As President Trump confronted a torrent of anonymous charges from within his administration over his authority and fitness to govern, he sought validation Thursday from an unlikely source, one of the world’s most infamous autocrats.
“Kim Jong Un of North Korea proclaims ‘unwavering faith in President Trump,’” the president tweeted early Thursday morning. “Thank you to Chairman Kim. We will get it done together!”
The tweet underscores one of the dangers that a chaotic American presidency could pose to the country, giving foreign adversaries leverage to exploit the sense that Trump is being undermined from within. The moment in Trump’s presidency carries echoes of the toughest days of Presidents Nixon and Clinton, when many viewed their foreign policy decisions through the lens of domestic scandal.
The president publicly acknowledged he was at odds with top leaders in his government even before the New York Times on Wednesday published a rare, anonymous op-ed from a person identified only as a senior administration official. The official asserted that top advisors had considered invoking the Constitution’s 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office and had worked since the inauguration to thwart some of his instincts.
“Amazingly alone,” Trump described himself in an interview Tuesday with the Daily Caller, a conservative Washington-based news outlet, characterizing his efforts to persuade the nation’s generals to follow his lead in aggressively confronting allies to spend more on their defense.
“A lot of generals don’t understand it. A lot of people don’t understand it,” Trump said. “Amazingly alone. But I’ve gotten many converts over the last period of a year. But I started off amazingly alone.”
Trump’s comment seemed to recognize a reality widely known among those in and around the White House but rarely acknowledged publicly: Much of his own staff has long been conflicted about their administration positions, hoping to serve and also restrain an irascible president out of a sense of service to the country mixed, perhaps, with personal ambition.
One well-connected Republican lobbyist with ties to the Trump White House said that Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis and John F. Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, have long viewed their jobs within the administration as “holding it together.”
“That wasn’t what they thought they’d be doing initially, but it’s how they’ve rationalized their decision to stay in those jobs,” the lobbyist said, speaking on condition of anonymity to reveal internal administration discussions. “The one common thread is the potential instability of the guy in the Oval [Office]. That’s the problem, and it seems to be a constant.”
That mix of motivations, which has been an open secret in Washington for many months, gained wider public prominence this week as Trump responded angrily and forcefully to the op-ed as well as similar revelations in a forthcoming book by journalist Bob Woodward. The book includes accounts of senior staff ignoring presidential orders and of former top economic advisor Gary Cohn removing a letter from the president’s desk that would have withdrawn the U.S. from a trade agreement with South Korea so Trump could not sign it.
Another revelation, according to Woodward, that Mattis ignored Trump’s reported command to assassinate Syrian President Bashar Assad, left senior foreign policy hands particularly unnerved.
“We just have to ride out the next two years,” said one senior Republican Senate staffer. “It’s going to be tense times. Democrats will turn Congress into an impeachment clearinghouse, and the president will retaliate and lash out.”
Growing suspicions among White House staff, along with fevered speculation by the media and the public over who wrote the Times op-ed, prompted a wave of administration denials, including an extraordinary public statement from Vice President Mike Pence’s communications director declaring that he did not pen “the false, illogical, and gutless op-ed.”
“Our office is above such amateur acts,” Jarrod Agen, the Pence communications director, tweeted.
The vice president also posted a video of himself making an impromptu statement to reporters at a Florida airport at which he called on the author of the op-ed to resign
The anonymous editorial published in the @nytimes is disgraceful. The author should resign. My thoughts from Orlando where we are on the road touting the accomplishments of @POTUS and this administration are below. We are not deterred. pic.twitter.com/8RzNzZras6— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) September 6, 2018
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted out the phone number for the New York Times switchboard, urging followers to call and request the “identity of the gutless coward.”
Foreign leaders had already viewed Trump’s leadership with confusion, and in some cases concern, according to foreign diplomats, policy analysts and officials from prior administrations, who have long noted the frequent disconnect between Trump’s rhetoric and the actions taken by his Cabinet and top advisors. The added assertions that he is being actively undermined have only intensified the administration’s reputation for tumult and palace intrigue, said Mara Karlin, who worked for five secretaries of defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, most recently as the Pentagon’s top strategist.
People “should not delude themselves into thinking that our frenemies and adversaries aren’t trying to take advantage of this chaos and dysfunctionality as much as possible,” Karlin said. “They’d be foolish not to.”
She noted that Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, Mattis and Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in New Delhi on Thursday for a major strategy summit with leaders of India, the world’s largest democracy and a crucial ally. Mattis spent the early part of the week denying reports in the Woodward book that he compared Trump’s grasp of the North Korean nuclear threat to a fifth- or sixth-grader’s.
“You have to assume they’re being pretty heavily distracted,” she said.
Major domestic political controversies also open up presidents to questions about their foreign policy motivations, complicating responses to crises.
In 2000, in the final months of a second term marred by scandal and impeachment proceedings, President Clinton opted not to respond forcefully to a deadly attack on the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole, despite intelligence that Osama bin Laden was behind it.
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss points to President Nixon’s fruitless effort to negotiate arms control with the Soviets in 1974, during the throes of Watergate. The Soviets, Beschloss said, “basically kept the meter running and didn’t do anything.
“[Then-Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger later wrote that the Soviets treated Nixon with the solicitude they would devote to someone who is terminally ill,” Beschloss continued. “Trump is not at that point, but it’s always a consideration for foreign leaders. If another leader is negotiating with Trump, they have to factor in that he may lose the House and even have a smaller chance of lasting a full term.”
According to Woodward’s new book, one foreign leader was already expressing concerns in July 2017 about the cloud of investigations over Trump’s presidency. “Donald, I’m worried about this investigation. Are you going to be around?” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi asked, according to Woodward.
Jim Hanson, a Trump ally who is president of the Security Studies Group, a think tank in Washington, calls the “Trump-as-toddler theme” overblown. But he concedes adversaries may seek to exploit the perception of instability.
“But I think it’s undermined by the fact that his administration is much more effective than it’s given credit for,” he said, pointing to the tough reputations of Pompeo and John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor.
Trump’s continued popularity among Republicans and his administration’s achievements on party priorities — from tax cuts to the rollback of regulations and appointment of a record number of conservative judges to the federal bench — have helped the president keep most Republican lawmakers from leaving him.
Republicans, one GOP Senate chief of staff said, “privately say they don’t like Trump, but most love his policies and they’ve decided that that’s more important than their concerns about his behavior.”
But after the last two weeks, the aide said, that calculation is being reconsidered.
“It’s possible that at some point more Republicans start saying these policies aren’t worth it,” the aide continued. “I don’t know if it will happen, but it seems more plausible now.”