Presidents, ideally speaking, have two sorts of duties. The first is pursuing one's political agenda, within constitutional norms: passing bills to boost or cut social welfare spending, adjusting regulations, fiddling with taxes, and so on. Then there are the daily maintenance tasks to keep the machinery of state ticking over: staffing the national bureaucracy with quality employees, maintaining national defense and infrastructure, dealing with natural disasters, and so on.
Obviously these are ideal categories and will tend to overlap in any presidency. But the recent story of Boeing's troubled new 737 Max 8 jet demonstrates without question that President Trump is absolutely wretched at the latter tasks. He doesn't care about the job and couldn't do it even if he tried. American lives are in danger as a result.
Two of the Max 8 planes have crashed in the last six months, one in Indonesia and one in Ethiopia this week. Worse, the crashes may be due to defects in the plane, not pilot error. It turns out that at least five U.S. pilots have complained about janky systems on the Max 8, one of which noting autopilot troubles of the sort that may have led to the Ethiopia crash:
For one U.S. incident in November 2018, a commercial airline pilot reported that during takeoff, the autopilot was engaged and "within two to three seconds the aircraft pitched nose down," in a manner steep enough to trigger the plane's warning system, which sounded "Don't sink, don't sink!" After the autopilot was disengaged, the plane climbed as normal, according to the report. [Politico]
Now, airline travel is still extremely safe. But the reason it is safe is because of a complex and extremely effective regulatory bureaucracy in almost every country in the world, whose operations have been carefully coordinated over decades. That is why Max 8's have been grounded across almost the whole world. If one wants to keep air travel safe, it's important to keep on top of these sorts of problems. "The autopilot sometimes crashes the plane" is a possibility that must be either ruled out or corrected.
But not in Trump's America! At time of writing, the U.S. is the only major country in the world where Max 8's continue to fly. They're grounded in Canada, China, the E.U., South America, and Africa. And why is that? It probably has something to do with Boeing CEO Dennis A. Muilenburg calling up Trump and promising the plane is safe. (The fact that grounding the new plane would cost Boeing a ton of money is just a slight side detail, no doubt.) Muilenburg has also visited Mar-a-Lago, and Boeing donated $1 million to Trump's inaugural committee, which is under criminal investigation for corruption.
It's also worth noting that the Federal Aviation Administration still has no officially confirmed chief, as Trump tried for months to get his personal pilot appointed to the job, only recently giving up and reportedly picking a former airline executive instead.
The remarkable thing about this is that it puts rich and powerful people in potential danger. Only the very wealthiest can afford to fly private or charter jets — everyone else, including members of Congress (who are constantly flying back and forth to their districts) flies commercial. And it doesn't matter whether you pay for first class and Premium Platinum Executive Sapphire early boarding or whatever, if the plane goes down you are the exact same smoking cinder as the proles in economy class.
But Trump gets a call from one rich CEO who has given him lots of money, and he goes along with it (and naturally, he's got Air Force One to carry him around). He seems to be convinced the problem is too much technology on planes, writing on Twitter that "Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly … I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!"
God only knows where he picked up that idea, but it's a safe bet he's completely out to lunch.
At any rate, it's an object lesson for what happens when you put an incurious reality TV star in the presidency of the United States. It turns out the political leader of the world's most powerful nation actually carries some important responsibilities — and Donald Trump just can't do the job.