The Memo: Unbound Trump breaks from restraints
Call it "Trump Unbound."
After a tumultuous week, President TrumpDonald TrumpRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Jake Ellzey defeats Trump-backed candidate in Texas House runoff DOJ declines to back Mo Brooks's defense against Swalwell's Capitol riot lawsuit MORE has exiled several voices of restraint from his administration, added more hawkish supporters to his team and shown an ever-greater reliance on his own gut instincts.
He has also signaled a more aggressive approach to the Russia probe spearheaded by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE.
Whether that is a good or bad thing depends upon your political perspective.
Loyal supporters of the president are delighted by the turn. Democrats and other skeptics fear disaster is around the corner.
“One thing is for sure: almost to a man and to a woman, these appointments of people who have been longtime Trump supporters even in the darkest hours are a relief,” said Michael Caputo, a Trump ally and friend who has known the president since the 1980s.
But Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, argued otherwise.
“There is nothing worse than a president having a narrow range of opinion — it always goes poorly,” Zelizer said. “That’s why it’s healthy to have advisers who say that what you are doing is wrong. … Without that, presidents often move swiftly into poor decisions, for the nation and for themselves.”
The most headline-grabbing move last week came with the resignation of national security adviser H.R. McMaster and the announcement that he would be replaced by John Bolton, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.) under former President George W. Bush.
McMaster was seen as one of the senior advisers most likely to dissent from Trump’s views — a trait that did him no good in the jockeying for position within the White House.
He is also seen as skeptical of authority in general — he is the author of "Dereliction of Duty," a book that is largely about how excessive deference among President Johnson’s top advisers, military and civilian, led to disaster during the Vietnam War.
Trump loyalists blamed McMaster and people close to him for leaking to the media, an accusation that was denied.
Bolton is a polarizing figure who served as U.N. ambassador for a little more than a year, without ever being confirmed by the Senate.
He has in the past suggested the U.S. should consider pre-emptive strikes on Iran and North Korea — positions that unnerved Democrats.
Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) called Bolton’s views “overly aggressive at best and downright dangerous at worst” in a statement released shortly after the announcement of his hiring.
But the McMaster-Bolton switch was only the latest change Trump has wrought.
Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump House passes legislation to elevate cybersecurity at the State Department Biden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet MORE has also been forced out, with CIA Director Mike PompeoMike PompeoNoem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis Pence v. Biden on China: Competing but consistent visions MORE — previously a conservative Republican congressman representing a Kansas district — nominated to replace him.
Earlier this month, chief economic adviser Gary CohnGary David CohnOn The Money: Wall Street zeros in on Georgia runoffs | Seven states sue regulator over 'true lender' rule on interest rates | 2021 deficit on track to reach .3 trillion Former Trump economic aide Gary Cohn joins IBM The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience MORE announced he would step down, having lost an internal battle to prevent the imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.
The victor in that struggle was Peter Navarro, an economic nationalist who serves as the head of the White House National Trade Council.
The tariffs came into effect on Friday, one day after Trump announced separate measures aimed specifically at China. Although yet to be finalized, the China measures target around $60 billion in imports.
Supporters argue that such moves are merely evidence of growing confidence on the president’s part.
Brad Blakeman, a veteran of Bush’s White House and a supporter of the president, said, “The president is getting more comfortable and understanding who he really needs around him.”
Blakeman also suggested that angst about the tariffs was mostly a Beltway obsession that would not resonate with the people who voted for Trump in the first place.
“ ‘America First’ is not being isolationist, it is being realistic,” he said, referencing a well-known Trump slogan.
Trump’s position on tariffs is one of his most long-standing political beliefs — he has complained about the U.S. being treated unfairly in international trade since long before he entered politics.
His initial move on steel and aluminum won praise from some people who are aligned with him on little else, such as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
But the president’s moves have also been met with consternation on Wall Street, where stock markets have just ended their worst week in more than two years. The Dow Jones industrial average fell by more than 1,000 points through Thursday and Friday.
Meanwhile, Trump’s zest for confrontation seems to be extending into the legal arena, which this week saw the resignation of John Dowd as his lead personal counsel dealing with the Russia probe.
Dowd, an advocate for a generally conciliatory approach with Mueller, departed soon after it was announced that Joe diGenova had joined the team. DiGenova has previously suggested the FBI is trying to frame Trump for collusion with Russia.
To be sure, all of Trump’s recent actions do not fit a neat frame.
Although Cohn lost the tariffs fight, for example, his replacement will be TV commentator Larry Kudlow, who is also an ardent free-trader.
While some of the people leaving the administration did not gel with the president personally, another person soon to depart is communications director Hope HicksHope HicksUPDATED: McEnany, Fox News talks on pause Trump selects Hicks, Bondi, Grenell and other allies for positions Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis tests positive for coronavirus MORE, perhaps the person in the West Wing who understands him best.
Trump also remains as unpredictable as ever. He initially signaled his support for the huge spending bill passed by Congress this week, then suggested he might veto it, then announced a news conference at which he accepted it as a necessary evil.
“I will never sign another bill like this again,” he said at the White House on Friday afternoon.
To his supporters, it’s all welcome evidence of Trump being Trump.
“This is the president getting his sea legs in very stormy seas,” said Caputo.
But Trump backers and detractors alike agree there is likely even more rough weather to come.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.