Trump embraces his instincts at a key global moment

President Donald Trump is facing cresting challenges at home and overseas by rejecting traditional West Wing structur...

Posted: Apr 2, 2018 2:52 PM
Updated: Apr 2, 2018 2:52 PM

President Donald Trump is facing cresting challenges at home and overseas by rejecting traditional West Wing structures and defying an orthodox policy process while stacking his administration with subordinates who share his combative reflexes.

A month of turmoil, staff purges and sharp policy shifts by a President determined more than ever to follow his impulses has left the White House at a perilous moment of global transition.

In becoming true to his outsider anti-establishment roots, the President is implementing the purest form of Trumpism he has so far attempted.

Yet his experiment with gut-level governance brings significant risks of unpredictable results, ahead of tests like his summit with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un or work to create a post-ISIS settlement in Syria.

As he conducts his symphony of chaos at home, the President has lost seven people from within his administration or inner circle in just a month, some of whom were fired by tweet.

He has swapped restraining influences like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or traditionalists like national security advisor H.R. McMaster with replacements such as Mike Pompeo and John Bolton who reflect his own aggressive instincts or who lavished him with praise on TV.

But it is his tendency to make policy on ad hoc basis, on issues on which millions of lives could depend, that may represent Trump's most significant turn.

For example, on Thursday, Trump declared that the US will be coming out of Syria "real soon," sparking a day of scrambling and contradictions from within his own national security team.

"We are still trying to figure out what he meant about Syria yesterday," a senior administration official told CNN's Jim Acosta on Friday.

The episode was an apt metaphor for Trump's governing style. Normally, a President would only make such a pronouncements after weeks of briefings and meetings, after poring over policy papers providing an in-depth understanding of the battlefield and a set of options on a tough issue.

But with Trump, the process is reversed -- instinct and impulse power his actions, after little apparent forethought or assessment of the unpalatable consequences that usually accompany any serious presidential decision.

His disruptive tendency was visible again on Sunday, when many Americans were observing Easter or Passover, festivals of renewal and liberation. Trump went on a Twitter tear, accusing Mexicans of failing to stop undocumented migrants from crossing the southern US border and warned he could kill a NAFTA renegotiation if it didn't do more.

Reflexive decisions

It is a pattern that has been repeated over and over in recent weeks, from Trump's sudden reflex decision to meet one-on-one with Kim, to his demand for tariffs on steel and aluminum imports that rocked US allies.

In each case, Trump's sudden move set his aides struggling to keep up and understand his strategy, such as it was. It is also a style of governing that sets nerves on edge back home and brings with it considerable risks, however true it may be to Trump's vow as a candidate to keep everyone guessing.

Trump's sudden nomination last week of his personal White House physician Ronny Jackson to head the Veterans Affairs Administration fitted the trend -- showing a President more interested in shock and awe news and affinity with a nominee than concern for in-depth policy.

Jackson may have impressed Trump with his bravura news conference on the President's health -- and is loved among many current and former White House officials -- but he has no experience running a major organization and the VA is one of the most expansive and troubled medical bureaucracies in the world.

The hollowing out of Trump's political circle is mirrored in his legal war council, following the recent departure of his counsel John Dowd and a struggle to attract blue chip counsel to strengthen his team.

As Robert Mueller bores ever deeper into his business and political affairs, Trump's apparent desire to testify personally to the special counsel reflects his trust in his own instincts and impatience for advice despite the risks, mirroring his new approach to domestic and international policy.

And those who fear that the President's moods and hubris are increasingly driving his actions are worried the departure of one of his most trusted friends and aides, Hope Hicks, could make him even more volatile.

Programmer in chief

The circus surrounding Trump has often been compared to a reality show.

But increasingly, the administration actually resembles a cable politics channel, with Trump as chief programmer and anchor, making news, breaking it and ditching a traditional policy process for a corps of conservative commentators.

Bolton spent months auditioning for his new role on Fox News. And his new top economic advisor Larry Kudlow has been an outspoken CNBC voice for years.

Such spectacle infuriates critics who see government as a serious business, fraught with risks and defined by processes tested by generations of bureaucrats and West Wing tradition.

But there is a gulf between the political class in Washington and Trump supporters.

"This whole idea that President Trump is somehow chaotic and unique because he has his own strong point of view and is trying to push his administration in the way he sees fit, is actually the way presidents operate in the job," Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, told Fox News on Sunday.

With the economy roaring, with unemployment below 5%, after the passage of a huge tax cut and with his Cabinet lieutenants dismantling Obama-era regulations despite scandals swirling around them, Trump's base is remaining solid, giving him latitude for his currently unorthodox approach.

Trump showed how well he understands this during a rally in Ohio on Thursday, embracing a revival of ABC's "Roseanne" -- claiming the show's success is rooted in giving voice to white, working-class families who power his movement.

"It was about us. They haven't figured it out, the fake news hasn't quite figured it out yet," Trump said during a speech in Ohio.

Yet the increasingly improvisational and unpredictable approach that worked for Trump as candidate and is coming to define the administration faces an examination at a time when Washington chaos could exert a heavy price.

So far, Trump has been spared a major foreign policy crisis or an economic meltdown that puts his capacity to lead with coherence, speed, organization and in a way that foments national unity on the line.

But history, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the more recent financial meltdown has shown that sometimes only decisive presidential leadership, rooted in policy mastery, cool-headedness and an ability to command a functioning US government and national resources can stave off disaster.

A global economic shock, a massive natural disaster, a mass casualty terror attack, a sudden crisis with China or a further deterioration in post-Cold War relations with Russia could trigger such a moment.

Trump has rarely shown so far he would be up to such a task.

For instance, there's no indication yet that he has a clear strategy for his talks with Kim - the most high-stakes meeting between a US President and a foreign leader for decades. The cost of a failed summit could spark a slide into a disastrous war that could kill hundreds of thousands.

Trump's reflexive warning that the US will soon leave Syria, would in theory boost US adversaries in the region including Russia and Iran, and open the kind of vacuum that led to the rise of ISIS in Iraq, if it was carried out.

Re-writing the rules

Some Washington veterans believe that Trump's scattergun approach is certain to undermine his presidency in the long term -- even though he has prospered by rewriting all the rules of campaigning.

"To be successful in politics over the long term when you are governing you have to have a strategy and an agenda, and you have to go out and build on it day after day after day. What Trump does is he just tries to build interest rather than building a message over a long term," said Joe Lockhart, a former White House spokesman for Bill Clinton.

"It seems chaotic, he loves that. I don't think that sets him up though for the long-term and re-election, I don't think he really understands how different 2020 will be from 2016," Lockhart told CNN's Ana Cabrera on Friday.

Trump's governing style, in which he is the dominant figure, dictating events, making calls from the gut, surrounded by acolytes and family members, recalls the small leadership cell at the top of the Trump organization.

Indeed, friends of the President are telling him that he doesn't need to replace Hicks as communications director or John Kelly as chief of staff if he eventually decides to leave or is fired, CNN's Kevin Liptak reported last week.

Yet such fluid structures have been tried before and have failed, notably in the Carter and Ford presidencies when they became overwhelmed by the crush of events and issues bearing down on the West Wing.

"You just can't run the White House the way you run the 26th floor of Trump Tower," Chris Whipple, author of "The Gatekeepers" a book that maintains that strong White House chiefs of staff are vital to a functioning presidency, told CNN on Saturday.

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