Phase one of the Trump presidency is ending. However unpredictable and unnerving it has been, the coming phase could be even more so.
The opening phase came to a close in a week in which the president displayed the same characteristics that got him to the White House in the first place: a reliance on gut and guile, disregard for the experts and a flair for the dramatic. Expect more of the same, perhaps much more.
Trump seemingly has decided to fly solo. Advice may come his way, but at this point, after 14 months in charge of the White House, he is making clear that he will operate independently. He is surrounding himself with advisers more likely to reinforce his own instincts rather than those who would attempt to nudge him gently in directions he prefers not to go. He will still bend at times but will feel freer to trust himself more than others.
The opening phase began in the days after Trump won the election, with a transition that went off the rails almost immediately, one that resulted in personnel and organizational decisions that plagued the new administration and that, in retrospect, clearly left the president feeling uncomfortable. The events of the past week, coming after unprecedented personnel changes and policy fits and starts, underscored Trump’s apparent determination to bust out of all that.
The week brought the abrupt (although not unexpected) removal of national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who was replaced by John Bolton, a hawkish former ambassador to the United Nations. Following the humiliating firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the elevation of CIA Director Mike Pompeo to fill his spot, the changes could fundamentally alter the character of Trump’s national security team at a time of momentous decisions looming about North Korea and Iran.
The week included the imposition of new tariffs on $60 billion worth of Chinese-made goods, along with tariffs on steel and aluminum from other countries. The actions sparked fears of a trade war, which contributed to the Dow Jones industrial average declining by more than 1,100 points in two days.
For all the talk of Trump as a politician with no fixed ideology and no coherent views on issues, the one constant has been his insistence that the United States has been snookered on one trade deal after another and his resolve to take action.
Protectionists in his administration have risen, and the loudest voice in opposition, Gary Cohn, is heading back to New York. Cohn will be replaced by CNBC’s Larry Kudlow, who also opposed the tariffs. Whether he will push to temper the policy remains a question.
There was also the departure of John Dowd, the lawyer leading the team dealing with the Russia investigation headed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, and the apparent hiring of former U.S. attorney Joseph diGenova. As telling, however, was the decision by Theodore B. Olson, a former solicitor general, not to join the president’s defense team.
All of this came as, for the first time, Trump went after Mueller by name, an escalation in tactics that illustrated anew the president’s efforts to discredit whatever findings emerge, or perhaps to try to fire Mueller outright, despite claims by those around the president that no such thing is under consideration. But how reliable are such assurances, given the way Trump suddenly shifts directions?
Just before Trump flew to his Florida estate for the weekend, he put everyone through one more roller-coaster moment by tweeting on Friday morning that he was considering a veto of the just-passed $1.3 trillion spending bill. The bill is something of a mess, as its congressional critics voiced during the debate before passage, but White House advisers were involved in the negotiations that produced it.
Trump’s threats generated a fire alarm among his advisers until he relented. Hours after his tweet, he announced that he would sign the measure, but with dismissive words about the process and the package and a declaration that he would never again sign such a bill. It should be noted that such threats from him often prove empty.
All of it adds up to a president cutting the cord, freeing himself from the constraints that were built up around him. He will run the White House as he wishes. He will populate his inner circle as he sees fit. He will act like a loyal Republican when he sees his self-interest involved but will walk away from congressional Republicans when that serves his interests and his politics. Trump hasn’t managed to drain the swamp — far from it. But he will continue to take actions that signal to his supporters that he’s still determined to do so.
The coming phase of Trump’s presidency will last through the November midterm elections. Between now and then, Congress will take no significant action, or so go the predictions. The 115th Congress, with Republican majorities in both chambers, has produced two budget-busting pieces of legislation, a huge tax cut and now the $1.3 trillion spending measure. The party of fiscal discipline has been shown to have no clothes.
For the near-term, the president has a foreign policy agenda of enormous consequence. He has expressed his willingness to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, perhaps in May, although the virtual silence from North Korea since Trump unexpectedly said he would take such a meeting leaves in doubt exactly when or whether such a gathering will occur.
In that same time frame, the president will be asked once again to decide whether to certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement negotiated by the Obama administration or pull out of the deal. The president’s views are known — he thinks it’s a terrible pact — but he was prevented from acting on that by the combined pressure of Tillerson, McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Bolton and Pompeo will not offer that kind of resistance.
Potentially as momentous will be the product of the Mueller team. No one knows the lawyers’ timetable, so to suggest that everything will be wrapped up before the elections is to pretend to know the unknowable. Trump’s lawyers have been negotiating with Mueller over the terms of an interview with the president, an event of high drama and potentially grave consequences for Trump.
And then there are the lawsuits from adult film star Stormy Daniels, former Playboy model Karen McDougal — both of whom have said they had affairs with Trump a decade ago — and Summer Zervos, a contestant on “The Apprentice” who accuses Trump of sexual misconduct. All are suing for the right to tell their stories. They present threats of another type that will play out in the months ahead.
There is no New Trump emerging here as this next phase begins. If anything, it is the reemergence of the old Trump, the pre-presidential Trump, who plays by his own rules and tries to rewrite the old ones he doesn’t like. This is what made him rich as a business executive and won him the White House. Will history be repeated, or will his instincts prove faulty in the environment in which he now operates?