The establishment is holding out
Cool heads are needed to contain a president who can’t stand being kept in check and rages until he sees the traitor’s head roll
- Friday, 25 January 2019
That some form of resistance against the President of the United States exists within the White House is no mystery. On 5 September an anonymous editorial published in The New York Times removed any shadow of a doubt. It’s one thing to harbour suspicions, it’s quite another when one of the world’s most authoritative newspapers publishes an Op-Ed on its front page written by an anonymous senior official in the administration confessing to being “part of the resistance”.
The article was among the most widely read in the history of the newspaper’s website and stirred up a hornet’s nest. Trump’s problem in this case is that he couldn’t blame his political adversaries. At the beginning of his mandate dozens of senior staff had left the State Department, but this time the people opposing Trump from the belly of federal government were Republicans, hand-picked by the President. They have no complaint with the deficit-increasing tax reform that makes the system less progressive, nor the increase in military spending. Their opposition to the President is neither political nor organised. It is rather the patient work of damage limitation: killing time waiting for the President’s mood to change and with it his views on controversial issues, a cordon sanitaire to avoid that he listens too much to the wrong people, unorthodox individuals like his son in law Jared Kushner and the advisor Stephen Miller. Details are omitted and facts presented in such a way as to engineer one decision rather than another. Those pursuing this approach do so in order to avoid that his is not a catastrophic presidency. The problem is that their ideas differ from those of their boss about what can be considered a success.
One of the characteristics of the populist leaders that have emerged in recent years, Trump included obviously, is that they are continuously identifying enemies to point out to public opinion. Migrants, China, the media, the EU, Macron, the reasons for America’s problems can always be blamed on others. Successes however, like the economy, are apparently the fruit of Trump’s intuition. The President has a similar attitude when it comes to his dysfunctional administration and his White House is like a pinball machine firing off staff. If migrants continue to arrive (or fail to disappear completely), the blame lies with Secretary for Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, who it seems will be replaced precisely for this reason.
The President is standoffish and moody. He changes his mind about who are friends and who are foes. He tries to tackle crucial and delicate issues, like international trade, nuclear Korea, Iran, relationships with China, Europe and Russia, as if they were games of Risk or Monopoly played with rigged dice.
The perfect example of this is his attitude towards Nielsen, who replaced John Kelly, who became Chief of Staff after his predecessor Rience Priebus was fired via a Tweet. Nielsen has been responsible for putting the Trumpian agenda into practice, beginning with the separation of mothers from their children at the border. But as she was unable to magic away the problem, she has ended up in the dock at meetings in the Oval Office. Her chief accuser is John Bolton, new National Security Advisor.
Attacking Nielsen, an ally and protégé of John Kelly, is also a way to precipitate the removal of the latter. Various figures loyal to the man who has sought to bring order to the work of the administration have been removed or have abandoned ship. Many expect Trump to fire Kelly also, and getting rid of Nielsen is a way of showing Kelly the door. Nevertheless, Kelly has always tried to avoid distancing himself from the President. At least until there were furious rows with the staff of the First Lady Melania on the promotions and number of people to accompany her on official trips. Or with Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who on a visit to South Korea for the Olympics insisted on a meeting with President Moon Jae (in her capacity as the President’s daughter, an institutional role that obviously does not exist).
The fact is that the President hates those who try to limit his actions, especially when it comes to presenting drastic solutions that appear perfect to sell to the pubic. This distinction between concrete policies and spectacular solutions is the grounds for a constant arm wrestle between the President and his trusty collaborators on one hand (Stephen Miller and John Bolton being the most influential), and the realists on the other. Attempting to limit the Presidential excesses, in addition to Kelly, is the Secretary of Defence General Mattis. Both, on more than one occasion have made it clear that they are remaining in their posts in order to avoid leaving the keys to the government machine in the hands of the President and his inner circle. Dotted around the offices of Washington are dozens more senior officials trying to limit the damage. The tactic of acting as a brake on Trump’s excesses seemed to be working until the media began talking about it too much.
The potential trade war between China and the United States is an example of the internal conflicts. The President’s tone on China and Europe has always been bombastic and now the United States has imposed tariffs of 10% on 360 billion dollars of imported goods. The line pursued by the President is inspired by Peter Navarro, whose latest book is titled Death by China. Attempting to contain the protectionist drift is the “free trade” faction led by Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and director of the National Economic Council Larry Kudlow, both exponents of traditional Republic economic values (finance and oil). These individuals are not enemies of Trump but resist the idea that tariffs will reinvigorate the decaying Midwest, where Trump promised miracles and was duly rewarded in 2016 to then be punished in 2018.
According to Bob Woodward’s book on Trump’s White House, Fear, John Kelly tries to limit the access to the President of figures such as Navarro. The best way to avoid Trump’s rushes of blood to the head is to make sure that certain ideas never reach his ears. Such ideas risk resurfacing during an international summit at which Trump is feeling left out, or when he wants to distract public opinion, as in the case of the Tweets insulting France and Macron following the commemoration of the First World War.
Also endeavouring to contain the President’s more destructive urges is the Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, another former serviceman much loved by Trump before he fell out of favour. Mattis too is rumoured to be on the way out. Over two years, the defence chief has impeded the carpet-bombing of the Caliphate, which Trump had pledged during his Presidential campaign, as well as preventing a unilateral withdrawal with no Plan B from Afghanistan. Mattis also managed to put a brake on Trump’s reaction to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. He did so by employing a clear strategy: presenting the most innocuous proposal to the President as if it were the most destructive (and thus persuading him). Mattis, as Rex Tillerson had done prior to his dismissal, has acted as the guarantor of US foreign policy in spite of whatever the Presidential Tweets are saying.
The leading think tanks have also been speaking out on trade, foreign policy and immigration. Traditionally bipartisan organisations like Brookings Institution have strongly criticized the President, while conservatives such as the Heritage Foundation have married the new Republican agenda.
The peaceful and bureaucratic resistance can count numerous casualties: from former Chief of Staff H.R. McMaster, to Secretary of State Tillerson to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. All were defenestrated by Trump after having criticized him publicly in the media and all were replaced by lesser figures – like current Attorney General Mathew Whitaker, appointed for speaking out on TV against the Mueller enquiry in a way that pleased the President – or those harbouring extreme views, such as John Bolton. The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Halley is another to have resigned, further destabilizing the administration. The rumour is that her replacement will be Heather Nauert, a former Fox News presenter.
Resisting Trump is difficult because it means resisting his changes of mood and then, when the President realises, there is a choice between resigning and being fired. Within the Republican administration there aren’t warring factions but rather a security cordon around the Commander-in-Chief.
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