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Noah Bierman and Eli Stokols: Trump feels ‘amazingly alone,’ and the world sees it
September 08, 2018
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As President Donald Trump confronted a torrent of anonymous charges from within his administration over his authority and fitness to govern, he sought validation Thursday from an unlikely source, one of the world’s most sinister autocrats.

“Kim Jong Un of North Korea proclaims ‘unwavering faith in President Trump,’” the president tweeted early Thursday morning. “Thank you to Chairman Kim. We will get it done together!”

The tweet underscores one of the dangers that a weak American presidency could pose to the country, giving foreign adversaries leverage to exploit the sense that Trump is being undermined from within. The moment in Trump’s presidency carries echoes of the toughest days of Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, when many viewed their foreign policy decisions through the lens of domestic scandal.

The president publicly acknowledged he was at odds with top leaders in his government even before The New York Times on Wednesday published a rare, anonymous op-ed from a person identified only as a senior administration official. The official asserted that top advisers had considered invoking the Constitution’s 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office and had worked since the inauguration to thwart some of his instincts.

“Amazingly alone,” Trump described himself in an interview Tuesday with the Daily Caller, a conservative Washington-based news outlet, characterising his efforts to persuade the nation’s generals to follow his lead in aggressively confronting allies to spend more on their defense.

“A lot of generals don’t understand it. A lot of people don’t understand it,” Trump said. “Amazingly alone. But I’ve gotten many converts over the last period of a year. But I started off amazingly alone.”

Trump’s comment seemed to recognise a reality widely known among those in and around the White House but rarely acknowledged publicly: Much of his own staff has long been conflicted about their administration positions, hoping to serve and also restrain an irascible president out of a sense of service to the country mixed, perhaps, with personal ambition.

One well-connected Republican lobbyist with ties to the Trump White House said that Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis and John F. Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, have long viewed their jobs within the administration as “holding it together.”

“That wasn’t what they thought they’d be doing initially, but it’s how they’ve rationalised their decision to stay in those jobs,” the lobbyist said, speaking on condition of anonymity to reveal internal administration discussions. “The one common thread is the potential instability of the guy in the Oval (Office). That’s the problem, and it seems to be a constant.”

That mix of motivations, which has been an open secret in Washington for many months, gained wider public prominence this week as Trump responded angrily and forcefully to the op-ed as well as similar revelations in a forthcoming book by journalist Bob Woodward. The book includes accounts of senior staff ignoring presidential orders and of former top economic adviser Gary Cohn removing a letter from the president’s desk that would have withdrawn the US from a trade agreement with South Korea so Trump could not sign it.

Another Woodward revelation, that Mattis ignored Trump’s reported command to assassinate Syrian President Bashar Assad, left senior foreign policy hands particularly unnerved. “We just have to ride out the next two years,” said one senior Republican Senate staffer. “It’s going to be tense times. Democrats will turn Congress into an impeachment clearinghouse, and the president will retaliate and lash out.”

Growing suspicions among White House staff, along with fevered speculation by the media and the public over who wrote the Times op-ed, prompted a wave of administration denials, including an extraordinary public statement from Vice President Mike Pence’s communications director declaring that he did not pen “the false, illogical, and gutless op-ed.”

“Our office is above such amateur acts,” Jarrod Agen, the Pence communications director, tweeted. The vice president also posted a video of himself making an impromptu statement to reporters at a Florida airport at which he called on the author of the op-ed to resign.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted out the phone number for The New York Times switchboard, urging followers to call and request the “identity of the gutless coward.”

Foreign leaders had already viewed Trump’s leadership with confusion, and in some cases concern, according to foreign diplomats, policy analysts and officials from prior administrations, who have long noted the frequent disconnect between Trump’s rhetoric and the actions taken by his Cabinet and top advisers. The added assertions that he is being actively undermined have only intensified the administration’s reputation for tumult and obsession with palace intrigue, said Mara Karlin, who worked for five secretaries of defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, most recently as the Pentagon’s top strategist.

People “should not delude themselves into thinking that our frenemies and adversaries aren’t trying to take advantage of this chaos and dysfunctionality as much as possible,” Karlan said. “They’d be foolish not to.”

She noted that Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, Mattis and Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in New Delhi on Thursday for a major strategy summit with leaders of India, the world’s largest democracy and a crucial ally. Mattis spent the early part of the week denying reports in the Woodward book that he compared Trump’s grasp of the North Korean nuclear threat to a fifth- or sixth-grader’s.

Tribune News Service

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