It has taken President Trump two years, but it appears that he is close to having a team that is working for him—on his terms. The circle, especially in the national security field, appears to be more willing to tolerate Trump’s mercurial, vacillating, unpredictable approach to decision-making than the group he assembled and kept juggling for over two years. Any semblance of objective, independent staffers and Cabinet members is declining as well both on the domestic and administrative sides of this Administration. This new group of Trump advisers and Cabinet Members clearly appears to be more loyal to Trump than to the institution of the Presidency. That is the way the President wants it.
While having both military and congressional experience, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo seems to be marching very much in synch with the President, offering little or no objection to the President’s frequent reversals on policy issues. Pompeo is soldiering to the President’s policies whatever they are at any moment. The Secretary’s minimal input to foreign policy appears not to trouble him. In addition, the fact that he largely has been supplanted by the President’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, does not seem to trouble Pompeo.
Bolton, especially given the absence of a Secretary of Defense, has been making decisions—presumably at the direction and with the endorsement of the President—which are moving the U.S. into potentially far more dangerous situations as now has been revealed vis-à-vis Iran. Bolton finally appears to have found a President willing to adopt the type of hard-line, aggressive, national security policy that Bolton has been advocating since his days in the State Department beginning in the 1980’s under Ronald Reagan. Bolton’s current thinking with respect to U.S. foreign policy is very much consistent with the “macho” big thug image that the President has been trying to develop for two years.
The President’s protective shield will become even more clear when he announces his new appointment to head the Pentagon. Given the fact that apparently even Mattis could not prevent the military from drawing up a plan for potential Iranian military targets, it is not clear whether any Secretary of Defense will be able to constrain a President who might consider ordering an attack on targets in Iran. The only brake left might be National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, although some believe he had his chance to stand up over the Putin talks and stepped back rather than fight.
On the domestic side, Attorney General designate William Barr appears intent on running the Justice Department in a way which also will acquiesce to Trump’s dictates. Barr’s written record as well as his previous actions, suggest that he is a clear believer in broad and virtually unrestrained definition of presidential power. By bringing in another fan of unrestricted presidential authority, Trump is seeking to insulate himself on a legal front just as the Mueller report appears to be forthcoming shortly.
Those working on the economic side, even Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appear to be mere presidential lackies. The new White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney was expected to be a force to be reckoned with for the President. He reportedly received, however, an expletive loaded dressing down by the President in front of congressional leaders last week. Mulvaney apparently had the audacity to suggest that maybe the shut-down/wall crisis could be negotiated by compromise.
This turnover in the White House is coming as President Trump’s potential political and legal confrontations are expected to escalate dramatically. After the distraction provided by the confrontation with Congress over the shut-down/wall crisis; followed by the State of the Union Address at the end of January and release of the FY 2020 fiscal year budget; President Trump reportedly is planning to meet with North Korean President Kim Jong-un.
At a certain point all this activity will come to a head. Then President Trump will indeed be distracted by the results of the Mueller investigation and the Democrats in Congress.