Analysis: Trump's political and policy guardrails fall away
WASHINGTON — An unrepentant President Donald Trump has been testing the limits of the nation's tolerance from the day he took office. Now he has cast off one of the few remaining voices trying to curtail his at times mercurial impulses.
Trump nudged out national intelligence director Dan Coats, a rare cautionary influence in his foreign policy apparatus, while he escalated his attacks on minority members of Congress and went so far as to call a majority-black U.S. city of 600,000 a "disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess" on Twitter. Both moves underscored Trump's longstanding belief that he is his own best political strategist.
The president's volatile management style has shocked the nation before. But the drumbeat of provocation emanating from the White House has grown undeniably louder in recent months. Trump aides such as economic adviser Gary Cohn, who blocked impulsive actions by going so far as to remove rogue paperwork from the Resolute Desk, are gone.
The president has rid himself of many of the aides who once challenged him, either by attrition or replacement, and in doing so illustrated his preference for loyalty over know-how. He's inflamed racial tensions, betting that such divisions will help ease his path to victory in 2020. And he's replaced gut instinct and tweets for the sober analysis of professionals on matters of war and peace.
On Sunday, Trump had his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, defend the offensive tweets on national television and furthered his divisive attacks on a veteran African-American congressman, claiming without evidence that Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, a prominent administration critic, was himself "racist."
While Republicans nervously consider an unconstrained Trump 15 months from the election, few have stepped up to challenge a president who has been emboldened by the conclusion of the Russia probe and a divided Democratic Congress to conduct foreign policy and domestic politics as he alone sees fit.
The temptations for Trump are only set to increase this week, before two nights of debates by his would-be 2020 Democratic rivals. Then on Thursday in Ohio, he'll have his first rally since the offensive chants of his supporters about Democratic lawmakers of color. Trump disavowed the chants, then backtracked on his disavowal.
Like so many of Trump's political impulses, the president's attacks this weekend on Cummings, the powerful chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and the racist tweets he sent two weeks earlier were born not of strategy meetings with aides, but of cable television.
He first laced into four Democratic congresswoman of color, claiming they hated America and should "go back" to where they come from, even though all are U.S. citizens and three were born in the U.S. The remarks drew condemnation from both parties. Yet when a North Carolina rally crowd chanted "send her back" about Rep. Ilhan Omar, who was born in Somalia before moving to the U.S. as a child, Trump let the chant roll unchallenged before later falsely claiming he stopped it.
Last weekend, it was a Fox News segment on Cummings' Baltimore district that set off Trump. Aides said Trump was already agitated with Cummings for his treatment of acting Homeland Security head Kevin McAleenan during a congressional hearing and because of the lawmaker's acquisition of subpoena power to search the emails of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, senior White House aides who are the president's daughter and son-in-law.
Former chief of staff Reince Priebus once nicknamed Trump's inflammatory weekend tweets, often triggered by something he saw on Fox News, products of "the devil's workshop" and said they could derail carefully choreographed White House plans. But while Priebus and his successor, John Kelly, each tried with varied intensity to steer Trump away from the treacherous combination of television and Twitter, Mulvaney has made no such attempt. He's given the president space to tweet as he wishes, according to nine administration officials and outside allies.
After his attacks against Cummings, Trump asked advisers on Monday how the tweets played on television — yet made clear he was not asking them whether he should have posted them, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The president has also, in recent days, expressed to Kushner, who many regard as Trump's de facto campaign manager, and other advisers on his re-election team that he believed his broadsides against the minority Democrats would help excite his core supporters.
Though polling suggests the attacks could hurt Trump with suburban voters — and especially women — whom he may need to win again next year, Trump has been unmoved, telling those around him that he can compensate for that by can turning out voters who did not cast a ballot in 2016. Unlike that election, when the novice candidate sometimes would listen to advice from advisers Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, Trump's whims now regularly go unchallenged.
Coats' departure accelerates a similar reshaping of Trump's foreign policy team. Previously, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, would sometimes rein in the president's foreign policy impulses, loudly or subtly.
But if Trump tolerated that early in his administration, he quickly tired of their cautious attitudes, officials said, as he developed confidence in his own abilities to choose the right path, whether by stepping into North Korean territory or disregarding the Iranian downing of a U.S. unmanned drone over the Strait of Hormuz.
All those officials have departed, replaced by those far less willing to challenge the president.
Coats developed a reputation for sober presentations to the president of intelligence conclusions that often conflicted with Trump's policy aims, whether for rapprochement with North Korea, warning of Russian election interference, tearing up the Iran nuclear accord or declaring the fight against the Islamic State group to be over.
The president's chosen replacement for Coats, Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas, is a frequent Trump defender who fiercely questioned former special counsel Robert Mueller during a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week. He lacks extensive intelligence or foreign policy experience.