When President Donald Trump sat down for dinner on September 18 in New York with leaders of four Latin American countries on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly, anxieties were already running high.
There was the matter of Mexico and his promise to build that “big, beautiful wall,” presumably to keep not just Mexicans but all of their citizens out of the United States too. And the threat to blow up the North American Free Trade Agreement. And then, a month earlier, seemingly out of nowhere, Trump had volunteered that he was considering a “military option” in Venezuela as that country’s last vestiges of democracy disappeared. Amid the international furor over his vow to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea in the same golf-course press conference, the news that the president of the United States was apparently considering going to war with its third-largest oil supplier had gotten relatively little attention. But the leaders from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Panama invited to the dinner remembered it well.
So, it turned out, did Trump. After the photo op was over and the cameras had left the room, Trump dominated the long table. His vice president, Mike Pence, was to his right; Pence had just spent nearly a week on a conciliatory, well-received tour of the region, the first by a high-ranking administration official since Trump’s inauguration. To Trump’s left was his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. “Rex tells me you don’t want me to use the military option in Venezuela,” the president told the gathered Latin American leaders, according to an account offered by an attendee soon after the dinner. “Is that right? Are you sure?” Everyone said they were sure. But they were rattled. War with Venezuela, as absurd as that seemed, was clearly still on Trump’s mind.
By the time the dinner was over, the leaders were in shock, and not just over the idle talk of armed conflict. No matter how prepared they were, eight months into an American presidency like no other, this was somehow not what they expected. A former senior U.S. official with whom I spoke was briefed by ministers from three of the four countries that attended the dinner. “Without fail, they just had wide eyes about the entire engagement,” the former official told me. Even if few took his martial bluster about Venezuela seriously, Trump struck them as uninformed about their issues and dangerously unpredictable, asking them to expend political capital on behalf of a U.S. that no longer seemed a reliable partner. “The word they all used was: ‘This guy is insane.’”
Ever since Trump took the oath of office on January 20, the world has been taking his measure, trying to make sense of his “America First” foreign policy and what it means for them. Over the course of the year, Trump has traveled to 13 countries and met with “more than 100 world leaders,” as he bragged in a recent tweet. Many, like the Latin Americans who dined with him in September in New York or the Australian prime minister whom Trump snapped at in a phone call a little more than a week into his presidency, came away reeling from the encounter. Several others whom I’ve debriefed in recent months found Trump perfectly hospitable in private—while leaving with similarly scathing assessments of his volatility and lack of command of the facts. Some, like the Saudis and the Chinese, have wooed the disruptive new president with red-carpet fanfare and over-the-top flattery; others, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have combined simplistic charts and maps to press their case in private with public finger-wagging about Trump’s rejection of the norms of international diplomacy. All of them have anxiously pored through his Twitter feed for clues to America’s intentions, seeking the glimmerings of a Trump Doctrine in the president’s inflammatory, typo-ridden early morning pronouncements.
The jarring reality of their encounters with Trump has at times been even more disturbing to America’s friends and allies than the initial news accounts have suggested. When he went to dinner with leaders from fellow NATO member states in May, for example, Trump had already given a speech that was being roundly criticized by allies for failing to reaffirm America’s normally unquestioned commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, the mutual defense provision that is at the heart of the alliance Trump has called “obsolete.” And news was making the rounds of an equally disastrous private meeting he had earlier in the day in Brussels with the leaders of the European Union. But what was not reported at the time was that even after all of that, some European leaders came away most disturbed by what Trump said at their private dinner. “He was very tough and very outspoken in his intervention,” a European diplomat in attendance confirmed to me about the meal. Another European attendee said Trump at the dinner was “unlike anything they’ve ever heard” in such a setting. “All this bluster and blasting. He walks in and starts talking, breaking china all over the place.” And to top it off, Trump left early.
A year into Trump’s presidency, such accounts are no longer really surprising. Or at least they shouldn’t be. After all, his own secretary of state was reported to have called the president a “fucking moron”—a comment Tillerson has steadfastly refused to personally deny—and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a member of Trump’s own party, has publicly broken with the president and warned that he might blunder his way into World War III. But just because we aren’t surprised doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still be at least a little shocked. The very fact of all these stunning interactions between this president and the rest of the world has to rank as an example, in and of itself, of what makes Trump’s presidency so exceptional.
Over the course of the year, I have often heard top foreign officials express their alarm in hair-raising terms rarely used in international diplomacy—let alone about the president of the United States. Seasoned diplomats who have seen Trump up close throw around words like “catastrophic,” “terrifying,” “incompetent” and “dangerous.” In Berlin this spring, I listened to a group of sober policy wonks debate whether Trump was merely a “laughingstock” or something more dangerous. Virtually all of those from whom I’ve heard this kind of ranting are leaders from close allies and partners of the United States. That experience is no anomaly. “If only I had a nickel for every time a foreign leader has asked me what the hell is going on in Washington this year … ” says Richard Haass, a Republican who served in senior roles for both Presidents Bush and is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
So what the hell is going on? I’ve come to believe that when it comes to Trump and the world, it’s not better than you think. It’s worse. The president is not playing the leadership role the rest of the world has come to expect from the United States, and the consequences are piling up. Still, it is also true that the world hasn’t exactly melted down—yet—as a consequence, leading some to conclude that Trump is merely a sort of cartoonishly incompetent front man, a Twitter demagogue whose nuclear-tinged rhetoric and predilection for cozying up to dictators should be discounted in favor of rational analysis of the far more sober-minded, far less radical policies actually put in place by his team.
Call them the Reassurers. Substantively, they make their case more or less like this: Trump hasn’t gotten us into any new wars, and is confronting bad actors in North Korea and Iran with renewed vigor, continuing tough sanctions against Russia despite his public praise of Kremlin strongman Vladimir Putin, dismantling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and forcing European allies to pay more for NATO after years of ineffectual American complaints. “In almost every area, in his own way, with his own rhetoric, he has reasserted American leadership, and he’s willing to confront threats before they gather,” Senator Tom Cotton, the hawkish Republican from Arkansas, who has emerged as a close Trump adviser and outside cheerleader, told me this fall. So, forget what the president says or even much of what he does. Never mind the shadow of the Russia investigation looming over the presidency, or the president’s lavish praise of autocrats and public attacks on longtime U.S. allies. In fact, the view that Trump himself is essentially irrelevant is now advanced privately by some key members of his own team—another extraordinary commentary on an extraordinary presidency. (The White House did not comment for this article.)
There’s something surreal about the Reassurers’ argument, because it ignores a harder-to-digest reality: One year in, Trump’s much-vaunted national security team has not managed to tame the president or bring him around to their view of America’s leadership role in the world. Instead, it’s a group plagued by insecurity and infighting, publicly undercut by the president and privately often overruled by him. Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, is regularly reported by White House sources to be on his way out, with his demoralized, depleted State Department in outright rebellion. Meanwhile, the brawny military troika of White House chief of staff John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general; Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, another retired Marine four-star; and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, a serving Army three-star general, has managed to stop the chaos of the administration’s early days while crafting a national security policy that gets more or less solid marks from establishment types in both parties. The problem is, no one’s sure Trump agrees with it.
Trump’s much-vaunted national security team has not managed to tame the president.
There’s plenty of evidence, in fact, to show that he does not. On Russia, the Trump team increasingly talks tough about Putin, but sanctions remain in place despite, not because of, the White House, and sources tell me Trump personally is not on board with many of the more hawkish measures his team proposes to counter Putin, a fact underscored by his eyebrow-raising signing statement in December objecting to several tough-on-Russia provisions in a defense bill. On Afghanistan, it took the national security team months to persuade Trump to keep U.S. troops there, even after they warned of the Afghan government’s dangerous collapse if they did not. Meantime, the president has disregarded their united recommendation on other issues as consequential as refusing to certify Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal and, in December, overturning decades of U.S. policy in deciding to unilaterally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (Mattis and Tillerson “begged” Trump not to do it, a well-placed source who spoke with both men told me). The new National Security Strategy that McMaster began rolling out to the rest of the Trump administration in December hits uncontroversial themes like defending the U.S. homeland and organizing to counter rising “revisionist” powers like China and Russia. The language of “principled realism” put forward by McMaster is so un-Trumpian that a top adviser who received a copy told a reporter it was simply “divorced from the reality” of the Trump presidency. “It’s the first time, maybe in history, key advisers have gone into the administration to stop the president, not to enable him,” says Thomas Wright, a Brookings scholar who has emerged as one of the most insightful analysts of Trump’s foreign policy.
Not only that, but it’s clear by now that Trump’s tweeting, boorishly undiplomatic behavior and preference for policy by fiat have actually had real-world consequences, whether Trump has been undercutting diplomacy with North Korea while publicly rebuking his secretary of state, refusing to take action to counter Russian hacking or placing the U.S. firmly on one side in a dispute among Gulf Arabs. An out-of-nowhere blast at Sweden and its supposed problem of Muslim immigrants run amok had that country’s commentariat amazed and appalled. “They thought the man had gone bananas,” the former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt told me when we talked last spring.
Last winter, a Washington wise man shared with me the advice he was offering to worried foreign leaders who consulted him: Pay no attention to the tweets. Put your faith in Trump’s foreign policy team. Wait to see what he actually does as opposed to what he says. One leading European official who came to town last January looking for answers told me that, at the time, the establishment types urged him to have “strategic patience”—not coincidentally the same phrase foreign policy hands used to use about North Korea’s nuclear program.
By December, he was tired of waiting for Trump to improve. “When, finally, will this strategic patience pay off?” he asked.
Over their year of living dangerously with Trump, foreign leaders and diplomats have learned this much: The U.S. president was ignorant, at times massively so, about the rudiments of the international system and America’s place in it, and in general about other countries. He seemed to respond well to flattery and the lavish laying out of red carpets; he was averse to conflict in person but more or less immovable from strongly held preconceptions. And given the chance, he would respond well to anything that seemed to offer him the opportunity to flout or overturn the policies endorsed by his predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
The European diplomat who was told to practice “strategic patience” did not find it all that useful in the several face-to-face meetings with Trump he ended up sitting in on. “We were struck by the absence of knowledge of the president,” he said. Another takeaway: Trump made commitments he then did not deliver on. “On some things, he accepted the argument, and we thought now it is resolved, only to find out later he uses the same phrases and arguments as he did before,” the diplomat said.
And if interactions with Trump were troubled, his emerging team offered little reassurance. The European recently recounted to me his initial efforts to understand Trump’s foreign policy. First came two meetings with Michael Flynn, the president’s first national security adviser, and his Fox TV pundit-turned-deputy, K.T. McFarland. In private, they were just as alarming as they were in public about their intent to pursue a new opening to Moscow. Lifting sanctions on Russia still seemed on the table, along with other controversial elements of Trump’s agenda. That was “pretty frightening,” the European recalled, but then Flynn was cashiered after just 24 days in office, undone by the Russia contacts that would eventually lead to his early December guilty plea on a charge of lying to the FBI. McFarland was shipped off, too, though her nomination as ambassador to Singapore is now on hold amid the Russia probe.
But there were other worrisome encounters. In a meeting with Steve Bannon, the combative Breitbart propagandist who had helped elect Trump under the “America First” banner of nationalist populism and was now his chief White House strategist, it was clear where some of Trump’s disruptive foreign policy ideas were coming from. The two quickly clashed about Russia. When he urged the White House to take the threat from Putin more seriously, “Bannon was very dismissive,” the European official recalled. “‘What is the GDP of Russia?’ he asked me. He said, ‘They’re economically weak. You should not care about Russia, you should care about China.’ I said, ‘Maybe in 30 years you are right, but in 30 years Russia can do a lot of nonsense.’”
Another conversation, with Jared Kushner, the presidential son-in-law who had been given an expansive international portfolio ranging from restarting Middle East peace talks to dealing with Mexico and China, was just as troubling. Kushner was “very dismissive” about the role of international institutions and alliances and uninterested in the European’s recounting of how closely the United States had stood together with Western Europe since World War II. “He told me, ‘I’m a businessman, and I don’t care about the past. Old allies can be enemies, or enemies can be friends.’ So, the past doesn’t count,” the official recalled. “I was taken aback. It was frightening.”
Given all that, when McMaster, an intellectual who had even written a book about the failures of Vietnam-era generals to stop disastrous foreign policy mistakes by the president, took over the National Security Council, allies were for the most part delighted. It was only over time that they came to realize how limited the influence of McMaster—and of other Trump advisers—would be. Trump knew the Washington narrative had it that his national security team was there to babysit him—and he didn’t like it. Besides, he saw himself as the decider and felt free to follow his own instincts and distrust experts, as he always had. “It’s just really hard to tell President Trump, ‘Don’t trust your instincts,’” said a close observer of the White House dynamics. “He just won an election. Who’s going to tell the president, ‘No, you’re wrong’?”
It’s just really hard to tell President Trump, ‘Don’t trust your instincts.’ He just won an election.”
Inside Trump’s White House, he kept advisers off-balance by encouraging different camps: One day, there would be a win for the America Firsters; another day, for the establishment. In a jarring speech in Poland, for example, each side could claim victory: Where the Bannonites cheered to hear Trump talk in grim, clash-of-civilization terms about the fight against “radical Islamic terrorism” and praise Poland’s ultra-nationalist government, McMaster and his advisers were relieved to have won inclusion of language backing NATO and the U.S. allies Trump had previously bashed.
Such infighting, and not just over the content of presidential speeches, consumed much of McMaster’s early months, as Bannon and his loyalists sought to sabotage the national security adviser, with blaring headlines near-daily in Breitbart and other pro-Trump websites charging that “globalists” like McMaster were selling out Trump’s “America First” agenda. Even when Kelly took charge of the White House in late summer and fired Bannon, McMaster and his team remained fearful of the Bannonites, and weakened by reports that McMaster had never really connected with the president. Months of grueling policy debates underscored that the problem was not merely one of personal chemistry: The president really does see the world differently than his own national security adviser.
By the fall, it was clear to those who had hoped it might be otherwise: The grownups might be in the room with Trump, but they couldn’t always deliver. “I invested in McMaster,” said the European official, “but I see in retrospect he is scared to come out and oppose some of the views of Trump. He is nowhere as strong as all my previous counterparts.” In the first few months, many of Trump’s critics overseas had kept their mouths shut, fearing a Trumpian eruption or Twitter blast. Now, they started speaking up as German Chancellor Angela Merkel did after that disastrous May summit in Brussels. In private, there was talk—not necessarily realistic—of how Merkel and France’s energetic new centrist leader, Emmanuel Macron, would have to fill the West’s leadership void. The Latin Americans who met for dinner with Trump in September told the former U.S. official afterward that maybe they should invite the Chinese into the region instead.
“The bigger miscalculation on the part of the allies was this sense that, however off-base Trump might be on some of our policy positions, the ‘axis of adults’ will always see us through,” says Julianne Smith, the former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden who now heads the transatlantic program at the Center for a New American Security. Summing up a year of contacts with worried European allies, she adds, “The axis of adults, it turns out, are mere mortals, and no, they don’t have superpowers. And that I think has been a rude awakening for a lot of our allies around the world.”
The dysfunction continued to plague Trump’s foreign policy team as the tumultuous year came to an end. “It’s a snake pit,” a senior Republican who has remained in close contact with many of the players told me in early December. “There are personality tensions between the president and Tillerson, between the president and McMaster, between McMaster and Tillerson. It’s broken and it’s going to have to be fixed one way or another. It can’t go on like this.”
Over at the State Department, barrels of ink have been spilled telling the still-mystifying story of how Tillerson came to Foggy Bottom and alienated a Foreign Service that had been inclined to receive him warmly and initially perceived him as an establishment-minded defender who might speak up for diplomacy and curb some of Trump’s more reckless impulses.
I recently spent a couple of hours debriefing one of the senior diplomats who have started flooding out the door. Virginia Bennett spent 25 years in the State Department and when the Trump administration came in, she became acting assistant secretary in charge of democracy and human rights. No one was ever appointed to take her place permanently, so Bennett continued to attend Tillerson’s weekly senior staff meetings each Monday and watch as what she saw as the “general skepticism and denigration of expertise” unfolded around her. Eventually, she, like many others, made the decision to quit; the American Foreign Service Association says that the diplomatic ranks are thinning out in an unprecedented exodus under Tillerson: four out of six career ambassadors are gone, career ministers down from 33 to 19, minister counselors down 431 to 369, and that was only as of Labor Day.
“At least the first several months all of us in the building, we thought, ‘We’ve seen this movie before, it’s growing pains, we get it.’ But eventually it seemed clear this was no longer about transition, and this seemed to be about intent rather than incompetence and lack of staffing,” she says. By fall, the word in the Foggy Bottom halls was unequivocal: “The secretary has absolutely lost the building.”
You can’t have your chief diplomat disagreeing with the president. Especially when the split is that public.”
Bennett says she was struck by how it hadn’t needed to be that way; the American diplomatic corps has long taken pride in serving presidents of both parties and in fact, she told me, she and many colleagues often preferred the more structured, disciplined approach taken by Republican administrations. “At the State Department, we are really hierarchical. We don’t bite the hand that feeds us, it’s not in our DNA. They have now successfully reprogrammed our DNA—it’s a one-generation genetic mutation.”
But for many the rebellion is just to quit, as Bennett has done, on the brink of serving as an ambassador for the first time in her career. On the day she left this fall, she was one of four acting assistant secretaries—all women in a field where that is still rare—to resign. “I felt like half of my life was probably enough to serve given the climate within the department,” she says, “and given what appears to be such limited respect for expertise gained over long decades of service.”
Ironically, Tillerson had pretty quickly made it clear his leanings were far more toward the foreign policy establishment whose State Department he was busy blowing up—and he showed a willingness to argue with Trump at times that clearly affected his relationship with the president. “I was his biggest cheerleader,” one senior official from a Middle Eastern country said of Tillerson. “What I think we all learned is he’s also very insular. He didn’t have the backing of the president, and he occasionally disagreed with the president. I just thought they weren’t on the same page on a lot of issues. You can’t have your chief diplomat disagreeing with the president. Especially when the split is that public.”
From the start, Tillerson had worked closely alongside Mattis to present a united front when it came to policy disputes at the White House. Mattis told a longtime colleague in the winter that he and Tillerson planned to meet every week to stay aligned. But that caused more disruptions with the National Security Council team, where McMaster grew to resent what he saw as Tillerson’s disdain for the interagency process the national security adviser oversees, and by the time the strains on Tillerson’s relationship with Trump became publicly evident over the summer, the secretary of state was losing his remaining internal defenders. The two, said an outside adviser, are now fundamentally at odds. “McMaster and Tillerson are in a death struggle,” he said, “each of them trying to get rid of the other.”
Challenged one too many times, Trump seemed to have little patience for either the embattled secretary of state or the national security adviser with whom he had failed to connect. I interviewed Senator Cotton just a few hours after he came from a long private session with Trump this fall, in the midst of the heated internal fight over how to proceed on the Iran nuclear deal. Tillerson at this point was waging a lonely battle against “decertifying” Iranian compliance, while Mattis had even come out a few days earlier saying the deal remained “in the national interest,” a direct contradiction of the president’s position. Trump was clearly furious, a view reflected in Cotton’s response when I asked him about it. If you’re a top aide to the president and he overrules you, Cotton said pointedly, you can either quit—or get with the program. “Your job is to move out and execute, and if you feel strongly enough, then you have to resign.”
No resignations have yet been forthcoming, but the obvious disarray and uncertainty have left much of the world still wondering how to deal with a Washington that suddenly seems like a very foreign capital. I recently met a senior general of a U.S. ally at a conference. What was it like to deal with Trump’s government, I asked? “It’s a vacuum, a void,” he said. “There’s a complete inability to get answers out of American counterparts who don’t know what policy is.” An international diplomat who has worked extensively on hot spots such as Afghanistan and Iraq told me he has been to Washington five or six times in recent months. His normal contacts at the State Department were so out of the loop, “Frankly, they were asking me, ‘What do you think the White House thinks?’”
Not everyone has experienced the tumult of the Trump White House as a permanent crisis. In the Middle East, Trump had vowed to pursue a policy opposite that of Obama—and Bush for that matter. Saudi royals and other Arab leaders welcomed the shift and found White House doors open, especially through Kushner. “This administration is unconventional in so many ways,” a plugged-in official from the region told me. Within days of the inauguration, the Saudis and their new, shake-things-up heir apparent, Mohammed bin Salman, would invite Trump to visit, an invite that eventually led to Saudi Arabia’s becoming the very first country to receive the new American president on a foreign trip. He repaid the hospitality by downplaying the kingdom’s abysmal human rights record, saying he was “not here to lecture.” The enduring image of the visit remains the bizarre spectacle of Trump, the Saudi king and the military ruler of Egypt placing their hands on a glowing orb. All of this would have been unthinkable in any other presidency.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the official offers a starkly different analysis of the Trump White House at year’s end than those from other parts of the world: “People miss the point when they say, ‘Oh, the Trump administration is a mess.’ In the Obama administration there were so many meetings on the same subject without a decision; they would just have conversations and conversations without ever having an outcome. These guys they do make decisions. You can debate whether they’re right or not. But things get done.”
Trump’s boosters in the Middle East—or in the West Wing, for that matter—no longer try to deny the president’s volatility. Usually, they either ignore questions about his unpredictable Twitter rants or they talk about his unpredictability as a plus, a new if highly unconventional form of deal-making to be applied in service of his policy goals. On the Iran nuclear deal, for example, a diplomatic source who has had extensive discussions with the White House recently described the plan to me: “This is about leverage with Europeans,” with Trump threatening to walk away from the agreement painstakingly negotiated by the Obama administration and five other world powers in order to get the allies to agree on pressing Iran to make fresh concessions. There’s no sign that Iran will agree to such conditions, of course, and so far Europeans have been skeptical while probing what exactly Trump has in mind. “His strategy is to freak out the Europeans like he freaked them out into paying more for NATO support of them,” the diplomatic source said.
Whether you’re favorable or not to the idea of the president of the United States using fear as a ploy to get his country’s close friends to cave in to his demands, what’s striking about Trump’s presidency is how much, as the months have gone on, both his critics and his defenders have coalesced around a similar view of how to read the administration’s foreign policy. What they disagree on is what to do about it or even how to influence it.
Take this assessment by Jake Sullivan, who served as Hillary Clinton’s chief foreign policy adviser during the 2016 campaign. Trump, he pointed out, promised to blow up the Iran nuclear deal, pull out of the Paris climate accord, renegotiate or terminate NAFTA, and force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons or face military action. “All involve a similar pattern of Trump saying everything his predecessors did was horrible and idiotic but then not taking dramatic action and having to live with the consequences,” Sullivan says. It’s not all that different from what I heard from Republicans who are more supportive of Trump, or at least his beleaguered national security team.
Then again, Sullivan adds, while “in actions you haven’t seen any dramatic moves, and you’ve seen a gap between the rhetoric and the reality,” the more significant consequence is in America’s failure to act and the “sheer offensiveness” of the president’s personal behavior to friends and allies who now worry he’s handing adversaries like China and Russia a “golden gift” that will be hard to take back. “The U.S. is just not present in terms of trying to shape any conversation anywhere,” Sullivan says.
Trump’s national security team and his allies are engaged in a silent conspiracy of sorts to guide and constrain him.
Back in February, Senator Bob Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations chairman who would so dramatically break with Trump months later, was still trying to understand the new president. Trump, he told me then, was a “wrecking ball” when it came to foreign policy who truly was determined to “just destroy everything about” the U.S. establishment’s view of the world. Would he “evolve,” Corker asked?
At the time, he hoped yes. By the fall, he was warning that Trump was risking nuclear Armageddon.
Others still look for a different outcome. But in the meantime, the Reassurers are not so reassuring.
Because a year into his presidency, this is where we are: Trump’s national security team and his allies are engaged in a silent conspiracy of sorts to guide and constrain him. America’s enemies in China and Russia have taken their measure of the man and are preparing to test him more decisively than they have yet ventured. Opportunists in the Middle East and elsewhere are taking what they can get. War talk with North Korea grows ever louder. And in Washington, the America Firsters have been purged from the White House staff—but not from the Oval Office itself.
I recently went back to the Washington elder statesman I had consulted at the start of the Trump presidency. He has counseled McMaster and Tillerson and others on the Trump team throughout the year. He no longer makes the case to ignore the tweets or the president’s volatility.
“Nobody speaks for Trump,” he said. “He speaks for himself. The question is, are they allowed to do things notwithstanding? And the answer is yes, until he decides to pull the rug out from under them. Well, that’s the reality. That’s how this man works.”
Isn’t that, I asked, an extraordinary statement of no confidence in the presidency they are supposed to serve?
“It’s amazing,” he responded. “Look, the whole thing is amazing. We’ve never been here. But that’s where it is. So, at some point you have to sort of stop saying, you know, ‘This is terrible, it shouldn’t be this way.’ It is this way.”