After President Trump said that deporting undocumented immigrants was “a military operation,” Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, speaking in Mexico, clarified that there would be “no use of military force in immigration operations.”
After Trump, standing next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, upended decades of U.S. policy by saying he was open to a one-state solution to the conflict in the Middle East, U.N. envoy Nikki Haley asserted that the United States “absolutely” supports a two-state solution.
And after Trump alarmed European allies by declaring NATO obsolete, Vice President Pence flew to Munich and Brussels, where he reassured a worried continent that the president remains “fully devoted to our transatlantic union.”
One of the unofficial duties of Trump’s Cabinet, it seems, is cleaning up the statements of the man they serve. Five weeks into Trump’s tenure in office, his deputies have found themselves softening, explaining and sometimes outright contradicting the president.
This public and often yawning gulf between Trump and his agency heads has added to the sense of chaos and turmoil emanating from the White House, sending his secretaries scrambling to interpret their boss’s exact positions and leaving other nations confused as to who, exactly, speaks on behalf of the administration.
“It puts the Cabinet officials in an awkward position,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist. “They serve the president and obviously don’t want to contradict him, but at the same time they have to articulate administration policy, which sounds like an oxymoron — contradicting the president by articulating administration policy — but that’s been the case in some instances so far.”
When Pence traveled to Europe this month to offer bland assurances — a message of support for NATO and cooperation with the European Union — he managed to temporarily soothe nervous allies. But diplomats and foreign leaders nonetheless emerged from 2½ days of meetings with the vice president uncertain whether he really spoke on behalf of the president or if his dull diplomacy could yet be undone by a tweet or stray remark from Trump just days later.
And on a diplomatic mission in Mexico City, Kelly chided the media for misreporting and misrepresenting the facts. “Let me be very clear. There will be no — repeat, no — mass deportations,” he said. “There will be no — repeat, no — use of military force in immigration operations. None.”
But the news reports to which Kelly referred were simply quoting Trump himself, who earlier in the day had touted “a military operation” in the United States to help round up and deport undocumented immigrants, whom the president called “really bad dudes.”
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, ultimately suggested that Trump was using “military” as an adjective referring to the precision and efficiency with which deportations were occurring — not the operations themselves.
As Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has traveled the world, he, too, has found himself playing interpreter and explainer for the young administration, often taking stances that seem not quite in line with the message out of the White House.
On a recent trip to the Middle East, for instance, Mattis seemed to break from — or at least add clarity to — two of the president’s recent comments. Trump recently tweeted that he views the news media (or, as he calls it, the “fake news media”) as an “enemy of the American people” — a claim he reiterated in person at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland on Friday. The defense secretary disagreed with the label.
“I don’t have any issue with the press myself,” he said at a stop in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
During a meeting with reporters in Baghdad during his first trip to Iraq as Pentagon chief, Mattis also pushed back on comments Trump made last month at the CIA headquarters, in which the president said the United States should have “kept the oil” during the drawdown from the Iraq War. It was a favorite line that Trump used repeatedly during his campaign.
“We’re not in Iraq to seize anybody’s oil,” Mattis said.
Mattis’s first foreign trip, meanwhile, was devoted to reassuring South Korea and Japan over conflicting signals the president had sent to the region. In a later trip to Brussels, he also told NATO allies that the United States remains committed to the military alliance established after World War II.
Of course, the Trump White House is hardly the first in which Cabinet officials have disagreed with the president. In former president Barack Obama’s administration, there was vigorous debate — and differing viewpoints — on several major issues, including whether to authorize the Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan that ultimately killed Osama bin Laden and whether to arm the rebels in Syria.
In President George W. Bush’s White House, one disagreement broke into embarrassing public view after the president’s counsel and chief of staff raced to the intensive-care unit hospital room of John D. Ashcroft, then the attorney general, to try to persuade him to reauthorize Bush’s domestic surveillance program, which the Justice Department had just determined was illegal.
An official in the current White House cast the disagreements between Trump and his Cabinet officials as questions of nuance and semantics, not true ideological conflict. “Our president chose bold leaders, not a group of yes-secretaries, and from time to time the language may differ slightly, but they are all pulling together in the same direction to make our country great again,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s principal deputy press secretary.
Still, the degree to which Trump and members of his own Cabinet seem out of alignment is striking, especially on such a variety of issues so early in his presidency.
Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s new national security adviser, broke with the president when, in his first staff meeting last week, he rejected the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” the New York Times reported. The “radical Islamic terrorism” label is one Trump used frequently — and often with gusto — but McMaster told his team that it was not helpful and that terrorists were not accurately representing the religion of Islam.
And in an interview with CNBC on Thursday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the administration was still determining whether to label China a currency manipulator. His statement was at odds not only with campaign promises Trump made to do just that his first day in office, but also with the president’s comments the same day in an interview with Reuters, in which Trump said the Chinese were the “grand champions at manipulation of currency.”
If some of Trump’s issues with his Cabinet heads can be blamed on bad communication, he seems willfully out of line with other agencies, especially those dealing with national security and intelligence.
On Friday, the president lashed out at the FBI in a tweet, saying the bureau “is totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers’ that have permeated our government for a long time,” including within the department itself. “FIND NOW,” he wrote, using all capital letters.
It was not the first time Trump had criticized the intelligence agencies, comparing them, at one point, to Nazi Germany.
Robert Dallek, a presidential historian and biographer, said he found the stream of contradictions and cleanup worrying — and unprecedented.
“I don’t understand how this administration can be so full of errors and stumbles and retreats,” he said. “It’s as if what someone says doesn’t matter, because the next minute they change it. They don’t seem to understand that the words coming out of a presidential administration or a top adviser to the president count for something and resonate and reach people, not only in the media but across this country and around the world.”
Dallek added that he sees some similarities between Trump and former president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who let his Cabinet secretaries compete against one another as a means for him to maintain command.
But, Dallek said, there was one crucial difference: Roosevelt’s team’s private jockeying never spilled into public view. “This was not out in the open, so people could say: ‘Well, what are you doing? Who speaks for the president? Who’s the real authority?’ ”
Roosevelt, he said, “would let them compete privately and then he would decide what to do. But it was not done with this public display.”