President Trump unilaterally levied new steel and aluminum tariffs on U.S. allies, including the European Union, Canada and Mexico. He granted clemency to convicted felons while touting the view that he also has the ability to pardon himself. He reinstated the coming summit with North Korea in Singapore as abruptly as he canceled it. And he upended a cornerstone of the existing world order via Twitter tantrum as he departed the Group of 7 summit in Canada.
And that was just in the past two weeks.
Nearly a year-and-a-half into his presidency, Trump is hitting his stride on the part of the job that he seems to love the most: going it alone. That he is often doing so in defiance of his own advisers, longtime U.S. allies and Congress — including members of his own party — seems to only heighten his pleasure.
From tariffs to pardons to immigration roundups, the president is increasingly charting his own strategy on unilateral actions — and there is evidence the approach may be working for him. Trump’s approval numbers have ticked up in recent polls from his previous low points. Gallup’s most recent weekly poll numbers have Trump at 41 percent approving and 55 percent disapproving, up from 35 percent approving in December and 38 percent approving in April.
The latest example of Trump’s willingness — and even eagerness — to rely on his gut and spurn traditional friends and allies came Saturday after the G-7 summit, when the president used a duo of tweets to attack the leader of the host country, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for saying that Canada “will not be pushed around” by U.S. trade policies. Trump also signaled he does not plan to sign the hard-fought and carefully-worded compromise communique upon which the seven nations had earlier agreed.
“I think the president’s ability to make decisions that at any given moment may not be viewed as the most popular but yet are in keeping with his campaign promises is being rewarded back home in the districts that for a large part have lost faith in Washington, D.C.,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and a close Trump ally. “So his ability to make tough decisions and stand up to the criticisms of a perhaps unconventional decision-making process by D.C. standards is resonating on Main Street.”
On trade, Trump presided over — and, at times, encouraged — a roiling debate among his top advisers before ultimately announcing a decision to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum from the European Union, Canada and Mexico.
The president’s actions came shortly after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin appeared on “Fox News Sunday” and promised the trade war was “on hold.” They also came despite the objections of many congressional Republicans.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), for instance, unveiled bipartisan legislation Wednesday that would require the approval of Congress for presidential trade actions done under the auspices of national security. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) described the effort as “an exercise in futility,” suggesting that Trump has little need to worry about the concerns of Republican lawmakers on the issue.
The general Republican willingness to afford Trump increasing executive authority stands in marked contrast to their treatment of former president Barack Obama, who near the end of his second term began issuing executive actions, including on immigration, as part of a “pen and phone” strategy pushing back on Republican opposition. At the time, GOP lawmakers bemoaned what they called executive overreach, dubbing him an “emperor” and “King Obama.”
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, summed up the Republican response to Trump’s embrace of executive power in two words: “radio silence.”
“Republicans here, in the Senate and the House, many of them are the aiders and abettors to the things that Trump is doing. There is no accountability. There is no check,” he said. “This is the imperial presidency. That’s the way we seem to be going toward.”
Trump’s use of unilateral authority has been showcased in the preparation for Tuesday’s summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump first agreed to a meeting with Kim in March after a conversation with a South Korean delegation visiting the White House — a decision that came suddenly and with little consultation among his top national-security and foreign-policy advisers. Then, last month, he abruptly called off the meeting — only to declare it back on just over a week later.
On Thursday, in brief remarks to reporters in the Oval Office, Trump offered a glimpse into his go-it-alone mentality as he discussed his preparation — or lack thereof — for the Singapore event. His presence and negotiating savvy alone, Trump seemed to argue, would suffice in a historic showdown with Kim.
“I think I’m very well prepared,” he said. “I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about the attitude. It’s about willingness to get things done. But I think I’ve been preparing for the summit for a long time.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University professor who studies authoritarian rulers, said the president’s approach places himself squarely at the center of even far-reaching policy decisions.
“Trump has been saying for a long time things like, ‘I am the only one who matters,’” Ben-Ghiat said. “The idea that his instincts are what guide him and he doesn’t need any experts is part of this ... That’s all typical of the authoritarian way of doing things.”
She added that Trump’s approach, of keeping a relatively small circle of friends and advisers — soliciting input from many, yet heeding advice from few — has left him acting largely on his own. “In the past when that’s happened, leaders get into this bubble because they surround themselves with sycophants and flatterers, and they end up making disastrous errors. This kind of unilateralism is an outcome.”
On immigration — a touchstone campaign issue — the president has grown increasingly disillusioned with Congress’s inaction and has begun taking steps on his own to beef up enforcement measures. Recently, the administration announced a “zero tolerance” policy calling for the prosecution of all those who enter the United States illegally, which in practical terms has led to hundreds of children being separated from their parents since it was unveiled in May.
More immigration actions are expected to be implemented this summer, from tweaking existing measures to broader policy rollouts, a White House official said.
But perhaps Trump’s most brazen display of unilateral executive action has come in his recent flurry of pardons, many for celebrities or those brought to his attention by celebrities or outside friends. The president has also asserted that he has the power to pardon himself — an option floated against the backdrop of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“I do have an absolute right to pardon myself,” Trump told reporters Friday, before departing for the Group of 7 summit in Canada. “But I’ll never have to do it because I didn’t do anything wrong. And everybody knows it.”
White House officials and outside advisers described Trump’s newly emboldened approach as the natural evolution of a newbie politician growing more comfortable in the presidency. After several White House reshuffles, Trump is now surrounded by many Cabinet members and advisers he trusts.
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, told reporters last week that Trump feels more confident trusting his gut after defying advisers and outside experts both in his long-shot campaign and early in his presidency.
“He has been told so many times over the last three years ... ‘You can’t do that; you can’t say that; you can’t actually go through with that,’” she said. “The world will fall apart or the mountains will crater; the seas will never be parted. He’s always told bad things will happen.”
Many of Trump’s impulsive decisions have come with problems, however. One of his first actions as president — announcing a travel ban targeting individuals from predominantly Muslim countries — caused chaos at airports and quickly got bogged down in court challenges.
On some other issues, he has initially allowed himself to be swayed by advisers before finally executing on his own instinct. Trump repeatedly waived the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran that would signal withdrawal from the nuclear deal — warning when he did it in January that he would not do so again. When the waiver again came due last month, Trump refused to sign it and announced the United States was pulling out of the deal.
A Republican in frequent touch with the White House said one of the clear manifestations of Trump’s newfound unilateralism can be seen in the comments he’s made to aides and confidants. When his current chief of staff, John F. Kelly, departs the White House, Trump has told them, he may prefer the model of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who did not name an official chief of staff.
“Clearly someone told him this because you really think Donald Trump knew that Lyndon Johnson didn’t have a chief of staff?” said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “You think he sat down and read Robert Caro’s five volumes?”
Mike DeBonis and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.