This post originally appeared at Project Syndicate.
It’s generally agreed in Washington, DC, that President Donald Trump’s presidency is entering a new phase. Defining that phase is proving to be problematic.
The widespread expectation was that the removal of Stephen Bannon — the former White House chief adviser and resident avatar of white American nationalism — would make the administration run more smoothly, mitigate (though not eliminate) infighting, and reduce the number of leaks. The internal warfare may be quieter since John Kelly took over as White House chief of staff and imposed more order in the West Wing. But so long as Trump is president, orderliness will not be the White House’s chief characteristic. In fact, Trump remains in frequent contact with Bannon, who is back in charge at Breitbart News.
Inevitably, by early September, after Kelly had been on the job for all of five weeks, Trump was chafing under his new chief of staff’s restrictions. Kelly has imposed tight controls over who may enter the Oval Office, listens in on most of Trump’s phone calls during office hours, and controls what pieces of paper reach the president’s desk, thus eliminating the highly ideological screeds that some staff members used to slip him.
The problem is that Trump likes disorder; that’s how he had run his business, and he doesn’t take well to being managed. He liked having favored people wandering into his office as they chose, and it’s been his managerial creed to play people off each other. Nor does he bother to control his temper when dealing with aides. Even Kelly, an ex-Marine Corps general, has come under the lash of Trump’s tongue. Observers now take bets on when Kelly will decide he’s had enough.
I’ve never known a White House where so much depends on who has incurred the president’s ire. Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs president and chief operating officer who serves as Trump’s chief economic adviser, is the latest to be frozen out. Cohn’s sin was to let it be known publicly that he almost resigned following the violence last month in Charlottesville, Virginia, when Trump equated white supremacist and neo-Nazi demonstrators, many of them armed, with those who opposed them.
Actually, one can have some sympathy for a president with an aide who wants to have it both ways, as Cohn did — letting his apparent anguish be known without acting on it. But there can be problems when a president chooses to disregard his chief economic adviser. Cohn has been seen as one of the administration’s more moderate voices, and he has wanted to succeed Janet Yellen as chair of the US Federal Reserve.
Speculation about the possibility of a “new Trump” peaked in early September, when the president suddenly cut a deal with Democratic congressional leaders. Trump agreed with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and her Senate counterpart, Chuck Schumer, on how to increase the federal debt limit, which Congress must raise each year as spending increases, and extend appropriations to keep the government running (because Congress routinely fails to write appropriations bills on time). Both items were tied to a special appropriation in the wake of Hurricane Harvey to pay for recovery efforts. (The larger Hurricane Irma hadn’t yet hit.)
In the midst of the discussion at the Oval Office meeting with Pelosi and Schumer, Trump interrupted Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin as he was defending the Republicans’ position that these issues should be put off for 18 months, until after the 2018 congressional elections. The Democrats had argued that the increase in the debt ceiling and extension of appropriations should last for only three months, thus forcing the Republicans to take electorally risky votes before the 2018 elections.
Before the meeting, House Speaker Paul Ryan had adamantly rejected the Democrats’ proposal. But suddenly, without notifying even his own aides, Trump went for it. The author of The Art of the Deal had accepted the Democrats’ opening position.
Commentators went into overdrive, imbuing the episode with broad significance: Trump was now not a Republican but an independent. He might start a third party. His move marked the beginning of a new way of governing.
In fact, Trump merely saw an opportunity and took it. With no real legislative achievements to claim, he did something. The Republican congressional leaders, Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, had been in bad odor with Trump for a while, because they had been unable to deliver on his legislative agenda. He was embarrassed and angered at their failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. (Trump didn’t recognize his own contributions to the debacle.) On many issues, Trump lacks a governing majority in the Senate.
Overlooked in all the excitement over Trump’s lining up with Democratic leaders was that the issue at hand concerned legislative timing, not substance. And the subsequent fevered discussions about Trump’s core beliefs — maybe he was a crypto-Democrat, who had, after all, donated to Democratic candidates at one time and sympathized with Democratic positions (such as on abortion) — missed the point. Trump harbors no particular political philosophy; he’s an opportunist who craves publicity and praise.
But his maverick behavior might turn out to be self-perpetuating. For all his contempt for the “dishonest media,” Trump was ecstatic about the positive press coverage his bipartisan move received. And that might lure him to try for more.
(Copyright Project Syndicate, 2017)