For President Trump, Afghanistan and the Republican party both represent conquered territory, neither of them subdued.
This week opened with the president renewing America’s war in central Asia, taking the rare step of publicly admitting that he had changed his mind and accepting a decision that went against his instincts.
Perhaps that feeling of being pushed into a corner influenced what came next: On Tuesday, Trump went to Phoenix and tossed aside the advice — and the text — he had received. In his speech, he escalated that other war he faces, the one against the party that he conquered, but never fully subdued, in last year’s election.
Hello, 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.
PROMISING VICTORY, AIMING FOR STALEMATE
Trump’s Afghanistan policy starts with a huge internal contradiction: In his speech to the nation Monday night, the president repeatedly insisted that the U.S. goal is to “win,” but as David Cloud, Bill Hennigan and Tracy Wilkinson wrote, the actual policy he embraced aims to achieve something well short of victory — a stalemate that could lead to a negotiated settlement.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke more candidly than his boss on that subject, quickly earning scorn from some corners of Trump’s coalition, notably Breitbart News, the website now once again headed by Steve Bannon, Trump’s strategist who was ousted a week ago. (One big winner from Bannon’s ouster? The Koch brothers. Lisa Mascaro explained why).
During his time in the White House, Bannon opposed plans to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. In that opposition, he hewed to one of his main roles, keeper of Trump’s campaign promises.
Trump’s past opposition to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan created part of the difficulty of Monday’s speech: He was trying to sell the public on a policy he previously had disparaged, as Brian Bennett and Noah Bierman wrote.
“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts,” Trump said. “But all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”
His grudging acceptance of escalation in Afghanistan marked a victory for the trio of retired and current generals who now guide Trump’s administration, Chief of Staff John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis and national security advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster.
In one of the odder twists of history, the policy closely resembles the one that former Vice President Joe Biden advocated early in President Obama’s administration — a significant, but limited, U.S. troop presence aimed primarily at killing the leaders of Al Qaeda and other potential terrorists, not at transforming Afghanistan.
Obama pushed aside that advice in 2009, opting for a much more ambitious military surge, which saw the U.S. troop presence grow to a peak of more than 100,000 in 2010 and 2011. The hope was to achieve a military victory that would allow Afghan leaders to create a more unified, peaceful country that would not require constant U.S. intervention.
That didn’t work. Now, Trump, without acknowledging the author, will give the Biden plan a try. In refusing to set any timetable for U.S. involvement, he tacitly accepted a future that Obama sought to avert, but which advocates of intervention, led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, say can’t be avoided: a U.S. military presence stretching into the indefinite future.
In his speech, Trump loudly declared that the U.S. will eschew “nation building.” Laura King offered this Q&A on what that means and why avoiding nation-building is easier said than done.
PROMISING POLITICAL WAR, AIMING FOR WHAT?
Monday night, Trump read, somewhat awkwardly, from a teleprompter. On Tuesday, in Phoenix, he tossed the prepared text — and caution — aside for a long yowl of anger aimed at the media and the Republican Party.
As Cathy Decker wrote, Trump’s 76-minute speech repeatedly took aim at both of the state’s Republican senators, McCain, and Jeff Flake. Trump had praised one of Flake’s potential primary opponents, Kelli Ward, on Twitter, and he met backstage with two others who are considering a primary run. In the speech, he belittled the senator. Flake already was a Democratic target for 2018; he’s now even more politically endangered.
Trump also continued his running feud with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). And White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders fired back at another leading Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, saying that his questioning of Trump’s “competence” and “stability” was “ridiculous and outrageous.”
The next day, in Reno, Trump took a more restrained approach, calling for national unity in a speech to the American Legion, as Michael Finnegan and Phil Willon wrote.
Republican leaders prefer the more subdued Trump, but they’re likely to continue to see the riled-up one.
As Lisa Mascaro wrote, fights with the GOP leadership do little to advance Trump’s agenda in Congress, where he depends on McConnell’s backing and needs both McCain’s and Flake’s votes. The most immediate battle ahead when Congress returns to work just after Labor Day will be over raising the federal debt ceiling. Failure to do that would put the U.S. credit rating at risk, the Fitch rating agency warned this week.
But winning congressional battles isn’t Trump’s primary goal right now. Political survival is.
The president’s ardent supporters dismiss public opinion polls as part of the “fake news.” But Trump knows better; he follows polls avidly and comments on them frequently.
As I wrote earlier this week, the most recent polls do not show Trump’s support collapsing, but they do show a slow, steady decline. Trump’s hard-core backers still love him, but outside their ranks, his support among Republicans has weakened. Among those who never liked him, Trump is now so toxic that he can’t even attend the annual Kennedy Center honors for fear of causing a boycott.
Trump needs to keep that core support fired up, and if he can’t deliver on his promises to them, he needs to focus the blame away from himself. The congressional Republicans — a group less popular than he is — form a convenient target.
A PROMISE NOT KEPT
One prime example of the gap between Trump’s rhetoric and the reality of his governing involves the Border Patrol. In his first weeks in office, Trump loudly proclaimed that he would hire 5,000 new Border Patrol agents. That never happened, Joe Tanfani writes. Instead, the Border Patrol’s ranks have shrunk, and the Homeland Security Department says the shrinkage likely will continue, at least through the end of this year.
Some other Trump policy positions took halting steps forward this week.
The White House is preparing official guidance to the Pentagon on transgender service members, as Brian Bennett and David Cloud wrote. The guidance, designed to turn Trump’s Twitter messages into official policy, appears to allow current service members who are transgender to stay on duty. That would mark a significant retreat for Trump.
The plan also includes a built-in six-month delay, which could allow time for Congress to reverse the policy. Already, Democrats say they will try, with Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, an Iraq war veteran, leading the way.
On another policy, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has identified “a handful” of national monuments to shrink, Evan Halper reported. The administration appears to have backed away from plans to eliminate some monument designations altogether, but the proposals to change boundaries and allow more mining, fishing and logging in some areas are still likely to generate a lot of opposition. Officials are keeping the precise list of recommendations under wraps while the White House reviews it.
SOME OTHER NOTABLE STORIES
Trump is having his problems, but all’s not easy on the other side of the aisle. Halper reported on the fight among Democrats as they squabble over which way to turn on economic policy.
Jaweed Kaleem reports on a federal court ruling that Texas’ voter ID law illegally discriminates against Latinos and Asian Americans. The ruling is one of several in recent weeks that have found deliberate racial discrimination by Texas’ Republican-majority legislature.
In California, Republicans continue to fight among themselves over how to respond to Gov. Jerry Brown’s victory on legislation to fight global warming. The Assembly Republicans replaced their leader, who had supplied a key vote for Brown’s plan, Patrick McGreevy wrote.
On the Democratic side, several former Obama staff members hope to build on his legacy as they run for office, Seema Mehta reported.
A federal judge in Washington approved a limited search warrant for data from a website about anti-Trump protesters. The case has been carefully watched by tech companies and Internet privacy advocates. Federal prosecutors say they need the information to determine who planned acts of violence during the demonstrations that marked Trump’s inauguration.
U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are moving on another stronghold of the Islamic State militants, continuing to gain ground in a grueling campaign, wrote Bill Hennigan, who spent the past week traveling with Mattis. The Defense secretary also went to Ukraine, where he offered support, but stopped short of promising weapons.
LET THEM WEAR HERMES
Sometimes, fairly or not, a single scene can come to symbolize an administration. In 1992, George H.W. Bush’s seeming amazement at a supermarket scanner provided an enduring image of a privileged man out of touch with ordinary life. Obama was tagged for years with his remark in 2008 about “bitter” voters in the Midwest who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”
Louise Linton may end up filling that role for the Trump administration. The 36-year-old former actress, who earlier this year married Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, posted a snarky rant on Instagram this week responding to a woman who had criticized her ostentatious display of wealth while on an official trip to Kentucky with her husband.
“Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband? Either as an individual earner in taxes OR in self sacrifice to your country?” Linton demanded. She later apologized, but the image of contemptuous wealth lingered, made worse by the disclosure that Mnuchin had timed the trip in a way that allowed him and Linton to watch Monday’s solar eclipse from the roof of Ft. Knox.
The moment was made for columnists. To Robin Abcarian, it seemed likely to stand as “one of the iconic moments of the Trump Era.” Michael Hiltzik dissected Linton’s assertion that she and Mnuchin had sacrificed for their country (adopted country, in her case). He found the claim unpersuasive.
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 Christina Bellantoni 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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