Donald Trump hasn’t changed much since taking office, but the structure surrounding the president has evolved more than once. The latest iteration of conditions in the White House appears designed to allow Trump to feel less constrained than he’s been.
The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser recently published a report on the Republican’s habit of getting in his own way.
This is likely to happen even more in the coming months, because of another one of the key events of the past year: Trump’s firing of his top officials, including Tillerson, the White House chief of staff John Kelly, and the national-security adviser H. R. McMaster, and replacing them with hard-liners more willing to accept Trump’s positions.
All those moves, as the foreign-policy analyst Thomas Wright put it to me, are “part of a deliberate strategy to maximize his freedom to operate.” And that was before the news of Mattis’s departure hit.
Around the same time, the New York Times reported that the president “appears determined to assemble a new team of advisers who will not tell him what he cannot do.” It came on the heels of a report from Politico that said acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, having seen John Kelly fail to instill a sense of discipline in the president, “intends to give Trump more leeway to act as he chooses.”
A Washington Post report added, “For President Trump, the era of containment is over.”
And what, pray tell, does this unrestrained presidency look like? For one thing, Donald Trump flip-flopped his way into a government shutdown with no plan to get out of it, no strategy on how to manage it, and no ability to strike a deal to resolve it.
For another, no one seems to know for sure exactly what Trump’s immigration plan is. He apparently wants a wall, but he has no idea how to get one; he quietly abandoned his original construction plan; his own team doesn’t really expect it to be built; and even his allies aren’t sure whether it’s a “metaphor” or not.
Meanwhile, the administration’s policy in Syria has descended into total incoherence, with Trump making poorly thought out pronouncements that contradict each other, while White House National Security Adviser John Bolton contradicts both his boss and himself.
The common thread tying together practically all of Trump’s troubles is rampant incompetence. The president may finally have the “freedom to operate” he’s craved, but the result is a governing dynamic in which the amateur president appears to have no idea what he’s doing.