Donald Trump is president of the United States, duly elected last November and sworn into office in January. But he appears oddly and remarkably disconnected from the executive branch over which he exercises power. There is the president, and then there is the rest of the government.
A table of organization of Trump’s executive branch would, as always, start with a box at the top representing the president. Beneath it would be a series of boxes — White House staffers, Cabinet officers, subcabinet officials and the like. Many of those boxes would be connected by intersecting lines, save for one. No solid line would connect the president to the rest of the government, only a dotted line or no line at all.
That’s an overstatement, obviously. The president intersects continually with the rest of the executive branch, on routine and other business. Last month, the White House successfully managed the logistics of a complex foreign trip. There was a process of deliberation and debate involving many advisers that led to the recent decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. This week, Trump is pushing out proposals on infrastructure to provide a sense of forward motion at a time when his legislative initiatives are moving slowly in Congress.
But so much else about this moment paints a different picture of the most unusual administration in modern times. It is the portrait of a president alone, feeling embattled and taking matters into his own hands as much as possible, often apparently against the advice of many of those around him.
Events and reporting in recent days have brought this portrait into high relief, just as Trump’s White House braces for testimony from fired former FBI director James B. Comey that could further erode trust in the president and his administration.
Much about what Comey is planning to say Thursday has been reported over a period of weeks through leaks by his friends and associates. All that began shortly after Comey’s firing with the revelation that he has a memo about a conversation in which the president offered the hope that the FBI could find a way to back off the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced out of office early in the administration but to whom Trump retains some loyalty.
On Wednesday afternoon, the text of Comey’s prepared testimony was released by the Senate Intelligence Committee. It confirms what was previously reported but with some new facts, including a provocative quote he attributes to the president, who said to him, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
Comey is smart and shrewd. He knows that the investigation he once oversaw is now in the hands of another former FBI director, Robert S. Mueller III, who will have the ultimate say on what all the evidence proves or doesn’t about Russian hacking during the election, possible collusion between the Russians and Trump campaign associates, and possible interference into the investigation since then.
Trump is a survivor above all, particularly in a he-said-he-said situation. Whether tweeting in real time to contest what Comey says or offering his side of the story in the aftermath, the president is a fighter and a counterpuncher of extraordinary skill and determination. He will not shrink from the moment or slink away.
But even if Comey goes no further Thursday, the power of his words will resonate with more force than the leaked reports or even the prepared testimony. That’s the nature of moments like this, when public testimony rises to the level of both great political theater and potentially great legal and political risk. Trump’s advisers should be prepared for one of their most difficult days, even if it is far from dispositive in the ongoing investigation.
Still, it’s what else that has been learned this week that adds to the picture of a president operating on his own. At one turn after another, there are reports about a president who is at odds with those who serve him, freelancing his views and grievances through tweets and other means of expression and disrupting the ongoing operations of government and diplomacy.
Early in the week, Trump complained on Twitter about his Justice Department’s rewriting of his original travel ban just as the administration has asked the Supreme Court to overturn an appellate court ruling striking down the policy. Those tweets potentially damage the government’s legal case, but beyond that, they ignore the fact that the president signed the original and the revised order that he now derides.
The New York Times then reported Trump’s ongoing dissatisfaction with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom the president has not forgiven for recusing himself from all things related to Russia, a decision that has led in one step after another to Comey’s departure and the appointment of Mueller as special counsel. Sessions, of course, was one of Trump’s earliest and most important endorsers and a staunch loyalist throughout the campaign. If one as loyal as Sessions receives no loyalty in return, what will others in the administration think?
In another example of the president being disconnected from his top advisers, Politico’s Susan Glasser reported that language reaffirming this nation’s commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, a standard of presidential speeches to U.S. allies in Europe, was removed at the last minute from Trump’s speech at NATO headquarters last month. The president’s senior national security advisers had signed off on the wording, and apparently it was removed without their advance knowledge, according to the report.
In the wake of a decision Monday by Persian Gulf nations to cut off relations with Qatar, an action that has further roiled the Middle East, Trump used Twitter to take credit by tweeting about what he had said and done while in Saudi Arabia on his recent trip. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis offered more careful and reassuring reactions, hoping to contain rather than enlarge the rift.
Also in the past five days, Trump got into a Twitter spat with London Mayor Sadiq Khan in the aftermath of Saturday’s terrorist attack. His criticism of the mayor came shortly after he expressed solidarity with the people of Britain over the attack. The feud between Trump and Khan began more than a year ago, but the president’s decision to use this moment to revive it brought a shocked reaction and criticism from Britain.
Administration officials dispute suggestions from outsiders that no one around Trump is trying to rein him in from these impulses. He hears plenty of such advice, according to officials. But the president also sees himself badly outnumbered in the national conversation, hearing few public defenders as he monitors cable television and print media.
His tweet storms are his way of responding. But they and other events have led to the image of a president isolated and trusting in few people other than himself — and willing to disrupt anything, from long-standing relationships to the orderly operations of government, regardless of the consequences to the country or potentially his presidency.