The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump chooses impulse over strategy as crises mount

In a series of tweets on the morning of April 8, President Trump condemned an apparent chemical attack near Damascus on April 7. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

In a White House known for chaos, the process of developing the U.S. response to the Syrian government’s alleged latest chemical attack was proceeding with uncharacteristic deliberation, including several national security briefings for President Trump. 

But then Wednesday morning, Trump upended it all with a tweet — warning Russia, the Syrian government’s backer, to “get ready” because American missiles “will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ ” 

White House advisers were surprised by the missive and found it “alarming” and “distracting,” in the words of one senior official. They quickly regrouped and, together with Pentagon brass, continued readying Syria options for Trump as if nothing had happened.

On Thursday, Trump left further questions. In a tweet, he added doubt to suggestions that military action in Syria was on a fast track.

“Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” he wrote in a tweet that also noted U.S.-led battlefield successes against the Islamic State.

The Twitter disruptions were emblematic of a president operating on a tornado of impulses — and with no clear strategy — as he faces some of the most consequential decisions of his presidency, including Syria, trade policy and the Russian interference probe that threatens to overwhelm his administration.

“It’s just like everybody wakes up every morning and does whatever is right in front of them,” said one West Wing aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share a candid opinion. “Oh, my God, Trump Tower is on fire. Oh, my God, they raided Michael Cohen’s office. Oh, my God, we’re going to bomb Syria. Whatever is there is what people respond to, and there is no proactive strategic thinking.”

Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the White House is still considering how to respond to Syria's chemical attack, after the president tweeted missiles "are coming." (Video: Reuters)

The president has been particularly livid in the wake of Monday’s FBI raids on the home, office and hotel room of Cohen, his longtime personal attorney. In the days after, he has seriously contemplated a shake-up at the Justice Department in the hopes of curbing the expanding probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, whose referral led to the Cohen raids. Trump is considering firing Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who is overseeing the probe, several people familiar with Trump’s private comments said.

By Trump’s admission Wednesday on Twitter, Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference and possible obstruction of justice has consumed “tremendous time and focus.” And in denying allegations of wrongdoing, the president seemed to equivocate in a parenthetical aside: “No Collusion or Obstruction (other than I fight back),” he wrote. 

On trade, meanwhile, the president is grappling with the potential economic fallout of his threatened tariffs, especially within the agriculture sector, which could harm some of the rural states that carried him to electoral victory — all against the backdrop of his ongoing effort to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement more favorably for the United States.

Trump also finds himself facing the surprise retirement of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), signaling more turmoil for the fractious Republican Party heading into the midterm elections. 

These and other pivotal developments come as many of the guardrails that previously helped stabilize the president — from West Wing aides to clear policy processes — have been cast aside, with little evident organization or long-term strategy emanating from the White House.

This portrait of Trump in the current moment comes from interviews with 21 administration officials, outsider advisers, lawmakers and confidants, many of them speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details and conversations. 

Save for his most recent tweets, the president’s Syria deliberations have largely been the exception to the chaos engulfing the White House, underscoring the high stakes of a decision, White House officials said.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday afternoon that Trump continues to review options for a military strike in Syria and that his tweet should not be read as an announcement of planned action.

 “We’re maintaining that we have a number of options, and all of those options are still on the table,” Sanders said. “Final decisions haven’t been made on that front.”

The National Security Council met Wednesday afternoon at the White House, chaired by Vice President Pence, to finalize options that could be presented to the president, Sanders said. She said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, national security adviser John Bolton and other senior officials have been in regular contact with their counterparts from Israel, Saudi Arabia, France, the United Kingdom and other partners around the world as the administration weighs its military options for Syria.

Yet Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Wednesday afternoon that he had yet to hear from Trump or other administration officials about impending action in Syria. 

“I have no idea. So far, it appears to me to be bluster,” Corker said. “Then I saw a tweet come out about us working with Russia right after we’re getting ready to bomb them, so I mean, who knows? Unfortunately, there are a lot of things announced by the administration that never come to pass or evolve.”

The more general question of U.S. engagement in Syria has confounded and divided the administration. Officials at the White House and Pentagon, for instance, were blindsided by Trump’s pronouncement at a rally in Ohio in late March that U.S. troops would be leaving Syria “very soon,” and in the first hours after the speech, they scrambled to get a sense of what he meant.

Trump initially told aides that he wanted U.S. soldiers and Marines to leave in 48 hours — an impossible timeline that alarmed the Pentagon and sent officials racing to dissuade him, two U.S. officials said.

Eventually, Mattis and others persuaded Trump to give the military another six months to wipe out the remnants of the Islamic State. The timeline was far from ideal but was viewed as a major victory compared with Trump’s original timeline, officials said.

Senior U.S. officials describe a president who is operating largely on impulse, with little patience for the advice of his top aides. “A decision or statement is made by the president, and then the principals — Mattis or Pompeo or Kelly — come in and tell him we can’t do it,” said one senior administration official. “When that fails, we reverse-engineer a policy process to match whatever the president said.”

On a potential shake-up at the Justice Department, Trump has been receiving a range of advice and has sent mixed signals about his intentions. Within the White House, advisers have largely counseled caution and urged him not to make changes. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and counsel Donald McGahn have tried to calm Trump several times, as has Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer handling the Russia probe. 

Yet others, including many in the president’s orbit who don’t work in the White House, have counseled a more aggressive approach, saying the raid of Cohen’s home and business crossed a line. This advice has left White House staff on edge, nervous about what the president might do.

Trump, for instance, yelled about Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions for several hours Monday and has continued to complain about them since. But some described his complaints as just “venting,” with one outside adviser saying that while the president is “steamed and unhappy,” that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s prepared to take action. 

 “I heard or saw nothing that would suggest he was planning to make a change at the Department of Justice,” said Alan Dershowitz, a retired Harvard Law School professor who dined at the White House with Trump on Tuesday night. He said they mainly discussed the Middle East and Russia. 

Rosenstein, meanwhile, seems to have made peace with any eventuality, said one person who has had a conversation with him. He understands he might be squarely in Trump’s crosshairs and “is ready for whatever comes and confident in his own behavior.” 

Trump has also devoted a portion of his days to trade policy. Over the past eight weeks, the president has initiated trade disputes with several of the largest countries in the world, driving forward pronouncements without fully vetting most of them with key aides.

In some cases, he has backpedaled on his vow to impose steep tariffs on countries such as Germany, Canada and Mexico. But he has also refused to waive tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Japan, a major U.S. security ally and trading partner.

Some Senate Republicans fear that Trump’s loosely formed trade war with China could end up cratering the agriculture industry at a time when many Midwestern farmers are preparing to plant crops. China has promised to impose tariffs on U.S. farm exports as a way of retaliating against Trump’s planned tariffs. The White House promised to backstop U.S. farm groups, but they have yet to share what they would do or how they would do it.

“I don’t know what kind of cockamamie scheme we could come up with that would be fair,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said Tuesday.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) was similarly frustrated by Trump’s trade agenda. “I think the president has some ideas about trade that are not generally shared by the Republican conference,” he said. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told his frustrated ranks during a closed-door lunch this week to call Trump and air their trade-related worries, according to a person familiar with the Kentucky Republican’s remarks. Roberts and others planned to meet with Trump on Thursday to discuss the matter.

On some level, White House aides have simply reconciled themselves to the reality that they have little to no control over Trump’s actions and instead remain prepared to explain them away or clean them up.

“Trump is truly serving as his own chief of staff, communications director, and policy maven,” said a Republican strategist in frequent touch with the White House. “He’s singing the Frank Sinatra song, ‘I’ll do it my way.’ ” 

Josh Dawsey, Greg Jaffe, Shane Harris, Carol D. Leonnig and Damian Paletta contributed to this report.