Personnel changes leave fewer checks on Donald Trump’s impulsesOn March 30, 2018 by Zander
THE revolving door of Donald Trump’s administration is spinning fast. In the past couple of weeks the president has fired his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster (pictured, top left), and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and lost his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn (bottom left), who resigned after failing to stop Mr Trump putting tariffs on aluminium and steel. John Dowd, the top lawyer representing the president in Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference, has also quit. Mr Trump is trying to hire his fifth communications director, following the resignation of Hope Hicks.
While such turnover is rarely good for morale or the crafting of coherent policy, a bigger problem lurks. The replacement cast will now be made up of advisers who could indulge Mr Trump’s worst instincts on national security, trade and legal defence rather than temper them. The next phase of his presidency could therefore be one of the unfettered id: Trump unbound.
Start with national security. In place of Mr McMaster, a three-star general formerly best known for his sharp criticism of the Vietnam war, Mr Trump has elevated John Bolton (pictured, top right), a bellicose nationalist who has talked approvingly of military strikes in Iran and North Korea (see Lexington). Just one month ago Mr Bolton penned an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First”. American participation in the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions could soon end, adding to tensions in a Middle East that is already aflame (see article). Nominated to replace Mr Tillerson as secretary of state is Mike Pompeo, the hawkish director of the Central Intelligence Agency who also dislikes the Iran deal and wants to see regime change in North Korea. At least he is likely to prove a more competent administrator of the State Department than Mr Tillerson.
Then there is trade. Protectionism is one of the few political positions that Mr Trump has held steadfastly. Trumpologists had divided the administration into two camps: the so-called globalists, with Mr Cohn as their erstwhile chief, and the nationalists, who include Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, and Peter Navarro, the director of the National Trade Council. The two sides had warred over Mr Trump’s mercantilist tendencies, but it now appears that the nationalists are ascendant. Steel and aluminium tariffs were quickly followed by a proposal to levy tariffs on $60bn-worth of Chinese goods. A full-blown trade war might be only a few more shots away (see article). Larry Kudlow (pictured, bottom right), a television pundit who last worked in government under Ronald Reagan, will replace Mr Cohn as chief economic adviser. Though a free trader in his commentary, Mr Kudlow now says he sees a value in “targeted tariffs”, at least as a negotiating tool.
As for Mr Mueller’s investigation, as it has deepened and apparently widened (after ensnaring former Trump aides like Michael Flynn, the first national security adviser, and Paul Manafort, a former campaign chairman), Mr Trump’s temper has flared. With Mr Dowd’s resignation, reportedly over Mr Trump’s refusal to heed his advice and avoid an in-person interview with Mr Mueller, the legal team in charge of defending the president is in disarray. Joe diGenova, a staunch supporter of the president in his Fox News appearances, had been set to join the team before backing out a few days later. Few top-tier lawyers are said to be jumping at the chance to represent the president.
Already the president has taken to assailing Mr Mueller by name on Twitter—a tactic that Fox News hosts such as Sean Hannity have been pushing for months. Friends of Mr Trump fretted aloud in the summer of 2017 that he seemed minded to sack the special counsel, a move they believed would be disastrous. Press reports, called fake by the president, asserted that the White House counsel, Donald McGahn, threatened to resign if Mr Mueller were fired. Now Mr McGahn is said to be keen to leave.
The official with the authority to sack Mr Mueller, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney-general, has testified to Congress that there is no reason to do so. To rid himself of the special counsel, Mr Trump would have to sack Mr Rosenstein and all succeeding officials who refused to enforce the order. This “massacre” manoeuvre was performed by Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, with disastrous consequences. A handful of elected Republicans, most of them members of Congress who are not seeking re-election, have warned Mr Trump that firing Mr Mueller would jeopardise his presidency. But as Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee recently noted, Trump support among Republican voters is “more than strong, it’s tribal in nature.” Voters on the trail no longer ask about issues, added Mr Corker, who is standing down this year. “They want to know if you’re with Trump or not.”
Further ejections could be coming. Jeff Sessions, the attorney-general, incurred the unending wrath of the president by recusing himself from the investigation into Russia’s election interference. For the past few months, Mr Sessions has been subject to semi-regular humiliations—the typical prelude to eventual sacking in the Trump administration (as Messrs Tillerson and McMaster could attest). Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has been floated as a replacement for Mr Sessions. David Shulkin, the veterans-affairs secretary, is fighting to keep his post, amid speculation that he might be replaced by Pete Hegseth, a Fox News pundit. John Kelly, the chief of staff credited with imposing some discipline in the White House, has also been the subject of constant rumours of removal.
As the mid-term elections loom, congressional Republicans are in defensive mood, and the White House seems unwilling to push big, risky pieces of legislation. Expect Republicans to talk up their biggest achievement, a package of tax cuts that has slowly gained in popularity. Mr Trump may return to his greatest hits at rallies: new protectionist trade measures, say, or attacks on Democrats and left-leaning cities that shield illegal immigrants. Any new Supreme Court vacancy would galvanise conservatives.
The president seems to think that he governs best from his gut, and that bad advice has forced him into unpopular concessions to the Washington establishment. As nerve-racking as it may be, both within the White House and beyond, the Trump-unbound phase of the presidency could prove politically effective. With the economy strong and Mr Trump visibly emboldened, his popularity has been creeping up. This week a CNN poll showed his approval rating to be 42%—still low compared with most previous presidents at the equivalent stage, but his highest in nearly a year.