NY and VA – orange man can’t pardon state crimes.

  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Paul L.:
    Oh, and I totally forgot: running a fraudulent charity. Let’s not forget the ‘charity.’

  14. Gustopher says:

    @Paul L.:

    AOC is good at reading the questions provided to her. == She is a genius.

    Let’s just assume that this is all she did for a moment, and that she walked into that hearing room, looked down at a piece of paper she had never seen before, and then read the questions… a dubious proposition, but let’s pretend.

    Yes, recognizing that the questions on that piece of paper were better than what she would get if she just winged it…. yes, that’s smart, right there.

  15. Kathy says:


    I can’t imagine that by this time even Trump supporters would claim that he “selects the best people” or that “he strongly motivates a team to excel”.

    Not directly, no.

    But can’t you picture in political offices all across the land, and across parties, too, people chastising an unsatisfactory staffer or aide, by saying “Keep it up, Jones, and you’ll find yourself working for Trump.”

  16. Tom Strong says:

    Excellent post. There’s another piece here that I think is worth bringing up: a fundamental reason Trump can’t utilize a team well is because he has a long and well-earned reputation as a terrible manager. One who is not only temperamental and graceless, but who has a well-documented history of not paying people for their work.

    That’s a notable contrast to AOC, who has recently been lambasted by some mediots as a “communist” for raising the minimum compensation in her office to over $50,000. I have no doubt there are ideological reasons behind her decision, but part of the effect of it is to show that she values the people who work under her, and who in turn may feel inspired to do their best work for her.

    Is it possible she is, or eventually will be, a bad boss? Sure. Maybe some Klobuchar-esque stories will be told about her at some future date. And even if she’s not bad she might turn out to be mediocre for other reasons. Raising the minimum wage in an organization is not the only, or necessarily even the most important way to show you care about people and get them to want to work for you.

    But it’s a sharp contrast to a Republican party which at present seems to be devoted to lionizing a man who stiffs contractors, abuses employees, and has shown himself to be a terrible leader in many other ways. And I would argue that doesn’t just hurt the Republican brand. It will hurt leadership development and employee performance in Republican-led organizations and companies for years to come.

  17. SenyorDave says:

    A female POC who is outspoken. That’s the dream combination for the lunatic right to go after (and judging by who attends and speaks at CPAC, the lunatic right dominates the Republican party – Pence is there and Sebastian Gorka is a featured speaker).
    I looked at her Wikipedia page, and she appears to be a very accomplished woman. That seems to be a red flag for GOP these days.

  18. Teve says:

    @SenyorDave: the same Sebastian Gorka who recently claimed that Ruth bader Ginsburg is actually dead.

  19. SenyorDave says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Let’s not forget the ‘charity.’

    Nobody should ever forget the charity. the Trump Foundation admitted that they violated the ban on self-dealing (AKA stealing). And if for some reason Trump is the 2020 candidate I want to see the fact that he stole from his charity featured in campaign ads. Let’s see some ads about character and just feature some of Trump’s greatest hits.

    I want to see an ad that says “what sort of person steals from a charity?” Answer – The same sort of person who has to pay $25 million because he fronted a scam university. The same sort of person who stiffs contractors, hard working Americans. And so on

    Get some good directors and writers, there’s lots of good material when you have a con man like Trump and his sleazy and incompetent advisors.

  20. Joe says:

    @Tom Strong:
    Like Reynolds‘s pardon, resign, flee refrain, I have been saying for a long time that, even if believed Trump was good at his real estate business, his management style is not scalable. You can run a small business through force of will. You can’t do that in a large organization, let alone a federal government. Trump is – who said this cause it sounds so familiar – tempermentally unsuited to his job.

  21. Kathy says:

    @Tom Strong:

    I have no doubt there are ideological reasons behind her decision, but part of the effect of it is to show that she values the people who work under her, and who in turn may feel inspired to do their best work for her.

    My understanding is that junior staffers on the Hill are horribly underpaid and overworked, requiring often a second job to make ends meet. There are also unpaid interns, who come largely from privileged backgrounds (try and live in or near DC without a salary).

    So if Ocasio-Cortez is making it possible for even a few people of more modest means to start careers in DC, well, naturally that’s worse than Stalin and Mao (Not Kim. He’s been rehabilitated, don’t you know).

  22. An Interested Party says:

    Funny how some people want to paint AOC as some kind of evil communist…at least she’d never kiss the ass of a communist dictator like President In Over His Head did…

  23. Teve says:

    @An Interested Party: can you imagine if AOC said that she and Kim Jong Un “fell in love”????

  24. An Interested Party says:

    can you imagine if AOC said that she and Kim Jong Un “fell in love”????

    No, actually I can’t..she strikes me as having much better taste than that…

  25. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @An Interested Party: Yeah, that reason, too.

  26. wr says:

    @Just Meg: Hi cross-dressing Bungles!

  27. Mikey says:
  28. Barry says:

    @Just Meg: “…after he accomplished more than they ever did in just two years?”

    I guess that you ran out of words before getting to his actual accomplishments.

  29. Teve says:
  30. The abyss that is the soul of cracker says:

    Someone on this thread seems to not understand what the word “accomplished” means.

  31. An Interested Party says:

    And now the people who failed on North Korea for a quarter-century are going to criticize Donald Trump after he accomplished more than they ever did in just two years?

    Would anyone care to explain what Trump has “accomplished”?

    …the eleventy billion stupid thing she’s been documented to have said or any of the questionable things she’s already done in just a few months in Congress.

    Compared to Trump? Oh please…