The god of giant metaphors struck on Friday. Winds of 100km/h battered Washington, DC, uprooting trees, cutting power to nearly 500,000 people and forcing the US federal government to close. Donald Trump had to change his travel plans and fly via Dulles airport, where one plane had such a bumpy descent that, the pilot said, pretty much everyone on board threw up.
It was the apt end of a week that left the president, Lear-like, all but abandoned in a raging storm. Hope Hicks, an aide so close that she has been described as a surrogate daughter, became the fourth communications director to leave his administration.
Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, was stripped of high-level security clearance amid revelations about potential conflicts of interest.
The king himself fulminated on topics from gun control to trade tariffs, leaving courtiers scrambling to offer reassurances about his state of mind.
As layers of this onion – the people who have seniority, who he listens to and who, hopefully, can talk him down – unpeel, there are fewer and fewer people to do that
There has been disarray in the White House before, but this time, observers said, the checks and balances that have provided a modicum of restraint appear to be crumbling, leaving Trump isolated, angry and ready to lash out. It is, they fear, not inconceivable that the world's most powerful country is now being guided by instinct, by impulse, by whim and by mood swing.
“This feels like it’s turned a corner and not for the better for the White House,” said Rich Galen, a Republican strategist who was once press secretary to Vice-President Dan Quayle. “As layers of this onion – the people who have seniority, who he listens to and who, hopefully, can talk him down – unpeel, there are fewer and fewer people to do that, which means he can operate on his gut, and he doesn’t have the experience to do that.”
Since Trump’s inauguration, in January last year, there has been an ever-decreasing inner circle of trusted advisers. Back then it seemed that three competing centres of power in the West Wing might provide a balance of sorts.
First there was Reince Priebus, the chief of staff and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, or RNC. But he struggled to bring order and was gone by July, replaced by the retired general John Kelly.
Second was Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, who had no political experience but personified the president’s populist, nationalist base. His appointment was announced at the same time as that of Priebus, as if teeing up a palace rivalry. The men forged an alliance of convenience, but Bannon stole too much of the limelight and was out by August. His philosophy lived on in Trump’s abrupt announcement this week of long-term tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, spoiling for a trade war.
Third, in a less formal role, was Kushner, also a political ingenue. His vast portfolio, including pacifying the Middle East, became a running joke but was steadily curtailed. This week he suffered several blows that could prove fatal. Kelly downgraded his security clearance, from top secret to secret, denying him access to the president’s daily intelligence briefing, because he had not been permanently approved for the highest level of access.
In addition, the Washington Post reported that officials from four foreign countries discussed ways to manipulate Kushner via his business arrangements, and the New York Times said two companies made loans worth more than $500 million, or €400 million, to Kushner's family property company after executives met him at the White House. The disclosures could leave him exposed in the special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into alleged collusion with Russia.
Rick Tyler, a political analyst, said: “It’s appalling that anyone would leverage their time in government to enrich themselves or do personal business, and Jared Kushner appears to have been doing that consistently. He ought to leave immediately. They are nothing but grifters.”
Priebus, Bannon, Kushner: two down, one clinging on by his fingertips. Galen said: “The issue with the three is that none had any White House experience. Priebus came closest, with the RNC, but that’s part of the problem getting worse and worse for the White House. There are fewer and fewer people. No one is banging on the gate, wanting to work there, because of the damage it will do to their reputation.”
“Gunning for a fight”
Until now Trump’s defenders have insisted that people should focus on what he does, not what he says or tweets. The machine of government is ticking over, they have claimed, with victories including economic growth, tax cuts and the appointment of conservative judges. According to this view, the infighting and shenanigans at the White House are just background noise.
The press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, told Fox News: “If they want to call it chaos, fine, but we call it success and productivity, and we’re going to keep plugging along.”
But this was one of Washington’s wildest weeks yet, and, critics argue, there are signs that Trump’s unchecked volatility is bleeding into policy. On Wednesday, before the TV cameras, he hosted a negotiating session with members of the United States Congress on the issue of gun violence. To the dismay of his own party he backed several Democratic gun-control proposals and even said that, in the case of mentally unstable people, authorities should “take the guns first, go through due process second”.
Tyler, a former spokesman for a pro-gun rights senator, Ted Cruz of Texas, described it as “the single most disturbing thing he’s said as president”, likely to do “exponentially” more political damage than who’s in and who’s out at the White House. “The NRA [National Rifle Association] are single-issue voters and will not take kindly to someone who talks one way on the campaign trail and then throws them under the bus,” Tyler said.
That evening, according to an official quoted by NBC, the president became "unglued". The NBC report said three unrelated events – Kushner's humiliation by Kelly, Hicks's nine-hour testimony to a congressional committee investigating Russian election interference, and recurring exasperation at the attorney general, Jeff Sessions – left Trump "angry and gunning for a fight".
On Thursday morning he got it. His commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, an ally, arranged a meeting with 15 executives from the steel and aluminium industry. It did not appear on the public schedule and blindsided Kelly and other White House staff. Then Trump invited reporters in and, apparently off the cuff, announced plans to impose tariffs of 25 per cent on steel and 10 per cent on aluminium imports.
The move caught the state department, treasury and Pentagon unawares, wiped hundreds of points off the stock market and rattled the United States’ closest allies.
In a flash Trump had reverted to protectionist instincts that long predated his political career and that he championed during the election. He defied the protests of his economic adviser, Gary Cohn, and treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, and tweeted unrepentantly: "When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win."
There was a barrage of criticism from economists, Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal and Republican free-trade advocates. Senator John Thune, of South Dakota, admitted wryly: "There is no standard operating practice with this administration. Every day is a new adventure for us."
Late on Thursday Trump appeared to change his mind again, this time on gun control, after a meeting with NRA leaders. The erratic behaviour continued when he turned his ire on the Saturday Night Live star Alec Baldwin in a misspelled 5.42am tweet that said: "Alex Baldwin, whose dieing mediocre career was saved by his impersonation of me on SNL, now says playing DJT was agony for him."
The reality-TV president is now in high definition. Michael Steele, a former chairman of the RNC, said: “That’s the space Donald Trump has been trying to get to since the day he became president. Now with Hope [Hicks] gone he doesn’t have the voice in the room saying, ‘Mr President, we have to think about this.’ Now when he wants something done it gets done.”
West Wing morale is understood to be at an all-time low, and recruiting high-calibre replacements is becoming harder
The loss of his 29-year-old communications director, who occupied the desk closest to the Oval Office, will leave a void. Along with Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, she was one of the last survivors of the Trump Tower days and has been dubbed the “Trump whisperer” for soothing the president’s ego with constant affirmation and loyalty. She reportedly admitted to Congress that she had told “white lies” on his behalf.
But even she had enough, joining the cascade of departures. Steele added: “It’s consistent with anyone who generates chaos. It’s like a bunch of marbles. You shoot into a group of marbles, and some of the marbles get bumped out of the circle. The problem Trump has is finding more marbles to put in the circle. With the departure of Hope Hicks this week the president is missing one of the marbles.”
More could follow. NBC reported that Trump is preparing to replace his national-security adviser, HR McMaster, next month, although officials deny this. There is also speculation about the futures of Cohn, Sessions and Kelly, who bungled the handling of domestic-violence allegations against a close aide, Rob Porter, and whose attempts to regulate Trump are said to have exhausted the president’s patience.
West Wing morale is understood to be at an all-time low, and recruiting high-calibre replacements is becoming harder. Bill Galston, who worked on policy in the Bill Clinton administration, said: “If you value your reputation you now should have learnt that you can’t serve in this White House and emerge untarred.”
“His poll numbers have brightened slightly”
Increasingly isolated and mercurial, pining for the team spirit of the 2016 presidential-election campaign, Trump is yet to be tested by a national-security emergency. Thousands of kilometres away, adversaries such as Russia and North Korea stoke fear of nuclear conflict.
Larry Jacobs, director of the centre for the study of politics and governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “Trump has the greatest turnover of any modern president in his inner circle. It’s almost impossible for him to govern because of the chaos. They are staggering from one crisis to another. The thing that worries people is what happens when he faces the kind of genuine economic or international crisis that hits a lot of presidents early in their term.”
As the US capital reeled from another bomb cyclone of a week, one significant piece of news came and went quickly. Trump named his digital strategist Brad Parscale as campaign manager for his re-election bid in 2020 – an election he could still win thanks to diehard supporters who care little for Washington intrigue.
Jacobs said: “His poll numbers have brightened slightly in recent weeks, and the economy is gradually improving. Despite the chaos and cycles of problems in the White House I wouldn’t describe his political prospects in the same way.” – Guardian