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White House struggles to keep up with Trump's incoherence on Syria

As one report noted, Trump is operating on "a tornado of impulses" -- and with no clear strategy -- as White House officials struggle to keep up.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump walks across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Friday, March 23, 2018, as he heads to Marine One for a short trip to...

It was just yesterday morning when Donald Trump rattled much of the world, announcing via Twitter that Russia should "get ready" because the United States was poised to launch missiles in Syria. As Rachel explained on the show last night, the presidential missive caught White House officials and U.S. allies abroad off-guard -- because no one knew what Trump was talking about.

Making matters worse, he added this morning that a U.S.-launched attack "could be very soon or not so soon at all!"

The Washington Post had an interesting behind-the-scenes look at developments in the White House, where officials were "proceeding with uncharacteristic deliberation" about the U.S. response to the Syrian government's latest alleged gas attack, right up until Trump published an odd tweet for the world to see.

White House advisers were surprised by the missive and found it "alarming" and "distracting," in the words of one senior official. They quickly regrouped and, together with Pentagon brass, continued readying Syria options for Trump as if nothing had happened. [...]The Twitter disruptions were emblematic of a president operating on a tornado of impulses -- and with no clear strategy -- as he faces some of the most consequential decisions of his presidency,.

One West Wing aide told the Post, "It's just like everybody wakes up every morning and does whatever is right in front of them. Oh, my God, Trump Tower is on fire. Oh, my God, they raided Michael Cohen's office. Oh, my God, we're going to bomb Syria. Whatever is there is what people respond to, and there is no proactive strategic thinking."

The result is a dynamic in where there is no White House in the traditional sense. Sure, there's a complex filled with officials at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but in practice, what we have is a confused and erratic amateur, barking out periodic nonsense, and White House personnel struggling to keep up.

It led to a head-shaking day yesterday, in which the president announced that missiles were on the way in Syria -- a country he very recently announced plans to abandon altogether -- only to have Trump's White House announce soon after that no decisions had been made.

I know a lot of people tend to hate this kind of commentary, and I can appreciate why, but the fact remains that if a Democratic president did this, it would haunt him or her indefinitely. The right would see it as definitive proof of a president whose judgment on matters of national security simply couldn't be trusted.

But stepping back, it's also important to appreciate the fact that the only real certainty that comes with this presidency is that those around Trump have no idea what he'll say or do at any given moment.

Consider, for example, this Axios piece from last week after Trump threatened China with $100 billion in new tariffs: "There wasn't one single deliberative meeting in which senior officials sat down to debate the pros and cons of this historic threat. Trump didn't even ask for advice from his new top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, instead presenting the tariffs as a fait accompli. Chief of Staff John Kelly knew Trump wanted more tariffs but was blindsided by the speed of the announcement. And Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short -- the White House's liaison to Capitol Hill -- was totally in the dark."

Trump's aides were blindsided when he announced his intention to withdraw from Syria. They were blindsided when he threatened to veto an omnibus spending bill they'd told the public the president supported. They were blindsided by most of his recent personnel decisions.

Trump didn’t tell aides he’d ignore their guidance on what to say to Vladimir Putin. He didn’t tell them in advance about his tariffs policy. He didn’t involve them in his decision to meet with Kim Jong-un.

And those are just some of the most recent examples. As we discussed several weeks ago, this has become a staple of Trump’s presidency. His aides didn’t know that he’d denounce a House Republican surveillance bill that the White House supported. The White House staff was also surprised to learn that he’d announced via Twitter that Christopher Wray was his choice to lead the FBI. They were equally startled to read Trump’s tweets banning transgender Americans from military service.

White House aides also didn’t know in advance that Trump would falsely accuse Barack Obama via Twitter of tapping his phone. They also had no idea that the president would tweet news about John Kelly serving as chief of staff. Politico highlighted an instance from early last year in which Trump lashed out at China via Twitter “while U.S. officials were meeting with a Chinese delegation at the State Department.”

My personal favorite was this Associated Press report:

Aides to President Donald Trump were in deep talks about how to defuse tensions between Qatar and other Arab nations when the door to the secure room at the White House burst open.The urgent message: Trump had just tweeted about Qatar.One adviser read the tweet aloud and with that, the policymakers in midconference call had no other choice but to rework their plans to reflect the president’s tweeted assertion that Qatar, host to some 11,000 U.S. troops, was funding terrorism.It was an accusation against a close U.S. ally that had never been voiced so publicly and with such indelicacy.

The Washington Post  had a report about a month ago that said, “The mood inside the White House in recent days has verged on mania, as Trump increasingly keeps his own counsel and senior aides struggle to determine the gradations between rumor and truth.”

Or put another way, this may be "the most toxic working environment on the planet.”