Calm has never described this White House, but the last two weeks, even by President Trump’s standard, have cranked the chaos to high volume.
Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn, tariffs, North Korea, now perhaps H.R. McMaster and the Iran nuclear agreement: The mix of major policy departures — and major policymakers departing — has dizzied even Trump’s staff.
The president, for his part, insists all is as he wishes. The administration is “very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want,” he declared Tuesday as he announced Tillerson’s dismissal as secretary of State.
On that point, he probably can be believed.
PURGING THE ‘GROWN-UPS’
Tillerson and Cohn, who quit his job as Trump’s top economic advisor last week, have several qualities in common: successful business credentials (former chiefs of ExxonMobil and Goldman Sachs), independent wealth, conventional political views and a willingness to say no to the president.
Tillerson never denied reports that he once referred to Trump as a “moron.” Cohn never uttered anything quite so indiscreet, at least in the hearing of outsiders, but made his disdain clear for some of the president’s unorthodox economic views (tariffs) and political associations (Charlottesville).
In short, they embodied the “grown-ups” that establishment Republicans, for the last 14 months, have prayed would keep Trump under control.
Presidents don’t like being controlled.
On that point, Trump differs from his predecessors only in the degree to which members of his own party openly say he requires what Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) once publicly called “adult day care.”
This week, he cast aside his handlers.
“I actually got along well with Rex, but really it was a different mind-set, a different thinking,” Trump told reporters a few hours after sacking the secretary by Twitter on Tuesday morning, as Tracy Wilkinson and Brian Bennett reported.
As Bennett also reported, the same fate seems in the offing for McMaster, the national security advisor — another official widely admired by establishment figures who has not shied way from saying “no” to his boss.
Trump, however, waited months before opening the trapdoor under Tillerson and could keep McMaster on board for an extended period, as well. Two White House aides told Bennett that McMaster might stay at the White House until after Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a summit that officials say will take place in May.
Others may be on the way out. Veterans Affairs secretary David Shulkin, for example, has weathered a sustained attack from within by more conservative officials who favor a rapid privatization of much of the vast veterans’ healthcare system.
Advocates of that idea, financed in large part by Charles and David Koch, thought they had Trump’s ear until he surprised them during the transition by appointing Shulkin — an Obama administration holdover. They’ve seized on ethical lapses by the VA chief in hopes of now driving him out of office.
IMPACT ON POLICY
In the White House, personnel and policy blend.
Cohn actually quit over a policy disagreement — he opposed Trump’s proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. He lost that debate to Trump’s in-house trade hawk, Peter Navarro, who has long warned against China, as Don Lee emphasized in a profile of the controversial former UC Irvine professor.
Tillerson’s firing came just hours after he publicly denounced Russia for its apparent use of a nerve agent to poison a former spy and his daughter in England. The White House eventually issued a condemnation of Russia’s conduct, but days later.
Firing Tillerson and replacing him with Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director, also greatly increases the chance of Trump scuttling the nuclear deal with Iran, as Wilkinson and Bennett reported.
“When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible,” Trump told reporters Tuesday. Tillerson, he said, “felt it was OK.”
Trump could scuttle the deal as early as May. If he does, the question will be whether Iran resumes its nuclear development and how much damage a unilateral U.S. move will have on American alliances in Europe and elsewhere.
“If we walk away, we walk away alone,” said William Burns, the former deputy secretary of State who led secret negotiations with Iran in 2013 and 2014.
You can keep track of all the people who have exited Trump’s administration here.
IMPACT ON POLITICS
Outside of think-tank circles, few voters cast a ballot based on the name of the secretary of State, let alone the head of the National Economic Council.
But don’t think that means the constant turmoil surrounding Trump has no impact politically.
Last year, Democratic strategists said voter fatigue over the constant din of Trump-related headlines provided a key boost to now-Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama’s Senate race.
The same appears to have been true this week in southwestern Pennsylvania, as voters in a district that Trump carried by 20 points appear to have elected a Democrat, Conor Lamb, to Congress. (The final result won’t be certain until next week, when the last provisional ballots are tallied, but Lamb’s lead appears likely to hold up).
As Evan Halper reported, the race between Lamb and Rick Saccone, the Trump-endorsed Republican, quickly became a referendum on the president.
Trump lost. While the final margin amounted to only a few hundred votes, the shift from 2016 was huge. As important is where the shift took place. Lamb made significant gains in blue-collar parts of the district, but he gained even more in Pittsburgh’s affluent southern suburbs. That’s the same sort of upscale, well-educated swing area that turned heavily against the Republicans in Alabama in December and in Virginia a month earlier.
Overall in the eight House and Senate special elections of the last year, Democrats have outperformed their accustomed level by wide margins. .
That’s consistent with Trump’s approval level, which has fluctuated in a very narrow band for a year now, seldom rising or falling much beyond 40%.
About 25% of the public strongly approves of Trump, another 15% or so approves with reservations, but about 40% loathe him, and it’s that group that has consistently been showing up in large numbers at the ballot box.
If that remains true in November, Republicans will face a tough struggle to keep their House majority.
GOP strategists had hoped that a healthy, growing economy would turn voters their way, and they’ve been counting on their tax-cut bill to allow them to claim credit. But as Cathleen Decker wrote, the Pennsylvania campaign showed that the tax cut message isn’t helping much.
“It looks like it just petered out,” Patrick Murray, who heads the nonpartisan Monmouth University Polling Institute, told Decker, referring to the tax cut’s impact on the race.
Republicans don’t have many other arguments to advance. It was just a few weeks ago that Trump used his State of the Union speech to tout his plan for improving the nation’s roads and bridges and other infrastructure. That plan has almost disappeared, even as the need for improvements continues in places that were crucial to Trump’s victory, as Noah Bierman reported.
AT WAR WITH CALIFORNIA
In no part of the country does dislike of Trump burn hotter than in California.
That’s part of why Trump has been so slow to visit the state, Bierman wrote. In politics, as in his business, California, to Trump, represents losing, Bierman wrote.
Trump waited longer in office before visiting the state than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, who traveled west back when presidents had to go by train.
When Trump finally did arrive, Tuesday morning, to take a brief tour of prototypes of his proposed border wall and to mingle with wealthy donors at a $5-million fundraiser near Beverly Hills, he slammed Gov. Jerry Brown for “doing a terrible job.”
Meantime, as Evan Halper and Sarah D. Wire reported, his administration is backing a stealthy plan by congressional Republicans to amend federal law to ease the way for raising the height of the Shasta Dam, even though California officials don’t want it.
Expanding the dam would provide big benefits to wealthy agribusiness owners in the Central Valley, a group that has long provided financial support to Republican candidates.
The Los Angeles Times provided extensive coverage of Trump’s visit. What was most notable was his near-total isolation from the state’s residents. Even most California Republican candidates avoided being too close to him, Christine Mai-Duc reported.
Modern-era presidents always travel in a protected bubble — security demands that. But the cocoon surrounding Trump, both physically and, it seems, psychologically, is an extreme one.
A president who spends hours each day watching laudatory coverage on Fox News and who rarely ventures beyond the White House and his own golf resorts may have trouble adjusting if voters repudiate his course in the midterm election.
Beyond the policy and personnel headlines of the week, the scandals continued.
Michael Finnegan examined how Stormy Daniels and her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, have turned lawsuits and tabloid publicity, which Trump has long used as weapons, against him.
Daniels, the porn actress who received $130,000 in hush money to quiet her claims about an affair with Trump, has taped an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes.” Trump’s lawyers have tried to block her from speaking — the same sort of tactic that turned Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” into a best seller.
Meantime, of course, the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, continues. Thursday, news broke that Mueller has subpoenaed the Trump Organization, demanding records.
But as Chris Megerian and Joe Tanfani reported, it’s unclear if the subpoena represents a “new avenue in the investigation” or a “mopping-up operation” designed to ensure that prosecutors haven’t missed any important documents demanded by previous subpoenas to Trump’s campaign and others.
And the administration belatedly issued new sanctions against Russia for meddling in the 2016 election and other “destructive cyberattacks” targeting the U.S. electrical grid and water systems, as Bennett and Megerian reported.
Many of the new sanctions were required by a law Congress passed last summer. When Trump signed the law last year, he released a statement calling it “seriously flawed,” and his administration was months late in meeting the law’s deadline.
Russia, meantime, continues to try to interfere with U.S. elections and target U.S. infrastructure, intelligence officials say.
During a confirmation hearing on Thursday, Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, Trump’s nominee to replace Adm. Mike Rogers as head of the National Security Agency, said that the United States has not taken the sort of actions needed to deter the Russians.
“Unless the calculus changes, we should expect continued issues,” he told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
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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