WASHINGTON — The picture of Donald Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, looking at the floor as the president spoke Tuesday in defense of the neo-Nazi and far-right demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, has featured big around the world. Trump’s comments weren’t prepared by his senior staff or coordinated with Kelly, and the look on the retired general’s face showed his frustration — and perhaps even embarrassment.
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Trump’s comments were unique — no sitting president had spoken positively in public about people who chant anti-Semitic, racist and pro-Nazi slogans. But how unique was the fact that, when making such comments, Trump ignored the advice of almost his entire senior staff and blindsided Kelly and top members of the administration standing with him in Trump Tower, unaware of the PR disaster he was about to unleash?
“Presidents usually resist being managed by their staff — they think they know best and don’t like being told otherwise,” says Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times and the author of books about the Obama and George W. Bush presidencies. “But Trump is so different than previous presidents, so far off the meter, that it’s hard to make a comparison.”
Baker says “Obama has been quoted as saying that he’s a better political director than his political director, and Bill Clinton rejected the advice of his staff when he decided to attack independent counsel Ken Starr during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But I can’t think of any example like this one [Trump on Tuesday], because distancing yourself from Nazis seems like such a no-brainer. It seems like one of the most basic rules of politics.”
To presidential historian William Antholis, the reports about Kelly and other senior administration officials trying — and often failing — to “rein in” Trump bring back memories from the Reagan administration, when senior advisers were accused by some of the president’s loyalists of not letting “Reagan be Reagan.”
Antholis, who heads the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, which specializes in presidential history and scholarship, recalled an example from the Reagan administration in an interview with Haaretz on Wednesday: “When Reagan first brought up the idea of getting rid of all nuclear weapons in agreement with the Soviets, many of his advisers were caught by surprise, and were asking, what are we going to do about this?”
But like Baker, Antholis says that while “it’s a regular occurrence for staff members to have to clarify and walk back comments by a president,” what happened this week was far from usual, and in some ways even unprecedented, at least in recent history. Trump’s comments came after his senior staff had already tried to clean up the mess of his initial response to the Charlottesville events, by writing a statement that Trump read to the cameras on Monday. The fact that the staff had already convinced Trump to fix the damage, but then saw him backtrack just a day later, was a big factor stunning Washington and the wider world.
Antholis brings up two possible explanations for why Trump is different than previous presidents regarding his working relationship with senior aides. The first is that “dysfunctional moments,” as Antholis describes it, tend to happen more in presidential campaigns than while governing — “It happens more on the campaign trail because of the intense pace and nature of a campaign.” Trump, however, basically began his re-election campaign just weeks after entering the White House, and perhaps his sense of running a “constant campaign” is affecting day-to-day operations.
Antholis also notes Trump’s approach to social media. “Every president wrestles with the contradiction between his own personality as a human being and his public personality as president of the United States,” Antholis says. “But Trump is different on this issue. When he tweets, he doesn’t do it as president, he does it as Donald Trump. He shows authenticity in a radical, uncensored way, that we’re not used to seeing in presidents. Social media is unedited and unfiltered.”
Such of course was the case on Tuesday and many other times over the months. Reports that “the staff had no idea” or “this was totally not the plan” are becoming pretty ordinary.
In the previous administration, there were two key moments when Barack Obama took important decisions against the advice of his most senior advisers. One was his decision in February 2011 to call on Egypt’s president at the time, Hosni Mubarak, to resign; the second was his decision in September 2013 not to punish Syrian dictator Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people.
The Egypt decision came after a long discussion in which Obama sought the advice of top cabinet members such as Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton, who urged a more cautious policy, and that of younger advisers, who urged the president to show Mubarak the door.
“He respectfully went around the room and asked people for their opinion. He was open to hear all arguments, and eventually he took a decision,” recalls one former official who was in the room at the time. “Some people were disappointed with his decision, but it came after he had listened to them at length. I’m not sure that’s the case right now with Trump.”
Words vs. actions
The Syria reversal in 2013 was more controversial, since Obama had already sent his secretary of state, John Kerry, to lobby Congress and world leaders for a strike on the Assad regime, and the National Security Council was working under the assumption that a strike was a done deal. When Obama decided to stop everything and choose another direction, it came as a surprise to some of his closest advisers.
These examples also remind us that for all the crises Trump and his senior staff have had to deal with, only two — the Syrian chemical attack in April and the recent tensions with North Korea — weren’t fully self-inflicted.
“What we’ve seen so far is that he gets more in trouble with words than with actions,” Baker says. “He says things that are outrageous and provocative, but when it comes to making foreign policy decisions, it’s more complicated.”
Baker notes that in Syria, Trump chose a single, one-time strike, and then returned to negotiations with Russia. Despite his election promises, he has not — as of yet — moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, torn apart the Iran deal or withdrawn the United States from the North America Free Trade Agreement.
“At the end of the day, he has been open to the input of his foreign policy advisers, even when he didn’t like some of what they said,” Baker says. “He was willing to hear from them what are the possible consequences of different decisions.”
But where Trump hasn’t been open to advice is his choice of words — in front of the cameras and on social media. “Creating drama and controversy — that’s part of his nature and his brand,” says Baker, who’s not sure the president is capable of changing on that front.
Antholis sums up the challenges facing the White House staff by recalling an old joke: “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? None, because the light bulb first has to want to change itself.” In the case of Donald Trump, that hasn’t yet happened, and perhaps never will.