A nice complement to the last post, about POTUS’s deteriorating mood. The conventional wisdom in the media over the past 24 hours is that Trump’s growing misery and “isolation” is leading him to behave more erratically, from erupting at Jeff Sessions on Twitter to that bizarro-world performance at the White House gun-control summit to the shocking announcement yesterday of new global tariffs on steel and aluminum. None of those positions are new to him; he’s been a protectionist, for instance, for his entire adult life. But the headaches from John Kelly, Rob Porter, Bob Mueller, Sessions, Jared and Ivanka, and the NRA may have put him in more of a YOLO mindset towards his job.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing if you’re a Trump fan. If you want to see him smash establishment shibboleths like free trade, he’ll never be more likely to do it than when he’s in a grim “f*** everything” zone like this one. But you can be a populist without being a *reckless* populist. According to NBC, yesterday’s announcement was recklessly made:
By midnight Wednesday, less than 12 hours before the [steel and aluminum] executives were expected to arrive, no one on the president’s team had prepared any position paper for an announcement on tariff policy, the official said. In fact, according to the official, the White House counsel’s office had advised that they were as much as two weeks away from being able to complete a legal review on steel tariffs…
There were no prepared, approved remarks for the president to give at the planned meeting, there was no diplomatic strategy for how to alert foreign trade partners, there was no legislative strategy in place for informing Congress and no agreed upon communications plan beyond an email cobbled together by Ross’s team at the Commerce Department late Wednesday that had not been approved by the White House.
No one at the State Department, the Treasury Department or the Defense Department had been told that a new policy was about to be announced or given an opportunity to weigh in in advance.
If his team needed two weeks to prepare, why not wait two weeks and announce it then? One theory, unflattering to Trump, is that he was afraid his advisors would talk him out of it if he gave them more time to lobby him. If there’s any issue where you’d think he would be supremely confident in his own position and untroubled by being swayed, it’s trade. It’s one of the few policy areas in which he’s never wavered. But maybe having Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro on his side and essentially everyone else in government against him was too uncomfortable. Solution: Announce the new tariffs without warning and short-circuit the lobbying efforts in the Oval Office. There’s nothing Gary Cohn can say now to change his mind without Trump looking weak-minded and the White House losing face. The die is cast.
The other theory is that he announced the tariffs because he was … angry. That’s what NBC’s sources claim — he was “unglued” on Wednesday night, supposedly, because he was tired of the Sessions drama and the John Kelly drama and the drama created by Hope Hicks when she admitted to the House Intel Committee that she had told “white lies” for the president. (Supposedly Trump berated her behind closed doors for that.) How do you deal with stress when you’re the most powerful man in the world? You start a global trade war, apparently, with NBC insisting that “Trump’s decision to launch a potential trade war was born out of anger at other simmering issues.”
That’s alarming if true but there are more charitable ways to imagine Trump’s thought process than him mindlessly lashing out by upending U.S. trade policy. Tariffs are something he’s wanted for ages (“Tariffs! I want tariffs!”) but his advisors, few of whom he seems to like or trust, had restrained him until now. It’s not that odd to me that at a moment of supreme frustration with his aides, he’d decide to do things his way by declaring a policy that he’s had his mind set on for ages. It’s no exaggeration, I think, to say that protectionism is the issue nearest and dearest to Trump’s heart, even more so than immigration, which he’s wavered on from time to time. What’s the use of being president if you can’t push your pet cause, however stupid it may be? I don’t know that he was lashing out by announcing it so much as he was just trying to bust through internal obstacles that had been set up by his own team to prevent him from realizing his vision. Go figure that he would have felt emboldened to change course dramatically at a moment when the current course in the West Wing seems miserable.
Either way, though, whether Trump is “lashing out” or whether he’s consciously embarked on a Trumpier turn to his presidency, the next few weeks or months may be rocky even by his usual standards. Reading this piece today about Mueller looking into whether Jared Kushner’s business dealings affected Trump’s foreign policy, it occurs to me that we may be closer right now to POTUS firing the special counsel than we have been before. He almost did it last year before Don McGahn allegedly dragged him back from the brink. But if he’s reached a point of anger or frustration or feeling “unglued” because of unhappiness with his aides, he’d be disinclined to listen to McGahn or anyone else. If he’s reached the “f*** everything” fork in the road, there’s nothing left to stop him from demanding that Rod Rosenstein fire Mueller or trying to fire Mueller himself. Buckle up.