Are we see­ing a new, im­proved Trump?

The US pres­i­dent has sur­prised many by ac­cept­ing Democrats’ pro­posal on debt ceil­ing with­out much ado

Khaleej Times - - OPINION - EL­IZ­A­BETH DREW

It’s gen­er­ally agreed in Washington, DC, that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency is en­ter­ing a new phase. Defin­ing just what that phase is, is prov­ing to be prob­lem­atic.

The wide­spread ex­pec­ta­tion was that the re­moval of Stephen Ban­non — the for­mer White House chief ad­viser and res­i­dent avatar of white Amer­i­can na­tion­al­ism — would make the administration run more smoothly, mit­i­gate (though not elim­i­nate) in­fight­ing, and re­duce the num­ber of leaks. The in­ter­nal war­fare may be qui­eter since John Kelly took over as White House Chief of Staff and im­posed more or­der in the West Wing. But so long as Trump is pres­i­dent, or­der­li­ness will not be the White House’s chief char­ac­ter­is­tic. In fact, Trump re­mains in fre­quent con­tact with Ban­non, who is back in charge at Bre­it­bart News.

In­evitably, by early Septem­ber, af­ter Kelly had been on the job for all of five weeks, Trump was chaf­ing un­der his new chief of staff’s re­stric­tions. Kelly has im­posed tight con­trols over who may en­ter the Oval Of­fice, lis­tens in on most of Trump’s phone calls dur­ing of­fice hours, and con­trols what pieces of pa­per reach the pres­i­dent’s desk, thus elim­i­nat­ing the highly ide­o­log­i­cal screeds that some staff mem­bers used to slip him.

The prob­lem is that Trump likes dis­or­der; that’s how he had run his busi­ness, and he doesn’t take well to be­ing man­aged. He liked hav­ing favoured peo­ple wan­der­ing into his of­fice as they chose, and it’s been his man­age­rial creed to play peo­ple off each other. Nor does he bother to con­trol his tem­per when deal­ing with aides. Even Kelly, an ex-Ma­rine Corps gen­eral, has come un­der the lash of Trump’s tongue. Ob­servers now take bets on when Kelly will de­cide he’s had enough.

I’ve never known a White House where so much de­pends on who has in­curred the pres­i­dent’s ire. Gary Cohn, the for­mer Gold­man Sachs pres­i­dent and chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer who serves as Trump’s chief eco­nomic ad­viser, is the lat­est to be frozen out. Cohn’s sin was to let it be known pub­licly that he al­most re­signed fol­low­ing the vi­o­lence last month in Char­lottesville, Va., when Trump equated white su­prem­a­cist and neo-Nazi demon­stra­tors, many of them armed, with those who op­posed them.

Ac­tu­ally, one can have some sym­pa­thy

Com­men­ta­tors went into over­drive, im­bu­ing the episode with broad sig­nif­i­cance: Trump was now not a Repub­li­can but an In­de­pen­dent. He might start a third party.

for a pres­i­dent with an aide who wants to have it both ways, as Cohn did — let­ting his ap­par­ent an­guish be known with­out act­ing on it. But there can be prob­lems when a pres­i­dent chooses to dis­re­gard his chief eco­nomic ad­viser. Cohn has been seen as one of the administration’s more mod­er­ate voices, and he has wanted to suc­ceed Janet Yellen as chair of the US Fed­eral Re­serve.

Spec­u­la­tion about the pos­si­bil­ity of a “new Trump” peaked in early Septem­ber, when the pres­i­dent sud­denly cut a deal with Demo­cratic con­gres­sional lead­ers. Trump agreed with House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi, and her Senate coun­ter­part, Chuck Schumer, on how to in­crease the fed­eral debt limit, which Congress must raise each year as spend­ing in­creases, and ex­tend ap­pro­pri­a­tions to keep the gov­ern­ment run­ning (be­cause Congress rou­tinely fails to write ap­pro­pri­a­tions bills on time). Both items were tied to a spe­cial ap­pro­pri­a­tion in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey to pay for re­cov­ery ef­forts. (The larger Hur­ri­cane Irma hadn’t yet hit.)

In the midst of the dis­cus­sion at the Oval Of­fice meet­ing with Pelosi and Schumer, Trump in­ter­rupted Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Steve Mnuchin as he was de­fend­ing the Repub­li­cans’ po­si­tion that these is­sues should be put off for 18 months, un­til af­ter the 2018 con­gres­sional elec­tions. The Democrats had ar­gued that the in­crease in the debt ceil­ing and ex­ten­sion of ap­pro­pri­a­tions should last for only three months, thus forc­ing the Repub­li­cans to take elec­torally risky votes be­fore the 2018 elec­tions.

Be­fore the meet­ing, House Speaker Paul Ryan had adamantly re­jected the Democrats’ pro­posal. But sud­denly, with­out no­ti­fy­ing even his own aides, Trump went for it. The au­thor of The Art of the Deal had ac­cepted the Democrats’ open­ing po­si­tion.

Com­men­ta­tors went into over­drive, im­bu­ing the episode with broad sig­nif­i­cance: Trump was now not a Repub­li­can but an In­de­pen­dent. He might start a third party. His move marked the be­gin­ning of a new way of gov­ern­ing.

In fact, Trump merely saw an op­por­tu­nity and took it. With no real leg­isla­tive achieve­ments to claim, he did some­thing. The Repub­li­can con­gres­sional lead­ers, Ryan and Senate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, had been in bad odour with Trump for a while, be­cause they had been un­able to de­liver on his leg­isla­tive agenda. He was em­bar­rassed and an­gered at their fail­ure to re­peal and re­place the Af­ford­able Care Act, or Oba­macare. (Trump didn’t recog­nise his own con­tri­bu­tions to the de­ba­cle.) On many is­sues, Trump lacks a gov­ern­ing ma­jor­ity in the Senate.

Over­looked in all the ex­cite­ment over Trump’s lin­ing up with Demo­cratic lead­ers was that the is­sue at hand con­cerned leg­isla­tive tim­ing, not sub­stance. And the sub­se­quent fevered dis­cus­sions about Trump’s core be­liefs — maybe he was a crypto-Demo­crat, who had, af­ter all, do­nated to Demo­cratic can­di­dates at one time and sym­pa­thised with Demo­cratic po­si­tions (such as on abor­tion) — missed the point. Trump har­bours no par­tic­u­lar po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy; he’s an op­por­tunist who craves pub­lic­ity and praise.

But his maverick be­hav­iour might turn out to be self-per­pet­u­at­ing. For all his con­tempt for the “dis­hon­est me­dia,” Trump was ec­static about the pos­i­tive press cov­er­age his bi­par­ti­san move re­ceived. And that might lure him to try for more. — Project Syn­di­cate El­iz­a­beth Drew is an au­thor, most re­cently, of Washington Jour­nal: Re­port­ing Water­gate and Richard Nixon’s Down­fall

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