No one can temper Trump's shock and awe leadership style
The President is making clear that he and only he is writing his script
Even by the hyperactive standards of Donald Trump, it was a wild weekend.
While most of the country settled in for a Columbus Day holiday break, Trump orchestrated a cacophony of threats, offered dark warnings of military action and waged bitter political feuds on multiple fronts.
No one, not his estranged Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, his chief of staff John Kelly, European leaders, North Korean dictators, Democrats or despairing GOP senators can temper his shock and awe leadership style.
In a torrent of angry tweets, a TV interview with former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and a back-and-forth with reporters, Trump poked and jabbed, in another mind-scrambling chapter of a reality-show presidency that is threatening to exhaust the nation.
But there was a method in what his critics see as madness: The President is making clear that he and only he is writing his script.
As he amps up foreign-policy tensions and fights battles within his own administration and on Capitol Hill, Trump is effectively fighting for control of his own presidency, resisting aides and conventions that seek to hem him in.
The range of Trump’s swirling political activity at the weekend was staggering.
He hinted at military action against North Korea, he slugged out a nasty row with GOP Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. He took another jab at Tillerson, saying he had a good relationship with the top diplomat – who reportedly called him a “moron” – but would like him to be “tougher.” Trump even tried to ramp up the controversy over Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and sexual harassment allegations by bringing up the issue in an encounter with reporters.
Trump also revived his base-pleasing culture war furor with the NFL after Vice President Mike Pence left a game in Indianapolis on his orders after several players took a knee during the national anthem to protest racial discrimination. He also found time to take a slap at NBC, accusing it of writing “fake news” over its Tillerson stories. He also complained that his own efforts in Puerto Rico were not getting enough credit, despite clear logistical problems in the hurricane relief effort.
Then, setting the stage for another acrimonious week, his White House released principles for legislation protecting undocumented migrants brought to the US as children, outraging Democrats with a hard-line opening bid that included money for a border wall and a call for tough immigration enforcement.
A frenetic weekend likely to reverberate
The frenzy reflected the swirl of a presidency that seems to turn on whatever pops into Trump’s mind at any given moment and is far from the ordered West Wing operation Kelly has been trying to establish.
At one point, Trump asked reporters on Saturday: “Do you ever rest?”
It was a question that might have been better directed at the President himself.
The frenetic weekend was consistent with the chaos that has raged around Trump ever since he took office and reflects his lifelong and compulsive hunger to make himself the center of attention at every possible opportunity.
But there is also something deeper going on.
There was a sense, in his encounters with the media and his tweets, that Trump was running free, relishing the chance to make everyone dance to his tune, signaling that he would run his presidency exactly as he likes.
His rebellious mood comes at a time when Trump’s critics and even members of his own team are trying to rein him in.
His showdown with Tillerson erupted last week after the secretary of state revealed that US and North Korean officials were in contact through diplomatic channels, even as Trump threatens to rain nuclear war on Pyongyang.
Trump was quick to make clear who was in charge, humiliating his top diplomat by tweeting that he was “wasting his time” trying to talk to “Little Rocket Man.”
In the coming days, Trump is likely to revive another foreign policy crisis with Iran by decertifying the nuclear deal that his predecessor agreed to with the Islamic Republic and international partners. The move will absolve him of the need to publicly state that Tehran is in compliance every 90 days. It will also contradict all available evidence that Iran is respecting the terms of the agreement and reject entreaties of European leaders and a public statement by Trump’s Defense Secretary James Mattis that the US should keep faith with it.
The decision is sure to revive worries among Trump critics that the President has a habit of creating his own reality, when prevailing conditions do not reflect his view of the world and exacerbate splits in his own administration of foreign policy.
“We have two different foreign policies in this country right now, which is catastrophic for us,” Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
“We have one foreign policy that comes from the State Department and the Department of Defense. And then we have another foreign policy that comes from the President’s Twitter feed.”
Concerns about Trump’s stability and intentions are already rising abroad, following his odd remark to reporters last week that a photo-op in which he was surrounded by generals was “the calm before the storm.”
Fighting with Corker
Back home, Trump is lashing out at Corker, who since his retirement announcement has savagely criticized his leadership and last week warned that people like Tillerson were saving the US from “chaos.”
Trump piled onto Corker on Twitter Sunday, claiming he didn’t have the “guts” to run for re-election. Corker jabbed back and said that the White House had become an “adult day care center” and someone had missed their shift.
In the culmination of an extraordinary back-and-forth, the Tennessee senator told The New York Times that Trump was treating his job like a “reality show” that could put the nation “on the path to World War III.”
Trump’s war with Corker is a classic example of how he positions himself in opposition to the GOP establishment to please supporters who hate Washington. It was the latest sign that the President may be ready to effectively run against his own party in the midterm elections. It also came as news broke that his former political guru Steve Bannon had expanded his list of incumbent Republican senators to attack in primary races.
The latest stunning developments came only days after CNN reported on Kelly’s challenges as he tries to impose the kind of order on the White House that Trump trampled all weekend.
“When he gets credit for being the master, Trump doesn’t like that,” said one source close to the President in a story reported by CNN’s Dana Bash and Gloria Borger on Friday. “Trump doesn’t like being handed a script.”
In many ways, Trump’s bolt for independence is consistent with the character of a man who has had a lifetime of calling the shots, who in his hierarchical family business was the ultimate and uncompromising authority figure.
That model of leadership has been challenged during his time in Washington, a town where power is shared by constitutional fiat and where the President can’t just get his way when he decides there is something he wants to do.
But it’s also not clear that Trump’s improvisational style is the path for long-term success. The possibility exists that Trump is painting himself into dangerous corners with his unrestrained approach.
His personal war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seems to leave no off-ramp for either the US or the North Koreans. Trump tweeted Saturday that “only one thing would work” to defuse the nuclear program, in an apparent reference to military action.
Trump, meanwhile, has yet to explain what will happen if Iran reacts to US attempts to renegotiate the nuclear deal, and impose new terror-related sanctions, by trying to break out toward the nuclear threshold.
And even his spat with Corker could turn out badly. Until the senator leaves town in late 2018, Trump will need his vote – possibly to get tax reform, his last remaining hope for a major legislative achievement in his first year in the White House.