No longer hemmed in by aides, Trump has bent the presidency into the mold of the Trump Organization.
By NANCY COOK
09/19/2019 05:00 AM EDT
Updated 09/19/2019 10:48 AM EDT
The China trade war, talks with the Taliban, the response to Iran after Saudi attacks, gun control, new tax legislation and a long list of other policy issues are up in the air and awaiting decisions from President Donald Trump — and him alone — heading into the 2020 election season.
In many ways, it’s the presidency Trump has always wanted.
He’s at the center of the action. He’s fully in command. And he’s keeping world leaders on edge and unsure of his next moves, all without being hemmed in by aides or the traditional strictures of a White House.
After four national security advisers, three chiefs of staff, three directors of oval office operations and five communications directors, the president is now finding the White House finally functions in a way that fits his personality. Trump doubters have largely been ousted, leaving supporters to cheer him on and execute his directives with fewer constraints than ever before.
“It is a government of one in the same way in which the Trump Organization was a company of one,” said a former senior administration official.
“In the first year in office, President Trump was new to the job. He was more susceptible to advisers and advice. There were more people urging caution or trying to get him to adhere to processes,” the former senior official added. “Now, there are very few people in the White House who view that as their role, or as something they want to try to do, or who even have a relationship with him.”
This Presidency of One is now heading into an election year supported by campaign staffers and White House aides who are quick say Trump is the best political strategist as well as the most effective messenger, and they intend to follow his lead wherever 2020 goes.
The transformation of the Trump White House, from its early attempts at a traditional structure to its current freewheeling style, has exacted a heavy toll on his staff. But a steady stream of departures — the highest senior staff turnover of any recent president by far — has also left fewer forces trying to bend the president to the usual process of the top ranks of government.
“It’s very easy, actually, to work with me. You know why it’s easy? Because I make all the decisions. They don’t have to work,” Trump told reporters last Friday as he explained why being his national security adviser, in his mind, is now a low-key post. Trump fired his third such adviser, John Bolton, last week, and he named a new national security adviser on Wednesday morning by tweet.
Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney gives the president free rein to “Let Trump Be Trump,” as Mulvaney has said, having seen the fate of his two predecessors, Reince Priebus and John Kelly.
The dwindling of top senior staff has left the president in the company of his family members, Mulvaney, Kellyanne Conway, Larry Kudlow, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the omnipresent Stephen Miller, who mostly focuses on immigration, current and former senior administration officials say.
In the past three years, Trump also lost several trusted aides, most of whom played no role in major policy decisions but were frequent presences. Trump trusted them. They could read his moods, and their loss has been felt throughout the building, say current and former White House aides. This includes his former bodyguard Keith Schiller, former body man John McEntee, former communications director Hope Hicks and former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who left the administration in June after morphing into more of a top adviser than a top communications aide.
To outsiders, it’s felt like watching an increasingly unbound, or unleashed version of the Trump presidency.
But to many Trump allies, aides, and longtime observers, the president is showing the world the way he’s always operated. Only now it has become clearer because he is receiving less pushback from staff and advisers — and has very few effective checks on his administration from Congress, the national security community or fellow Republicans.
“The Trump I’m seeing now, to me, is the same Donald Trump who has existed for the 50 of his last 73 years. This is very much in keeping with how he rolled in the business world. The only difference is now he is doing it on the global stage,” said Timothy O’Brien, author of “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald“ and executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion.
There is little policy process left as the White House faces consequential decisions on Iran, North Korea, China, trade and the economy, even as the president intends to use the last-named as a major selling point for his reelection bid.
“You can’t just turn the economy on and off. These are big, slow-moving machines. And he’s operating under this major fallacy that he can keep telling the market things, and they will keep believing him on China or whatever else,” said one adviser close to the White House. “And that he can just all of a sudden turn things around with a China deal or whatever it is and it doesn’t work that way.”
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. | Alex Wong/Getty Images
One of Trump’s top White House aides disputed the notion of a fractured policy process. “With every decision he makes, there is a deliberative, coordinated policy process and ultimately the president makes the best decision in the interest of the American people,” said Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary. “No president has had more success in his first 2½ years than President Donald J. Trump. In spite of 93 percent negative news coverage, this president has built a safer, stronger, and more secure America, including record job gains, economic growth, fair and reciprocal trade, criminal justice reform, energy independence, combatting the opioid epidemic, lowering prescription drug prices, and restoring our standing in the world.”
In the past few weeks, Trump has publicly announced that the U.S. is “locked and loaded” in case Iran turns out to be the culprit behind last weekend’s missile strikes on Saudi Arabian oil facilities. He laid out on Twitter since-scrapped plans to invite the Taliban to Camp David for negotiations days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
And he introduced the idea of additional tariffs on China one Friday, setting off a scramble inside the West Wing that forced his top economic officials to abandon top-level meetings, rush to the Oval Office and make policy in the wake of his tweet.
“The downward momentum in Trump’s approval rating scares me a bit from a foreign policy perspective because he is a win-at-all-costs type of a person. I worry he could get us into an ill-advised military conflict in an attempt to regain support,” said Anthony Scaramucci, the New York financier and short-lived White House communications director. “From an economic perspective, he’s going to reach into his bag of tricks to try to stimulate growth. I think he’ll end up cutting a trade deal with China to remove that cloud of uncertainty from markets, but I think due to his increasing desperation it will end up being a bad deal for the United States.”
In addition to the president’s relative isolation, he and the administration face several challenges this fall over which Trump does not have total control, including foreign policy challenges such as Iran, China or North Korea, ongoing risks to the economy, passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement or potential congressional action on gun control.
This uncertainty might not sit well with a president who has said he likes to make all the decisions, says O’Brien, the author of “TrumpNation.“
Whatever actions he does take now will also become part of his record heading into the election. “He will have to answer specific questions about that report card, and he will be frustrated by those,” O’Brien added.
If the president seems liberated, it’s been an evolution to reach that point.
In the early days, Trump felt out of his depth on national security and foreign policy or what he legally could do through executive action, said three former senior administration officials. He knew, for instance, he wanted to roll back the Obama legacy on regulations or environmental rules, but he did not initially grasp the mechanics of doing so.
Nor did he understand the breadth of the federal government — like the huge number of people it employed, or the usual checks on presidential power like Congress or the courts, said one of the officials. Trump is the first president elected who did not first hold political office or serve in the military. While this outsider status helped propel his political rise and underscored his populist message, it also left his government far behind operationally and organizationally as it took over the White House.
In the ensuing three years, Trump has grown more comfortable with the trappings of the office and has formed his own relationships with world leaders, say current and former administration officials, even as he’s upended traditional global alliances. He’s earned a greater understanding of his executive authority and has developed relationships with many members of Congress whom he calls directly.
Now the White House runs as he prefers, with him at the center of the action — speaking directly to reporters from the Oval Office, breaking his own news and laying out policy decisions by tweet.
“This is now more of a government built on the basis of Trump’s reactions to things,” said one of the former senior administration officials. “The president has learned as much as he cares to know about the mechanics of government. He’s figured out, on most things, he can continue to play a public relations battle.”