Reality seemed to set in for President Trump this week, and he responded by jettisoning one campaign pledge after another.
By week’s end, his administration seemed to be taking on an increasingly establishment-oriented hue — pleasing to some, deeply alarming to others.
Good afternoon, I'm David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in Washington and elsewhere in national politics and highlight some particularly insightful stories.
DROPPING BOMBS, NOT THROWING THEM
Many of the biggest moves away from Trump’s campaign promises have come in foreign policy, Tracy Wilkinson and Brian Bennett reported.
The president who astonished people several weeks ago by expressing surprise that healthcare policy could be so complex said something very similar this week about his administration’s biggest foreign policy problem, North Korea.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump said Chinese President Xi Jingping had convinced him that China has less influence over North Korea than he had thought.
“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump said. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power” over North Korea, he said. Now, he recognized that while China clearly has economic sway over its ally, “it’s not what you would think,” he said.
Trump is the fourth successive U.S. president to try to slow or stop North Korea’s nuclear program. Neither Bill Clinton, George W. Bush nor Barack Obama succeeded. Now, as North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, appears to be preparing for another test of a nuclear weapon, which could come as early as tonight, the Trump administration has been loudly hinting at a military response. The problem, as Barbara Demick reported, is that all the scenarios for what might happen if the U.S. retaliates are grim.
The administration’s saber rattling has been aimed, in part, at getting China to take more action to rein in North Korea’s ambitions, and China appears increasingly worried, Demick wrote. At the same time, Trump, who publicly has tried to link Chinese assistance on North Korea with trade, has backed away from his previous attacks on Chinese policies.
This week, Trump publicly abandoned the idea of labeling China as a currency manipulator, something that during his campaign, he repeatedly said he would do on “day one” of his administration. Business leaders reportedly helped convince Trump of what economists have been saying for several years — that China used to manipulate its currency to boost its exports but had stopped doing so during Obama’s presidency.
That’s only part of the list of dropped promises. Trump has also backed away from tearing up the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, made no changes in President Obama’s Cuba policy and left intact the Iran deal.
Last week, he ordered a retaliatory missile strike against Syria to punish Bashar Assad’s government for its use of chemical weapons to attack civilians, a humanitarian intervention at odds with the “America First” rhetoric of his campaign and his inaugural address.
Over all, an administration that came into office threatening to overturn relations with China while warming to Russia now is doing precisely the opposite.
“Right now we’re not getting along with Russia at all,” Trump said this week as he discussed the tense relationship with Moscow. “We may be at an all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia.”
At least in foreign policy, the president appears to be moving much closer to the Washington establishment he once vowed to disrupt, Mike Memoli and Noah Bierman reported.
The one point on which the administration has remained consistent is a greater willingness to use force. That was dramatically illustrated Thursday, Bill Hennigan reported, when the military dropped its largest non-nuclear weapon, the so-called Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, on a complex of tunnels and caves allegedly being used by Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan.
The weapon, which creates a lethal blast roughly a mile-and-a-half wide, was developed almost two decades ago, but the Bush and Obama administrations had declined to use it.
THE SON-IN-LAW ALSO RISES
Many observers have seen the shifts in Trump’s approach as signs of greater influence for Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and adviser, and for establishment-oriented figures in the administration led by Trump’s top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, the former president of Goldman Sachs.
At the same time, the influence of Trump’s campaign strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, has seemed to be on the wane. Fairly or not, Bannon has taken blame for some of the administration’s biggest stumbles, including the botched effort to ban travel to the U.S. by residents of several Muslim-majority countries and the failure to get a bill through the House to repeal Obamacare.
Cohn’s rise is part of the reason the administration has backed away from talk of scrapping NAFTA and has eased its approach to China, as Don Lee first reported a few weeks ago.
This week, Trump took more steps toward an establishment-oriented economic policy, telling the Wall Street Journal in their interview that he might consider reappointing Janet Yellen as chair of the Federal Reserve when her term expires next year. He also said he now backs continued operation of the Export-Import Bank, a prime target of conservative activists.
All that has alarmed some of the economic nationalists and anti-establishment activists who flocked to Trump during the campaign.
[Another aide whose long-term job tenure seems increasingly in doubt is Press Secretary Sean Spicer. He damaged his standing this week with an embarrassing series of statements about Adolf Hitler. And K.T. McFarland, a deputy at the National Security Council brought in by former national security adviser Michael Flynn, is on the way out, as the new national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, consolidates his authority.]
In addition to the changing fortunes of his aides, the shifts in Trump’s stands may also reflect his political situation. His standing with the public remains far below that of other presidents at this stage of their tenures, he has succeeded in mobilizing his opposition to a remarkable degree, and his party is worried about a series of special elections to fill vacancies in the House in districts that should be reliably theirs.
This week, the GOP barely succeeded in holding off the Democrats in a conservative district in Kansas, Cathy Decker reported. The special election there was called to fill the seat formerly held by CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
An even bigger test comes Tuesday in Georgia, where Republicans have grown steadily more anxious about their prospects in the district that used to be represented by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. With Trump having energized the opposition, the Democratic candidate, 30-year-old Jon Ossoff, will almost certainly take first place in Tuesday’s all-candidate primary and could end up winning a seat that has been in GOP hands for years, Evan Halper reports.
MAINTAINING PRESSURE ON IMMIGRATION AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Amid confusion elsewhere, the administration has maintained consistent focus on two areas: Rolling back environmental protections and toughening enforcement of immigration laws.
This week, for example, on a trip to the border, Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions called for stepping up prosecutions of people who cross the border illegally, Nigel Duara reported.
Another of Sessions’ programs went awry, however. A couple of weeks ago, the administration began publishing statistics on local jurisdictions that refuse to keep people in custody who are sought by immigration agents. Those orders, called detainers, have been controversial in many jurisdictions. In California and elsewhere, judges have ruled that detainers do not give law enforcement agencies legal justification to hold onto people who have completed their sentences or who have been found innocent in a trial.
The administration hoped that publicizing the number of detainers that are rejected could put political pressure on local jurisdictions to comply. But they had to suspend the program this week after the first two weeks of reports were found to contain numerous errors, Joe Tanfani reported. Officials said they did not know when the reports would resume.
On the environmental front, Halper reported that the administration is trying to get rid of Energy Star, a well regarded, voluntary program that encourages energy conservation by awarding certificates to efficient products, such as air conditioners. The move against the program, which is popular and costs relatively little, shows the influence of libertarians and climate skeptics in the administration, Halper wrote.
Meantime, the administration’s proposed cuts in U.S. support for global health programs has caused medical groups to fear new outbreaks of disease, Noam Levey reports.
RUSSIA INVESTIGATION UPDATE
With Congress out of session, the volume has gone down on the investigations into Russian interference in last year’s election.
Michael Finnegan and Matt Pearce examined how differently conservative and mainstream media have covered Trump administration accusations that Susan Rice, the former Obama administration national security adviser, had improperly handled intelligence reports.
And the Washington Post disclosed that Carter Page, who was, at least for a time, a foreign policy adviser to Trump, was the subject of a classified Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant issued last summer. To persuade judges to issue such a warrant, the FBI would have needed to produce evidence that Page was operating as an agent of a foreign power.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S TWEETS
Twitter has long been Trump’s favored means of pushing his message. We’re compiling all of Trump’s tweets. It’s a great resource. Take a look.
That wraps up this week. My colleague Sarah Wire will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.
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