The Memo: Trump back to relying on his instincts

The Memo: Trump back to relying on his instincts
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse expected to vote on omnibus Thursday afternoon House passes 'right to try' drug bill Spending bill rejects Trump’s proposed EPA cut MORE has defied his party and White House norms repeatedly in the past week — firing his secretary of State, imposing steep tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum, and announcing his intention to become the first sitting U.S. president to meet a North Korean leader.

The latest stretch of the Trump presidency had also seen two other significant resignations in addition to Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonMueller witness and GOP fund-raiser sought to push UAE, Saudi agendas in White House: report Kimmel: Trump goes through Cabinet members like cheeseburgers, hair spray Trump formally sends Pompeo nomination to Senate MORE’s departure. Hope HicksHope Charlotte HicksWhite House race to replace Hope Hicks has two lead contenders Hicks almost left WH months before she announced her resignation: report Kelly tells White House staff no more personnel changes coming MORE is stepping down as communications director and Gary Cohn is departing as chief economic adviser.

The personnel changes, in addition to the policy moves, have fueled speculation that the president will be ever more reliant on his own instincts and even less inclined to listen to dissenting voices. That approach served Trump well on the 2016 campaign trail, where he took on establishment Republicans and Democrats repeatedly. And Trump has appeared to enjoy freewheeling, campaign-like appearances far more than heavily scripted teleprompter addresses during his presidency.

The future of H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, is the focus of much rumor, though the White House has denied that there are any plans to push him out.

Supporters of the president don’t dismiss out of hand the idea that there could be more changes. And some welcome the idea.

“By firing these establishment figures — and others to come — this is Trump playing more to his core base,” said one Republican operative.

But others caution against the idea that Trump is driving out every moderating influence.

“I think he has reached a certain point where he is sick of people inside the administration who are standing in the way of his policy agenda,” said Andrew Surabian, a former special assistant to the president. “But at the same time, I don’t think that means there is going to be a complete collapse of ideological diversity.”

Surabian noted — as did two other sources close to the White House, independently of each other — that one leading candidate to replace Cohn is TV anchor Larry Kudlow, a fervent supporter of free trade. 

The mere fact that Kudlow is considered as a leading candidate demonstrates that Trump is still open to differing opinions, those sources say.

Republican strategist Brad Blakeman argued that some of the media coverage of Tillerson’s firing overlooks the distinction between Cabinet members who have different views from the president, and those who are gratuitously unsupportive.

Trump “enjoys the give-and-take of the decisionmaking process. But once a decision is made he wants people to follow his orders to implement it, and without hesitation,” Blakeman said.

Last week, the president said he likes “having two people with different points of view. And I certainly have that. And then I make a decision.”

Cohn, who lost the argument on tariffs, declined to back the president’s decision. His departure was leaked soon after Trump had made his final decision on the thorny trade issue.

Regarding Tillerson, a former CEO of Exxon Mobil, Blakeman said, “I think the problem is that when you are CEO of one of the world’s largest corporations, it is hard to play second fiddle to anyone. If it is true that he called the president a ‘moron,’ that pretty much says what he thinks.”

Tillerson never personally denied calling Trump a moron after reports of that remark emerged in October. The furor was widely seen as a turning point from which the secretary of State’s relationship with the president never recovered.

Few tears are being shed among Trump’s circle about Tillerson’s departure. 

A White House official said the Tuesday morning firing came after two phone calls from Trump’s chief of staff, John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, to Tillerson on Friday and Saturday. Kelly informed the secretary of State he would have to make way, the White House official said, noting that Tillerson could have been left in no doubt about the president’s intentions. When Tillerson did not step down, the president fired him.

The official line is that Trump wants a new team in place — spearheaded by Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoMueller witness and GOP fund-raiser sought to push UAE, Saudi agendas in White House: report Kimmel: Trump goes through Cabinet members like cheeseburgers, hair spray Trump formally sends Pompeo nomination to Senate MORE, the CIA director who has been nominated as Tillerson’s replacement — as preparations pick up for his proposed meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. 

There is also a broader Trumpian critique of Tillerson as a figure too friendly with the establishment. In brief remarks to reporters Tuesday morning, Trump cited his differences with Tillerson over the Iran nuclear deal — Tillerson is more receptive to that deal than the president — as evidence of this different worldview.

But to critics of the president, the departure is a worrying sign.

John TierneyJohn F. TierneyThe Memo: Trump back to relying on his instincts Two polls show tightening race for Tierney's seat in Mass. DCCC names Moulton as a top candidate MORE, a former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts who is now executive director of the Council for a Livable World, told The Hill that “the first impression is that the president is looking to rid himself of any contrary opinions, and install ‘yes men’ of like mind.”

Tierney added that Tillerson had at least demonstrated a willingness to express a different point of view to the president and “every time he did that, the president seemed to be pretty irritated.”

Other Republican sources, however, emphasized that a secretary of State is typically most effective when he or she is known to be speaking for the president. The well-documented tensions between Tillerson and Trump prevented that from ever being the case, they say.

“It’s a great move for the White House to be putting Pompeo into this position because he will reflect exactly what the president is thinking on the world stage,” said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean, who worked closely with the White House to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court last year. “There is going to be a bond there and that is something that never happened with Tillerson.”

Another conservative strategist, Keith Appell, also sought to play down the idea that Trump is getting rid of dissenters. Instead, he said, the question is more a matter of personal dynamics.

“He, himself, has used the word ‘chemistry’ in discussing personnel of late,” Appell said. “He may not mind if someone close to him disagrees with him on a particular policy issue, but chemistry is clearly important to him.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.