Trump learning game of politics
The current U.S. president is like few – if any – other leaders in American history. He reportedly shows little interest in reading briefing documents, spends much of his time on the golf course or watching cable television – all the while disagreeing with the Washington establishment on just about everything. After 14 months in the Oval Office, however, it’s hard to dispute that he is becoming more successful at marrying his idiosyncratic style with the levers of power to get his own way.
The ousting of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggests Trump’s confidence is still growing – as is his ability to use the power of his office.
Trump’s announcement of his plan to replace Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo comes days after Trump’ decision to tell a South Korean envoy that he was willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Whether Trump is acting wisely is a matter of division and debate. On North Korea, many foreign policy experts say he is making a mistake by starting with a summit. With tariffs, Trump essentially signaled a trade war with a tweet, again with little of the policy or diplomatic consultations that would normally precede such a step.
On gun control, the administration has ensured that Trump’s personal – if controversial – thoughts on arming teachers are a focus of the discussion, and perhaps new legislation. His tax cuts are at the center of U.S. economic policy. Immigration policy remains largely deadlocked, but Trump is unquestionably setting the tone and agenda.
It’s unclear how much success Trump will have pushing his views into law. All are intensely polarizing. But then, that may be partly the point. Even if he fails to get his way, most of these views can be expected to energize his political base ahead of the November midterm elections – a significant bellwether for his prospects of re-election in 2020.
As late as last year, Trump’s Twitter feed and public pronouncements were a hodgepodge, some barely followed up, which often played badly in the media. More recently, however, he has used Twitter more strategically, often to issue surprise announcements or to shape the political battlefield on issues such as trade and taxes.
The administration has also become more disciplined at following such utterances through. That includes forcing others to embrace his “deal-making” persona, as South Korea did unashamedly in presenting him with Kim’s offer of a summit. Friend and foe alike know they must flatter him to progress, even if political constraints and personal taste mean they do not always do so.
When he ran his business, Trump was said to operate through a very narrow group, often keeping them in a state of intense and insecure rivalry.
The president is clearly frustrated that he cannot simply dictate whom he has around him. The departure of White House communications director Hope Hicks may be a particular blow. Alongside daughter Ivanka, she was one of only a handful to follow him across from his business empire. The appointment of former U.S. Marine general John Kelly as White House Chief of Staff last year clearly ushered in a more ordered era, although tensions continue amid talk that Kelly and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster may also leave.