Internal Chaos Returns to the White House

Internal Chaos Returns to the White House March 2, 2018

Now that Trump has become disenchanted with Chief of Staff John Kelly, the internal policy chaos that Kelly had worked very hard to organize has returned. The Washington Post reports on how the competing factions operated as Trump unexpectedly announced new tariffs on steel and aluminum.

President Trump whiplashed Washington through 24 hours of chaos and confusion, culminating Thursday with a surprise announcement that he will unilaterally impose steep tariffs on all steel and aluminum imports.

His own aides were stunned. The stock market plunged. It was the moment many of his advisers had long feared would occur when he grew tired of talking points and economic theory and decided to do things his way.

The comments came in the Cabinet Room, where one day earlier, he had left Republicans slack-jawed by appearing to embrace liberal ideas on gun control, even proposing to seize firearms from people without a court order, a change from earlier in the week when he praised the National Rifle Association and called for arming teachers in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Trump often likes to sow misdirection, running the White House like a never-ending reality show where only he knows the plot. But even by his standards, the day-long period that ended Thursday left some senior aides and Republican lawmakers wondering whether the White House had finally come unmoored, detached from any type of methodology that past presidents have relied on to run the country and lead the largest economy in the world.

The report says that Gary Cohn, chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, had strongly opposed the new tariffs and had a meeting with Trump on Thursday morning in which he thought he had convinced him not to go forward with it. Then a few hours later, Trump suddenly calls a press conference and announces the new sanctions. This is an idea championed by Steve Bannon, so one would think that losing his position at the White House would have made it less likely to happen. Not the case, apparently.

At the same time, there’s another internal war going on between Kelly and Jared and Ivanka, one that Kelly must know he can’t win at this point. One White House source called it a “death match,” at least partly spurred by Kelly stripping Jared of his top-level security clearance. And it can only end with Kelly being pushed out because the only ones Trump has any loyalty to at all are his own family, consequences be damned.

But that loyalty does not mean agreement on policy, necessarily. Cohn is an ally of Jared and Ivanka in the White House and they are almost certainly opposed to the tariffs. They’ve managed to get rid of Bannon, who advocated for the tariffs and his version of “economic nationalism,” but Trump always seemed to prefer the simplest possible solution for everything. Importing more than we export of some given product? Slap some taxes on imports, that will fix it. Maybe, but at a very high cost. But Trump can’t be bothered with complex things like economics. He doesn’t understand them and has no inclination to do any study or to listen to experts.

Trump thrives on this kind of chaos, invites it, sows it deliberately. But it also flows from his personality and his total confidence in his own gut instinct. And when it turns out to be a terrible idea, he’ll just blame everyone else but him and everything else but his own policies. One can dismiss this all as “palace intrigue” but it has real-life consequences for entire industries and for our relationships with other countries. Having a leader who flies by the seat of his pants and whiplashes back and forth between policies undermines the ability of other countries to rely on us and take us seriously.

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