Nine months into his first term, President Trump is perfecting a style of leadership commensurate with his campaign promise to disrupt business as usual in Washington. Call it governing by cattle prod.
It is a tactic born of frustration and dissatisfaction. Its impact has been to overload the circuits of government — from Capitol Hill to the White House to the Pentagon to the State Department and beyond. In the face of his own unhappiness, the president is trying to raise the pain level wherever he can.
The permanent campaign has long been a staple of politics in this country, the idea that running for office never stops and that decisions are shaped by what will help one candidate or another, one party or another, win the next election.
President Trump has raised this to a high and at times destructive art. He cares about ratings, praise and success. Absent demonstrable achievements, he reverts to what worked during the campaign, which is to depend on his own instincts and to touch the hot buttons that roused his voters in 2016. As president, he has never tried seriously to reach beyond that base.
The past week was a perfect example of the Trump school of governing. Start with the end of the week. In rapid succession between late Thursday and midday Friday, he took steps to break the Affordable Care Act and then potentially end the Iran nuclear agreement.
These moves will earn him accolades from the people who supported his candidacy last year, which might be the principal objective. But neither action solved a problem. It will be left to others to do that, if they can. In a few hours, the nation and the world got a double dose of what Trump’s frustrations can mean in terms of their impact on important issues.
Those were only two of the moments that defined the president's disruptive style of leadership in just one week. It was, after all, only a week ago that the president started a Twitter war with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). The tweets resulted in Corker firing off a snarky tweet in return and then bluntly calling out the president's character and fitness in a New York Times interview in which he warned that the president's recklessness could result in World War III.
It was also within that week that the president, with an assist from Vice President Pence, escalated and perhaps seized the advantage in his feud with professional football players who kneel during the national anthem. Amid outrage from his critics, Trump has managed to turn an issue that once was about police violence in minority communities into a cultural battle about patriotism, the flag and pride in the military. His critics are now on the defensive.
The week saw one other example of Trump's governing by pique. Hours before the steps he took on health care, he lashed out again at critics of his handling of the hurricane cleanup in Puerto Rico, tweeting that he would cut back the federal response. Like many of his tweets, it is no doubt an idle threat, but one nonetheless designed to give a jolt of displeasure to the status quo.
Trump’s Twitter feed is an obsession, both for a president who finds release through 140-character blasts at opponents or enemies and for a media trained to jump at the moment the tweets light up smartphones. But his actions on health care and Iran were reminders that the most consequential steps are those in which he is attempting to reverse course on policies without a clear sense of a path to success.
There’s little doubt that part of the president’s motivation is to undo what former president Barack Obama did. He campaigned against Obamacare, although his prescriptions for what should replace it lacked consistency or, for that matter, clear alternatives. He railed against the Iran nuclear deal and now is trying to undo it despite the fact that all relevant parties say the Iranians are adhering to its terms.
Trump prefers to look past that history. He wants his supporters to believe that he is trying to fulfill his campaign promises in the face of resistance from entrenched powers. If it doesn’t get done, pin the blame on others. It’s still the president vs. the swamp.
The president asks much — of the Congress and of his own team. Congress is flailing, and now the president has added to the burdens on the backs of legislators. Lawmakers still must deal with funding the government and acting on the debt ceiling. Trump also wants a big tax bill, as do Republicans, and the work on that has been going on for months without any major action.
Beyond that, Trump has tossed the issue of the “dreamers” into the laps of lawmakers, with a clock ticking on action. He made a tentative deal with Democrats, but there is disagreement on the terms. So far there’s no sign of an accord. Now he has decided to force Congress to act on whether to fund the insurance subsidies that help lower-income Americans purchase health insurance. That’s another way he’s trying to bring the Democrats to the table, but the potential political costs to his party in 2018 could be significant.
The policy initiative aimed at Iran has some merit. The Obama administration tried to say that the nuclear agreement should be seen as a separate issue from other bad actions by the Iranians and that making the deal to block the Iranian path to nuclear weapons didn’t lessen concerns about the funding of terrorism and other activities.
Trump is trying to ratchet up attention to those problems but by threatening to walk away from the nuclear agreement has created a rift with U.S. partners to that pact that will necessarily complicate prospects for overall success.
But there is another element related to the Iran initiative that should not be overlooked, which is the danger of a nuclear confrontation with North Korea. That is a far more dangerous situation at the moment and one that requires constant attention from the president’s national security team. Foreign policy experts worry that by opening up a new confrontation with Iran, the administration may be stretching its capacity to handle both matters with the patience, skill and delicacy they require. Presidential tweets aimed at Kim Jong Un have not and probably will not resolve the North Korea standoff.
The president has proved himself capable and willing to start controversies and policy confrontations. That’s what being a disrupter is all about. But there is more to the presidency than initiating conflict, and on that measure, Trump has much to prove.