As President Donald Trump’s first 100 days draws to a close, here’s the good news: Fears of a rising Trump autocracy under the president who boasted “I alone can fix it,” now look way overblown. Team Trump looks way too incompetent to pull that off.
Instead, the president’s inner circle appears to be undergoing a shakeup. Hard-right political adviser Steve Bannon has been losing ground as presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, Bannon’s traditionalist rival in a widely leaked power struggle, moves up.
Lesson: It is seldom a good idea to wage war with the boss’s son-in-law.
In recent days a new Donald Trump has emerged, a Trump 2.0 whose policy positions mark a sharp U-turn from those of candidate Trump.
Remember the Trump who said NATO was obsolete? He appreciates it now as a “great alliance” without admitting that his earlier criticisms on the campaign trail were woefully inaccurate. He claimed, for example, that NATO “doesn’t cover terrorism” when, in fact, it does.
Remember his loud-and-often-repeated campaign promise to declare China to be a currency manipulator “on day one” of his presidency? In a Wednesday Wall Street Journal interview, he declared that it was not. It turns out that China ended such practices a few years ago.
Similarly, candidate Trump promised to scrap the Export-Import Bank. President Trump likes it now.
The opposite has happened to his oddly lavish praise of Vladimir Putin and Russia. These days he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sound like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (gasp) as they admit to a collapse in trust between the two nations.
And who could forget how Trump beseeched President Barack Obama in 2013 to avoid bombing Syria after President Bashir Assad killed hundreds of civilians with chemical weapons. After seeing photos of the grisly realities of such bombings on children, a shocked President Trump recently stepped up and sent a message via 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield.
Although the attack’s practical impact on Syrian President Assad’s brutality appears to have been negligible, Trump no longer shies away from the notion of America as the world’s police officer.
Instead, he reminds me of Emily Litella, the late Gilda Radner’s grumpy commentator character on “Saturday Night Live,” who would rant indignantly about some issue she had simply misheard (“What’s all this fuss about saving Soviet jewelry…?”) only to calm down after she was corrected and say with a chipper smile, “Never mind.”
Trump’s core supporters might feel betrayed by such reversals but I doubt it. For one thing, he prudently has limited his course corrections to foreign policy, which doesn’t move the approval needle with his base nearly as much as such hot-button domestic issues as employment, immigration, health care, tax reform and border security.
Besides as we media types learned on Election Day, we may be obsessed with what Trump says but his supporters care more about how he makes them feel. His relentlessly upbeat and hyperbole-filled salesmanship keeps his approval ratings, already at a record low for a new presidency, from sinking even further.
Yet his White House has been a jumble of dysfunction, hampered by the former reality TV star’s lack of focus or effectiveness in his vision and leadership. His staff is divided by palace intrigues, power struggles and robust streams of leaks. Some of his staff is merely inexperienced with how government works. Others, like the hard-right former Breitbart News boss Bannon, are downright hostile to it.
Bannon has been outspoken about “dismantling the administrative state,” an exotic-sounding label for what most of us know as simply the bureaucracy. But insiders say his failure to surround himself with allies, unlike Kushner and other power rivals, has left him exposed and vulnerable.
Bannon receives blame for the haphazard immigration executive orders that quickly and mercifully were blocked by the courts. His naive attempts to strong-arm conservative House Republicans into voting for the Grand Old Party’s plan to repeal and replace Obamacare only backfired. Having won their conservative districts by bigger margins than Trump did, Republican leaders were not about to be bullied by the new White House team in town.
That’s a relief. Every new president wishes he or, someday, she had absolute power to legislate what they want. But sometimes the same institutions that frustrate us with their sluggishness can stop unchecked power — and incompetence — from running off the rails.