The week’s biggest lie: There is a new Trump

There since the beginning.
There since the beginning.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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In recent days, US president Donald Trump has reversed long-held opinions on everything from engagement in the Syrian war to the importance of NATO, to whether China has been manipulating its currency.

By doing so, he has raised expectations in Washington D.C. and beyond that he’s shed his isolationist outlook, and could be moving to a more “presidential Trump” or even “globalist Trump.” Many believe the sobering influence of his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner (aka Javanka) is driving a permanent shift.

But conversations with sources inside and outside the White House suggest that neither of those narratives are true. The Trump White House is constantly in flux by design, and will continue that way for as long as Trump is in office. The only thing we can be certain of is more change. Here’s why:

That damn learning curve

Being president of the world’s largest economy was never an easy fit for a real-estate developer and reality TV star with no political experience. Right now, Trump is finding that everything from health care to relations with China are more complicated than campaigning on a tide of anger against immigrants and Wall Street.

“I think what’s happening is he’s realizing the tactics that were successful during the campaign—’If you hit me I hit you back harder’—are not necessarily going to have the same impact from the White House,” said a White House official who spoke to Quartz anonymously in order to talk freely about the president’s tactics. “He’s probably tired of the fight for a little bit.”

“It’s not flipping, it is more about understanding what you say and do here has a very large ripple effect.”

The view from outside the White House is, not surprisingly, a lot more critical. “They have no f—ing idea what they are doing,” said Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest magazine and a former speechwriter for US secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

After the Syria strike, White House advisers offered contradictory explanations of the US’s future policy to Syria, from saying the strike was only about chemical weapons, to saying the US would defend the world’s “innocents,” Garfinkle pointed out. “It is absolutely scattershot,” he said, and makes it seem like “no one is in charge.”

“This is not a professional operation, because the president is not a professional of that kind,” he said. Unless the president changes who he is, these sort of contradictions are going to “go on and on and on.”

Byzantine court or reality show?

The White House is organized by Trump as a medieval court, rather than an orthodox, hierarchical organization, and who is “up” and who is “down” changes almost hourly, says Stephen Biddle, a defense policy expert at the Council for Foreign Relations. “That is the way he ran his company, that is the way he ran his campaign.”

You could also compare it to a reality show, both Garfinkle and Biddle said. “It is designed to set up infighting so whoever is in charge can throw someone off of the island,” to keep everyone else in line, Biddle said.

Political historians may be tempted to make comparisons to the early Bill Clinton administration, when after a few months of turmoil Clinton tossed out his Arkansas cronies for more experienced Washington advisers, said Biddle, and things stabilized. But that would be a mistake. Trump “has a substantial track record in running things and organizing offices and behaving towards other people, this is not a 40-year-old man,” Biddle said.

The White House doesn’t necessarily dispute that. “He is not someone who lives and dies by the principles of one ideology,” the White House official said. Trump has surrounded himself with advisors with different opinions, and listens to all of them. “His ideology is common sense.” It can be “confusing at times for people who want to look at a playbook, but there really isn’t one.”

“Look at The Art of the Deal. He likes to be flexible and unpredictable,” the official said.

The emperor’s clothes

Key to this court’s functioning appears to be letting Trump explain his position changes as personal wins, whatever the actual circumstances.

Trump changed his position on China’s currency because they stopped manipulating it, the White House adviser said, perhaps “out of respect” for Trump. When Quartz noted that most economists believe China hasn’t been artificially depressing its currency for about a decade, the advisor said she wasn’t an expert on currencies.

Trump changed his position on NATO because the organization has been “moving exactly in the direction” he wanted since he spoke about the group last September, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said April 13, by “increasing the amount of participation from other member countries, and, two, as having a greater focus on terrorism.” In fact, NATO has not substantially changed its position on terrorism at all, foreign policy experts say, and a new position inside the organization that Trump may be referring to was created in July of 2016.

If Trump can explain his changes as a “win,” then there’s no reason for him to stop changing his mind.

McMaster, not Javanka

Changes in the National Security Council, and particularly Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s leadership as the national security advisor, have been invaluable in shaping Trump’s thoughts recently, the White House official said. Together, McMaster, defense secretary Jim Mattis, commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, and secretary of state Rex Tillerson are having a greater influence than Javanka. “All these people have gotten their bearings in Washington, and everyone is clicking,” the White House official says.

While Jared and Ivanka are adding their perspective, “it would be foolish” to say they were responsible for Trump’s recent shift, the official said. After all, “they’ve been around since the campaign started.”

McMaster joined the administration in mid-February at time of chaos, replacing the ousted Michael Flynn. A “history scholar trapped in the body of a gregarious, outspoken three-star general,” as Quartz wrote earlier, he helped jettison presidential senior adviser Stephen Bannon from the council and added ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, and others. Now he’s going through the rest of the ranks, too. “He is trying to shed a lot of the people who Flynn brought in and replace them with people who are not crazy,” said Garfinkle.

McMaster is “plainly leaving his mark,” said a former adviser to the George W. Bush administration, but at the same time one of his new deputies, Dina Powell, is closely linked to Javanka. By moving Trump to more centrist policies, “I think they may have found common purpose,” he said. “I don’t know why Ivanka and company would even know enough to have a coherent foreign policy,” the adviser added.

The Bannon time-bomb

Will Bannon remain a Trump adviser, long term? “It is hard to say,” the White House official said. “The conflict has died down, hopefully,” but it is still not clear whether “changes” need to be made.

Given his close links to some of the major fund-raisers who helped Trump win the presidency, Bannon is a tough adviser to oust, but keeping him inside the White House creates the possibility of future conflict. “You have an axis turning towards McMaster and Mattis, but you still have the bomb throwers in the White House,” said Garfinkle.

The set-up is part of the “reality TV” aspect of Trump’s presidency, he added, which stresses artificial drama and conflict, and undercuts the idea of any long-term strategy.

The overall message for McMaster is “Be careful, be disciplined, keep your cards close to your chest—and keep your luggage packed,” Biddle said.

A 14-year-old boy

Trump’s historically-low approval ratings got a slight boost after the Syria strike, and rare kudos from both Democrats and Republicans. There’s concern he might continue military action in order to keep getting the applause. On April 13, the US dropped a 30-foot bomb, the most powerful non-nuclear weapon is its arsenal, on Afghanistan.

After sending US military hardware though the air, Trump is like a “14-year-old boy who suddenly decides what his dick is for, and he can’t stop playing with it,” Garfinkle said. The problem with getting entangled in serious military conflicts: The US voting public likes the first act, Garfinkle said, but not “acts two, three, four, five, six seven, and eight.”

When Trump realizes this, he’s likely to change strategies again.

There’s always Twitter

The White House official specifically cautioned against expecting Trump would be “presidential” from here on in, warning, “He’ll be tweeting over the weekend.”