On North Korea, the government of dictator Kim Jong Un threatened to walk away from a planned summit after bellicose words from national security adviser John Bolton — who was then publicly overruled by President Trump.
On China, trade negotiations have been undermined by fierce infighting among Trump’s own advisers — including a profane shouting match in Beijing between two members of the economic team.
And the pattern is evident on domestic policies as well. Trump has undercut his own aides and Republican congressional leaders with sudden threats to shut down the government over his promised wall at the border with Mexico.
As an emboldened Trump reaches for historic triumphs in hopes of bolstering his party’s prospects in November’s midterm elections, he finds himself repeatedly stymied by his old patterns of chaos and contradiction.
Trump’s agenda has been undermined by mixed messages and internal squabbles from within his administration — all compounded by the president’s own lack of discipline and his inconsistent ideology.
“It’s very, very volatile,” said Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Normally, there are different factions, and they both fight within the bureaucratic process for their viewpoints . . . but this is much more freewheeling, and the most volatile person is the president.”
“It creates confusion and uncertainty and undermines their initiatives,” he added.
Amy Zegart, co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, said “the one consistent policy that Trump seems to have is that America is getting a raw deal in the world, but how to address that raw deal varies day to day and hour to hour. It is enormously important to have message discipline, and this administration is fundamentally unable to have it.”
That lack of discipline has been on vivid display over North Korea. Bolton complicated the delicate preparations for a historic summit between Trump and Kim, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, by saying the United States planned to ask North Korea to emulate the “Libya model” from a 2003 nuclear deal — to which the North Koreans attribute Moammar Gaddafi’s eventual downfall and death eight years later.
But after Pyongyang cited those remarks in threatening to cancel the summit, Trump promised Thursday that his administration would demand no such thing and that under a nuclear agreement, Kim would have protections and be “very, very happy.”
“He’d be in his country,” Trump said. “He’d be running his country. His country would be very rich.”
Still, there remains uncertainty about whether the summit will take place, even as White House officials are busy scouting locations and finalizing itineraries. And Trump has seemed to enjoy taking part in chatter that his work toward denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula could earn him the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor that was bestowed upon former president Barack Obama in only his 11th month in office.
With China, meanwhile, Trump is progressing in negotiations to reduce the U.S. trade deficit, which would fulfill a major campaign promise.
The White House on Saturday released a joint statement from both countries announcing an agreement for China to buy more goods and services from the United States, including agriculture and energy exports, with the stated goal of “substantially” reducing the U.S. trade deficit in goods.
But disputes within the Trump administration have burst into public view, projecting disarray when the team has sought to present a united front.
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, a hard-line nationalist who penned the book “Death by China,” got into an expletive-laced shouting match with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin during their recent trip to Beijing, where Trump had sent them to negotiate trade policy with the Chinese government.
And back in Washington, Trump abruptly ordered his own Commerce Department to scale back the severe penalties it had recently imposed on telecommunications giant ZTE. Trump’s directive, which he later said was his answer to a personal plea from Chinese President Xi Jinping, came in a tweet that caught most of his top aides by surprise.
The Trump administration is hardly the first to have vigorous policy disagreements, but in past administrations, those debates largely played out in private, with the staff endeavoring to support the official White House policy in public.
But Trump enjoys, and even encourages, infighting, which often leads to those feuds spilling into the public arena.
“I like conflict,” Trump said in March. “I like having two people with different points of view. And I certainly have that. And then I make a decision. But I like watching it. I like seeing it. I think it’s the best way to go.”
White House officials reject the premise that Trump’s policy moves are sometimes overshadowed by episodes of conflict. They blame journalists for focusing on staff squabbles and scold them for not paying more attention to the president’s achievements.
Trump’s aides say that unwanted headlines — such as White House communications staffer Kelly Sadler joking about the irrelevance of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) because, as she put it, “he’s dying anyway” — do not impair meaningful progress on issues. One White House official cited Friday’s summit on prison reform as an example of the quiet work that proceeds behind the scenes.
Peppered with questions earlier this month about a number of administration controversies, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters, “If you look at what he’s doing every single day, he’s showing up to work, he’s working hard to make this country better, whether it’s through building our economy, creating jobs, defeating ISIS, fixing our judiciary system, helping with the legal immigration problems that we have.”
Most of Trump’s advisers have emerged as fully formed public characters in their own right, complete with differing ideologies, backstories and personal agency. As the president has chosen aides who looked as if they were out of “central casting” and elevated them to players in his daily West Wing dramas, so, too, has the media covered them as such — chronicling the petty feuds and internal squabbles in the president’s royal court.
“It’s almost like an absolute monarch where the various feudal lords are coming to try to figure out whether they can get something in or something out of whatever decision he’s making,” Zegart said. “It’s astonishing.”
Trump, who governs largely by impulse and instinct, lacks a clear traditional governing ideology on a range of topics, heightening divergent viewpoints.
“The president didn’t have a very deeply held philosophical view of foreign policy and national security,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican communications consultant. “But the policy hands around him have been working on and caring about these issues and have deeply held beliefs developed over the past 25 years.”
In this particular era of social media and increased scrutiny on the White House, Madden added, “so much of this just ends up being litigated publicly.”