The president was vocal and vehement in insisting that the [Syria troop] withdrawal be completed quickly if not immediately, according to five administration officials briefed on Tuesday’s White House meeting of Trump and his top aides. The officials weren’t authorized to discuss internal deliberations and requested anonymity.If those aides failed in obtaining their desired outcome, it may have been because a strategy that’s worked in the past — giving Trump an offer he can’t refuse — appears to have backfired.Rather than offer Trump a menu of pullout plans, with varying timelines and options for withdrawing step-by-step, the team sought to frame it as a binary choice: Stay in Syria to ensure the Islamic State can’t regroup, or pull out completely. Documents presented to the president included several pages of possibilities for staying in, but only a brief description of an option for full withdrawal that emphasized significant risks and downsides, including the likelihood that Iran and Russia would take advantage of a U.S. vacuum.Ultimately, Trump chose that option anyway.
Until yesterday, Trump’s preferences on Syria were completely at odds with his entire national security team. As someone who knows a little about foreign policy, I’m inclined to trust the team more than Trump.
The thing is, though — and I can’t stress enough how much I loathe typing these words — Donald J. Trump is the president of the United States. While occupying that office, he deserves to have his national security team fairly present all the viable options available to him. It is precisely this kind of deck-stacking that fosters “deep state” paranoia in the first place.
Lest one think that this is a phenomenon unique to this administration, let me disabuse you of that notion right now. President Barack Obama’s national security team pushed hawkish military options to the front of the policy queue for much of his second term. For good or for ill, Obama resisted those options while still hearing them out.
The difference between the Obama and Trump eras is not the existence of bureaucratic politics, it’s how the president has handled the bureaucratic politics. One can accuse Obama of a lot of things, but winging it without staff consultation ain’t one of them. Trump is moving into “liberated” mode, however. He is adopting a new tactic to bypass his bureaucracies: improvising in public and then ordering his executive branch to make it so.
To see what I mean, read Axios’s Jonathan Swan on how the president decided to escalate his trade war with China:
When the president threatened China with $100 billion in new tariffs, there had hardly been any White House discussion.There wasn’t one single deliberative meeting in which senior officials sat down to debate the pros and cons of this historic threat. Trump didn’t even ask for advice from his new top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, instead presenting the tariffs as a fait accompli. Chief of Staff John Kelly knew Trump wanted more tariffs but was blindsided by the speed of the announcement. And Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short — the White House’s liaison to Capitol Hill — was totally in the dark.To be sure, the president wasn’t completely freelancing. The topic came up at the senior staff meeting the morning of the announcement. And he personally ordered Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to put together the threat and to get it done by Thursday. Trump said he had to protect American farmers, whom the Chinese were threatening with billions in tariffs.But for some White House officials, the moment was jarring: Trump had melted down Capitol Hill and roiled the markets with zero substantive internal debate.
Swan’s example covers trade policy, but one can see how Trump would act this way on military options if he wants to display toughness. Furthermore, in hiring Bolton, Trump has put in charge someone who is, “impervious to information that goes against his preconceived ideological views,” according to one former colleague. This is a recipe for ill-informed policy disasters.
Presidents need staffs and organizations to carry out their policies. No president is an expert about everything, and this president is an expert about nothing beyond reality television. He needs a functioning staff. For justifiable reasons, his national security staff is wary about the president’s judgment. But that is encouraging the president to act out even more.
In the absence of a supportive staff, Trump will freelance. It will not go well. The national security bureaucracies should realize that as soon as possible, for everyone’s sake.