Analysis

Radical and Rational in Fierce Battle Royale for Trump’s Soul - and Presidency

Amid the madness and mayhem there are also signs of levelheadedness, but not enough to justify hopes of a happy ending.

President Donald Trump listens to a translation as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during their joint news conference, Friday, Feb. 10, 2017, in the East Room of the White House in Washington.
Evan Vucci/AP

U.S. President Donald Trump was smashed over the weekend by blow after knock after thwack. Federal judges deep-sixed his immigration ban. His favorite spokeswoman was severely reprimanded for promoting his daughter’s clothing line. His national security adviser was caught in the act of lying, if not treason. The embarrassing dossier that the Kremlin has on him, which Trump has vehemently denied, was partially confirmed.

On top of all this, there was another round of Trump’s usual loony tunes: more ridiculous claims of massive voter fraud, another self-defeating clash with John McCain, and more embarrassment for him and the nation when it turned out that at his press conference with the Japanese prime minister Friday, Trump discarded his earpiece with the translation and preferred to smile and nod like a circus clown, as if he understood every word.

But amid the radical chaos that seems to be engulfing his administration, some are seeing first signs of rationality and logic. Trump continues to bicker with the judicial branch, describing the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision to uphold the suspension of his immigration ban as “disgraceful.” But he seemed to be indicating, contrary to most assessments, that he would consider reformulating his executive order rather than engage in total war with the judges.

Trump may have embarrassed his Japanese guest Shinzo Abe with his shenanigans, but he also appeared to calm Tokyo’s fears about an imminent U.S. abandonment of its Asian ally. Most significantly, perhaps, Trump carried out an abrupt about-face from his earlier rash statements about recognizing Taiwan, assuring Chinese President Xi Jinping in a phone conversation that Washington would not change its One China policy.

Like any new president, The New York Times wrote, Trump is undergoing a quick evolution from the promises made in a campaign to the realpolitik necessary in governing, a process famously summed up by the late Ariel Sharon in lines from an Israeli hit song: “Things that you see from there, you don’t see from here.”

Trump’s handling of Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians is a microcosm of his split personality. On the one hand, he’s pressing on with the ludicrous appointment of two-state opponent David Friedman as U.S. ambassador, to which one can now add the ill-advised, if not downright reckless, sabotage of the appointment of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as the UN representative on Libya, which deals a harsh blow to moderates and encourages terrorists everywhere.

On the other hand – with the possible encouragement of Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he’ll meet this week – Trump continued to cool expectations of an imminent move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and served notice, in an interview with Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom, that his patience for massive expansion of settlements is wearing thin.

More ominously, perhaps – at least for the Israeli right that was quick to celebrate his election – Trump seemed to be laying the groundwork for a regional peace effort that would include his allies and business partners in Egypt and the Gulf. But also, because otherwise any new initiative would be stillborn, it would delineate the contours of solving the Palestinian problem. Instead of salvation and annexation, the Israeli right may be facing tougher times than those they supposedly endured with Barack Obama.

But the administration’s clash of personalities also has a clear personal side. On the one hand, encouraging him to break with custom and run wild with his instincts are Trump’s close adviser, Steve Bannon, the right-wing revolutionary who denies allegations of racism, and the volatile Michael Flynn, who’s now in deep trouble because of his alleged lies concerning his contacts in December with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Flynn has hitherto denied that the contacts had anything to do with the sanctions imposed by Obama in retaliation for the Russian intervention in the U.S. elections. Not only is he now accused of misleading the public as well as Vice President Mike Pence, who repeated the adviser’s denials on television, he may also have violated the Logan Act, which prohibits private individuals from negotiating with a foreign government that’s in conflict with the United States.

Worse from Trump’s point of view is the possibility that he was well aware of his adviser’s contacts, or that in any case the headlines about Flynn give new life to the disturbing suspicions about Trump’s own ties to the Kremlin.

The Flynn affair is also exacting collateral damage. Republican lawmakers, some of whom are well aware of growing animosity and concerns about the national security adviser inside the American intelligence community, have openly called for a White House probe of his ties to the Russians. This comes in the wake of the bipartisan letter sent by the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Jason Chaffetz, and his Democratic colleague, Elijah Cummings, about a potential violation of the law by Trump’s trusted spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway, who unabashedly promoted Ivanka Trump’s line of clothing and accessories in a television interview.  

Both events highlight how far the behavior of Trump and his aides strays from accepted Washington norms, the extent of growing frustration among GOP lawmakers about the fact that Trump, much like his predecessor Obama, is disregarding Republican sensitivities most threatening to Trump, amid the quick erosion of the elements of deterrence and fear that usually govern the relations between a new president and his party’s congressional caucus.

Nonetheless, concurrent with the turmoil generated by the White House on an hourly basis almost, his national security team in the cabinet is trying to calm the waters, broadcast business as usual and convince the world that the president isn’t crazy. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Homeland Security’s John Kirby and the CIA’s Mike Pompeo – all experienced and levelheaded to one degree or another – are trying to allay the fears and concerns inside the U.S. national security complex and among agitated governments around the world. They’re trying to convince skeptical interlocutors that underneath the bizarre behavior in the White House there’s a coherent foreign and defense policy that will soon come into play.

The task isn’t easy, as Tillerson learned the hard way in a small but characteristic incident involving the expected appointment of veteran conservative diplomat Elliott Abrams as deputy secretary of state. The appointment of Abrams, a widely respected diplomat and a favorite of the pro-Israel lobby, seemed to be in the bag until it was  shot down at the last minute by Trump himself. After all, what’s the message of competence and continuity that the appointment would have sent to a concerned world compared to Trump’s petty penchant for punishing anyone who has ever dared criticize him, as Abrams did, over the course of the election campaign.

It’s still too early to tell how this fateful clash over Trump’s soul and the character of the administration will end. It is a battle royale with enormous ramifications between the radical and the rational, between the stable and the unhinged, between a normative Dr. Jekyll and the psychopathic Mr. Hyde that lurks within.

Trump fans claim that this is the way he ran his businesses, creating fierce internal rivalries and intense chaos, out of which only he could lead the way. After the first three weeks, however, mayhem rules supreme, America and the world are increasingly apprehensive and the president often seems to compulsively revert to his persona as neighborhood bully. Flickers of judicious behavior leave room for hope, perhaps, but at this point, the preponderance of evidence still seems to indicate that this is not going to end well.