Message dissonance between Trump and his Cabinet sows confusion

Message dissonance between Trump and his Cabinet sows confusion

Two of President Trump’s senior Cabinet members dropped jaws in the past week with comments that appeared to suggest a clear break with the president.

Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonHouse passes legislation to elevate cybersecurity at the State Department Biden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet With salami-slicing and swarming tactics, China's aggression continues MORE told Fox News host Chris Wallace that “the president speaks for himself” when it comes to America’s values.

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump says Gen. Milley 'last person' he'd want to start a coup with Overnight Defense: Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld dies at 88 | Trump calls on Milley to resign | House subpanel advances Pentagon spending bill Biden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet MORE told unidentified troops overseas in a video shared on social media to “hold the line” until America “gets back to understanding and respecting each other.”

Then later, Mattis appeared to explicitly contradict the president on the viability of diplomacy in the ongoing conflict with North Korea.


The remarks came on the heels of reports that the National Economic Council's director, Gary Cohn, had drafted a resignation letter in response to the president’s controversial comments about a recent white supremacist rally that led to the death of a counterprotester in Charlottesville, Va.

A drumbeat of headlines raised speculation that Trump’s inner circle is weighing abandoning him after he condemned the violence as coming from "both sides" of the rally.

United Nations Ambassador Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyNoem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis Trump is a complication for Republican hopes in Virginia MORE has also drawn notice for months by appearing to contradict the president on myriad issues, from U.S. support for a two-state solution in Israel to the belief that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

Critics say the dissonance between Trump’s statements and those of his Cabinet is making it difficult for allies to interpret America's policies overseas by raising a fundamental question: Does the president speak for the United States?

At the very least, the apparent daylight between the president and his senior advisers represents a stark contrast to the previous administration, which marched in lockstep on matters of public messaging.

Under the Trump administration, the president’s tweets are often in direct opposition — or are at the least shaded differently — to what his senior policymakers are saying.

On Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted, “The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!”

To some outside analysts, the tweet suggested that the White House was pulling diplomatic negotiations off the table with the reclusive nuclear power.

But shortly afterward, Mattis told a reporter at the Pentagon that “we’re never out of diplomatic solutions.”

“We continue to work together, and the minister and I share a responsibility to provide for the protection of our nations, our populations and our interests, which is what we are here to discuss today,” Mattis said, referring to South Korea's defense minister, who was also present.

On Thursday, Mattis disputed the suggestion that he and Trump do not see eye-to-eye and vented frustration to reporters that his comments were misinterpreted.

“If I say six and the president says half a dozen, they’re going to say I disagreed with him,” he said, according to an Associated Press reporter.

“The question was, ‘Are we out of diplomatic options?’” Mattis said. “No, we’re not. It was not, ‘Should we talk now with the North Koreans,’ in which case I would have said, ‘No, I agree with the president exactly — we don’t do that right now.’”

Like Mattis, many Trump allies dispute the notion that the contradictions are a signal of disunity, calling the speculation much ado about nothing.

Some reports have suggested that the friction has annoyed the president at times. The Washington Post reported Thursday that Trump was unhappy with public comments from Cohn criticizing his response to Charlottesville, and some sources have suggested that he is frustrated with Tillerson.

But multiple former administration transition officials said that Trump always intended for his Cabinet members to have a great deal of autonomy in how they executed their roles. They argued that the apparently independent messages doesn’t indicate any fundamental schisms in Trump’s Cabinet.

“He’s not the traditional guy where everybody lines up and is in agreement. He comes from the business side where there’s always diverse and strong voices,” said one former transition official. “For him, that’s a normal process. In Washington, we interpret that differently.”

Those former officials shrug when the president’s tweets don’t comport precisely with what Tillerson or Mattis or Haley is saying.

“Sometimes the rhetoric doesn’t always match the policy,” the transition official said, but the tweets allow him to energize his base around a security issue he sees as critical, like North Korea.

The key to understanding Trump’s communication strategy is understanding who his audience is, said James Carafano, a member of the Trump transition team who heads the national security policy team at the Heritage Foundation.

The president doesn’t think of his tweets as a formal expression of U.S. government policy, Carafano and others said — he sees them as a way of communicating directly with his base.

“When Tillerson said, 'Trump speaks for Trump,' all he was making was a commonsense comment that everybody already knows,” Carafano told The Hill. “It was a literal statement. If you want an official statement of U.S. foreign policy in the formal way U.S. foreign policy is stated, well, that’s [Tillerson’s] job.”

But for foreign nations unaccustomed to Trump’s freewheeling governance style, critics say, it can be difficult to toggle between Trump’s campaign rally persona or Twitter voice and the more formal expressions of policy that come from administration officials such as Tillerson or Haley.

Gordon Adams, who oversaw national security budgets at the Office of Management and Budget during former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBiden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Biden hits new low in Gallup poll Biden hits trail for McAuliffe in test of his political brand MORE’s administration, says that the messaging gap is causing allies — such as Japan, he suggested — to distance themselves from the U.S.

“The problem with the president’s tweets is they bewilder people overseas, because they cannot figure out who really speaks for the United States,” he said. “But if the president doesn’t speak for the United States, who does?”

Some onlookers suggest that Trump and his Cabinet are staging a choreographed “good cop, bad cop” routine.

Others — like Adams — describe Trump’s Cabinet and even the vice president as a clean-up crew, seeking to mitigate the damage from the president’s impulsive tweets.

During his swing through South America earlier this month, Vice President Pence said that “the president sent me here … to achieve by peaceable means the restoration of democracy in Latin America.” The comments came days after Trump said that he would not “rule out” a military intervention in Venezuela.

Carafano argued that foreign heads of state simply “roll their eyes” and ignore Trump’s hardline tweets as domestic messaging.

The purpose of the tweets, he said, is to reaffirm Trump’s mandate to govern by assuring his base that he’s pursuing the agenda he promised them.

“His ability to talk to his people gives him the power to govern and the promise to get reelected,” he said. “If he’s going to be the president in four years, if there’s some kind of notion that he’s a lame duck and unreelectable — he has to show that he still has the political clout that he always had.

“Eventually, everybody will adjust to this,” Carafano said.