Last Friday, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly contacted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveling in one of those African “s—-hole” countries. “You may get a tweet,” Kelly advised, according to the New York Times.
It took an additional four days, but President Trump fired his top diplomat via Twitter. A day later, we’re learning that national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Kelly himself will probably be the next to go.
President Trump is setting up an administration of one. Perhaps two, when you consider that he can’t fire Vice President Mike Pence. The turnover in the upper echelons of this White House is approaching 50%. Pence is the only original inner circle member left.
Just 14 months into this administration, the new reality is that it may come down to Pence, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to keep this wild president, once described by Tillerson as a “f——ing moron” within the rails. The true danger is when Coats and Mattis have had enough and split. Or are fired… via Twitter. The longer they stay, the more their sheer patriotism grows.
Americans and the world nervously watched on Tuesday as Tillerson, his voice quivering, thanked career diplomats for their “honesty and integrity” and Americans for “acts of kindness.” He singled out Mattis. He ignored President Trump.
The picture emerging here is a President Trump unrestrained by burdensome staff. He imposed tariffs in what was described as a raging and “unglued” moment following the resignation of his fifth communications director Hope Hicks. He decided to meet with the North Korean despot Kim Jong Un after seeing the South Korean delegation briefing Americans on cable news.
Mike Allen of Axios observed Wednesday, “President Trump’s firing-via-tweet of Tillerson, following his sudden imposition of tariffs, reflects the president’s increasing comfort with solo use of his awesome power over policy, personnel and politics. It’s getting ever more difficult for aides to disagree with Trump, or stand up to him about the consequences of decisions great and small. We’re told Trump trusts his own instincts and counsel more than he did a year ago. So, it’s getting harder to talk him out of acting on whims and grievances. And with the departure announcements by aides who have had a moderating or restraining influence, he has ever fewer restraints and guardrails.”
The Washington Post reported: “On Tuesday, Trump fired Tillerson, who had forged a tight working relationship with Mattis to try to rein in some of Trump’s most impetuous decisions. ‘I made that decision by myself,’ Trump told reporters at the White House on Tuesday. Though he was talking about North Korea, it is a mantra that has never rung truer in his nearly 14 months as president. Trump’s moves have shaken and alarmed a West Wing staff who fear the president has felt less restrained about acting on his whims amid the recent departures of several longtime aides, including communications director Hope Hicks and staff secretary Rob Porter.”
And the New York Times: “Tillerson’s dismissal, on the heels of Gary D. Cohn’s resignation, pulls the Trump administration further out of the economic and foreign policy mainstream and closer to the nationalist ideas that animated Mr. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.”
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat: “Trump will begin to usher out his more qualified personnel and replace them with, well, TV personalities — Cohn with Larry Kudlow, perhaps, or H. R. McMaster with John Bolton. But it also promises to further multiply the number of important vacancies within the government, since more true-to-Trump personnel choices would inevitably have some trouble with the confirmation process, which in turn will encourage Trump to take more counsel from the shadow Trumpland of his campaign, where his more misfit-toy advisers tend to congregate.”
Left in the shadows are characters like Stephen Miller, who said just several weeks after Trump took the oath, “Our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”
That is reckless rhetoric with those on an authoritarian bent. A year after Miller made that claim, Trump watched China President Xi abrogate his constitutional restraints on power, becoming president for life. To which Trump joked (perhaps), “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll want to give that a shot someday.”
Trump’s decisions are now coming from the gut. This an M.C. Escher-like presidency, where issues morph in circular fashion here on Pi Day, and the words – often both unwise and unquestioned – splay out in dizzying fashion.
Our president can tell Members of Congress to forge a bipartisan deal on immigration, only to trash the compromise they attempted to forge. He can shame Members for their fear of the National Rifle Association, only to cave to the NRA the next day. He can tell survivors of school massacres that he will seek “comprehensive” gun reforms, only to end up advocating the arming of teachers and linking atrocities that only happen here with regularity to violent video games.
Past presidents had explained that they served with the help of a higher power and the masses. Richard Nixon explained, “Without God’s help and your help, we will surely fail; but with God’s help and your help, we shall surely succeed.” Ronald Reagan intoned, “I ask you not simply to trust me,’ but to trust your values — our values — and to hold me responsible for living up to them.” And George W. Bush: “I know the presidency is an office that turns pride into prayer.”
It harkens back to President Trump’s July 2016 Republican National Convention address, when he told an adoring throng, “I am your voice. I alone can fix it.”
It is Trump’s emerging personal manifest destiny.
— Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.