Trump in Honey Badger Mode Already?

The President tried bringing something akin to a traditional policy process to the White House. Now he's rebelling against it.

Vanity Fair‘s Gabriel Sherman describes a White House transition in a piece with the provocative headline, “‘TRUMP IS GOING FOR A CLEAN RESET’: FUMING IN THE WEST WING, TRUMP PREPARES TO DEFENESTRATE CUCK ALLIES AND GO FULL MAGA.

Even before he decided to launch a trade war and roll the nuclear dice by agreeing in the course of a West Wing afternoon to a risky sit-down with Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump was telling friends he was tired of being reined in. “I’m doing great, but I’m getting all these bad headlines,” Trump told a friend recently. A Republican in frequent contact with the White House told me Trump is “frustrated by all these people telling him what to do.”

With the departures of Hope Hicks and Gary Cohn, the Trump presidency is entering a new phase—one in which Trump is feeling liberated to act on his impulses. “Trump is in command. He’s been in the job more than a year now. He knows how the levers of power work. He doesn’t give a fuck,” the Republican said. Trump’s decision to circumvent the policy process and impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum reflects his emboldened desire to follow his impulses and defy his advisers. “It was like a fuck-you to Kelly,” a Trump friend said. “Trump is red-hot about Kelly trying to control him.”

According to five Republicans close to the White House, Trump has diagnosed the problem as having the wrong team around him and is looking to replace his senior staff in the coming weeks. “Trump is going for a clean reset, but he needs to do it in a way that’s systemic so it doesn’t look like it’s chaos,” one Republican said.

Sources said that the first officials to go will be Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, both of whom Trump has clashed with for months. On Tuesday, Trump met with John Bolton in the Oval Office. When he plans to visit Mar-a-Lago next weekend, Trump is expected to interview more candidates for both positions, according to two sources. “He’s going for a clean slate,” one source said. Cohn had been lobbying to replace Kelly as chief, two sources said, and quit when he didn’t get the job. “Trump laughed at Gary when he brought it up,” one outside adviser to the White House said. (The White House declined to comment.)

Next on the departure list are Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. Trump remains fiercely loyal to his family, but various distractions have eroded their efficacy within the administration. Both have been sidelined without top-secret security clearances by Kelly, and sources expect them to be leaving at some point in the near future. One scenario being discussed is that Kushner would return to New York to oversee Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign with his ally Brad Parscale, who was hand-selected by the Trump family. One Trump friend referred to it as a “soft landing.” Ivanka will likely stay on longer, perhaps through the summer, before decamping home to New York to enroll the children in a Manhattan private school. Both are presumed to remain in close contact with Trump, who often places significant value on the opinions expressed outside his administration, anyway.

Sources cautioned that the couple plans to hang on as long as possible, so as not to make it appear that Kelly railroaded them out of the West Wing. They continue to be furious at the chief. “Why do you have to embarrass Jared like that?” Ivanka complained to a friend recently. Kushner is doing everything he can to appear engaged despite his lack of a security clearance. “He is looking at everything he can do that doesn’t require a clearance,” a former White House official said. Another source added, “The White House is trying to fluff him up again.”

People who have spoken with Trump said his reset is being driven in part by the looming midterms, and he’s been fielding advice from Corey Lewandowski and Dave Bossie. They’ve counseled him to return to his 2016 campaign message. Another source said Trump has felt newfound validation after a CPAC straw poll last month showed him with a 93 percent approval rating. “He felt the crowd desiring more,” a Republican close to the White House said. “He knows there’s going to be a battle ahead.”

No president likes to be “managed” and Trump is likely less used to it than most, having never served in political office before and needing to be restrained. In the last few months of the Obama presidency, I frequently remarked that he’d gone into Honey Badger mode. Freed from worries about his re-election, he had, like the animal made famous by a viral 2011 video, seemingly quit caring what anyone thought and just did what he wanted by executive fiat.

Trump seems to be there already. And, frankly, having been elected President despite a series of gaffes and scandals that would have almost certainly ended the chances of any normal candidate, he likely sees no downside.

But there’s a reason Presidents have chiefs of staff and, indeed, staffs. No one person, no matter how talented and prepared, can manage the near-impossible job of running the executive functions of a global superpower on instinct. Remember the surprise announcement Thursday night that Trump had agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un to talk about nukes? By Friday afternoon, he’d already made a hash of it.

POLITICO (“Trump’s bold stroke on North Korea dissolves into confusion“):

The White House on Friday appeared to set tougher conditions for a meeting between President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, saying that the North must take “concrete steps” toward denuclearizing.

The White House also seemed to back away from the two-month timeframe laid out by South Korean officials on Thursday evening during a highly unusual press announcement in the White House driveway.

“Look, they’ve got to follow through on the promises they made,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during a briefing Friday—raising the possibility that a meeting may never happen – even though the White House had touted it as a major achievement less than 24 hours earlier.

The comments underscored the complexity of staging a dramatic meeting between Trump and the North Korean dictator — and raised doubts about whether it may be possible to arrange such a summit at all.

The North Korea announcement’s sudden roll-out, followed by confusion and then tons of caveats, also followed a pattern of policymaking in the Trump White House, in which pronouncements often come before detailed plans are concrete.

At issue Friday was the nature of what the North Koreans had promised. Sanders called “denuclearization” a precondition for any direct meeting between Trump and Kim. But experts called the prospect of North Korea dismantling its nuclear program before the start of talks totally unimaginable.

Well, obviously. Any normal White House would have stalled on announcing a summit until it had a plan in place. Not this one:

Trump flagged the news of the North Korea meeting to reporters himself, poking his head into the White House press room around 5 p.m. on Thursday to say an announcement would be coming.

A senior administration official said Trump made the decision on the offer during his meeting with the South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong, who arrived in Washington after visiting Pyongyang earlier this week.

“The president just wanted to see them earlier and said, ‘Just have them come in right now, today,'” said the senior administration official. “I don’t think anybody expected the president to say right now on the spot that he would take the meeting, but he did.”

I wouldn’t think that sort of impulsiveness would be a good way to run a hotel or casino. But it’s just disastrous when you’re the Leader of the Free World.

There had been hopes that bringing in Kelly, McMaster, and others was a sign that Trump had recognized that he needed something more akin to a traditional policy process. Clearly, though, Trump lacks the patience for it.

UPDATE:  More from WaPo (“In Trump’s decision on North Korea, the world glimpses a president who is his own diplomat, negotiator and strategist“):

Over the past six weeks, the Trump administration’s roster of Korea experts, already depleted, grew even thinner. The White House mysteriously dropped its choice for ambassador to Seoul. The State Department’s top North Korea specialist resigned. And the senior Asia director at the National Security Council was out the past two weeks on paternity leave.

But when a high-level South Korean delegation arrived at the White House on Thursday afternoon for two days of meetings over the North Korea threat, one person swooped in to fill the vacuum: President Trump.

In a stunning turn of events, Trump personally intervened in a security briefing intended for his top deputies, inviting the South Korean officials into the Oval Office, where he agreed on the spot to a historic but exceedingly risky summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. He then orchestrated a dramatic public announcement on the driveway outside the West Wing broadcast live on cable networks.

The news shocked Washington, Seoul and everywhere in between. But inside the White House, the president — whose exchange of taunts and threats with Kim has set Northeast Asia on edge over a potential military confrontation for months — was said to be reveling in his big reveal, which overshadowed the growing scandal surrounding his alleged affair with a pornographic film star and concerns with tariffs he announced earlier in the day.

Trump’s personal involvement in the White House’s deliberations over the world’s most serious and vexing security situation has placed a president who considers himself a master dealmaker into the most fraught faceoff of his 71 years. A breakthrough that would reduce Pyongyang’s nuclear threat would be a legacy-defining achievement. A stalemate that gives Kim a photo op for nothing in return could fracture U.S. alliances and be seen as a devastating embarrassment.

But what the whirlwind evening at the White House also illustrated was that in his un­or­tho­dox presidency, which centers so singularly on his force of personality, Trump has little worry about a dearth of qualified staff because he considers himself to be his own diplomat, negotiator and strategist.

“The president is the ultimate negotiator and dealmaker when it comes to any type of conversation,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “And we feel very confident in where we are.”

As Mika Brzezinski noted, “He can’t even make a deal with a porn star.”

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, North Korea, Presidency
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Trump has been in Honey Badger mode for decades, the fact that he’s acting this way as President shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.




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  2. Scott F. says:

    I wouldn’t think that sort of impulsiveness would be a good way to run a hotel or casino.

    Which would explain why Trump’s had 6 bankruptcies in the casino and hotel business.

    Geez, I wish I could fail upward like this guy has. I could have stopped giving a damn 30 years ago.




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  3. CSK says:

    @Scott F.:

    The original Spy magazine once did a piece on “failing upward.” As I recall, Trump wasn’t featured in it, but the article was a fascinating look at people who are lavishly rewarded for making incredible messes.




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  4. Kathy says:

    “Why do things that happen to stupid people keep happening to me?” Donald Trump.




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  5. Lit3Bolt says:

    I don’t think this path will lead to the good headlines he’s looking for.




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  6. CSK says:

    I’m a bit puzzled as to why, if Trump wants to rid himself of Kelly, because he doesn’t like being directed, he’s seemingly following Kelly’s direction in dumping Jared and Ivanka.




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  7. MBunge says:

    The problem with the “failing upward” analysis is that it almost exclusively applies to people within an existing corporate structure. For example, the show runner for The Walking Dead has spent the last few years destroying the highest rated show on TV. His reward was a promotion. Trump is the one pulling himself out of his own messes.

    And to the extent Trump has tried to be normal, what has it gotten him? 95% negative media coverage and the most aggressively adversarial press any of us has ever seen, at a time of economic growth and genuinely positive international developments. An unending stream of leaks from within his own White House which are 100% negative. An hysterical witch hunt where he’s been constantly accused of essentially being a traitor. A NYT columnist openly advocating for an undemocratic coup to a general response of “Eh, it wouldn’t work.” And while all that has been going on, his popularity among Republicans has actually solidified and his overall approval is approaching the same level where Barack Obama resided for a good chunk of his Presidency.

    It is a puzzlement. So many people who say they are so much smarter than Donald Trump, yet none of them seem capable of effectively managing or manipulating the dullard they so despise.

    Mike




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  8. Blue Galangal says:

    @CSK: I think because of the criticism (he’s thin skinned) and attention (he’s jealous) that Jared and Ivanka get. He’s using Kelly as an excuse to send them back to NY while pretending he has no control over it.

    The thing that amuses the hell out of me is that he thinks because he got a 93% approval rating in the CPAC straw poll that the rest of the country feels the same way and all he has to do is give some speeches campaign slogans and the adulation he craves will return.




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  9. CSK says:

    @Blue Galangal:

    If those CPAC polls had any meaning, Rand Paul would have been elected by a landslide in 2016.

    I’m not sure if Trump is jealous of the attention Ivanka and Jared have gotten. Most of it has been extremely unfavorable.




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  10. Blue Galangal says:

    @CSK: You might be right. My take is that any time he sees a headline that is not his, he gets jealous. He seems to embody the precept that “any attention is good attention.”




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  11. teve tory says:

    It makes sense that Trump came from NBC, and Obama is going to Netflix. The GOP is the party of broadcast TV, the Democrats are the party of streaming media.




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  12. becca says:

    I bet this is a Trump production number to take Stormy and Putin off the front burner. The NK specialist prolly wouldn’t go along with the charade, so he resigned.




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  13. grumpy realist says:

    @MBunge: You don’t think Trump is being manipulated by the people around him and other countries in the world?

    Ho ho ho. The man is an obvious walking gullible idiot. The only thing you need to do is soft-soap him one day and get on Fox the next saying if Trump does X it will just show what a magnificent genius he is and he’ll follow the cheese right into the trap.




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  14. Mister Bluster says:

    @Bungles:..So many people who say they are so much smarter than Donald Trump, yet none of them seem capable of effectively managing or manipulating the dullard they so despise.

    “So many…”
    Name ten people who say that “they are so much smarter than Donald Trump” and “despise” him and are currently in or have been in a position to “effectively” manage or manipulate our pussy grabber in chief.

    (Your characterization of Trump as a “dullard” is spot on.)




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  15. gVOR08 says:

    @Scott F.:

    Geez, I wish I could fail upward like this guy has.

    You would, of course, need to have taken over your father’s 400 million dollar business 40 plus years ago.




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  16. wr says:

    @MBunge: “For example, the show runner for The Walking Dead has spent the last few years destroying the highest rated show on TV”

    Of course, what you mean by “destroying” the show is “making episodes Bungles doesn’t like.” While it’s true that the last couple of seasons have finally shown a decline in ratings, that’s hardly unique or surprising for a drama in its eighth or ninth year — it’s almost impossible to design a TV drama with conflicts that can be exploited for close to a decade without beginning to feel stale. And in fact this same showrunner presided over the years in which TWD was the highest-rated show on the air.




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  17. JohnMcC says:

    It’s disappointing that no one can make an intelligent defense of Mr Trump’s recent overturning of the entire machinery of decision-making.

    Note: Intelligent.




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  18. teve tory says:

    @wr: That show was somewhat entertaining for a season or two. But I quit watching long before Negan arrived. It just became tedious torture porn.




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  19. michael reynolds says:

    Waaaay back when Trump first decided to run my diagnosis was that he was a stupid psychopath: in full possession of all the predatory and defensive instincts that make a good psychopath effective (for a while) but also, stupid. I’ll stick with that.

    He is brilliant at uncovering and attacking weakness. But you may notice that’s not working anymore. Trump has created his own ani-Trump antigen. This is why if you’re in the market for a psychopath you should always shop carefully and get a smart one.




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  20. Gustopher says:

    @JohnMcC:

    It’s disappointing that no one can make an intelligent defense of Mr Trump’s recent overturning of the entire machinery of decision-making.

    Note: Intelligent.

    Just for fun, I’ll give it a shot.

    America isn’t facing some challenges that have stymied the experts on both the left and the right for decades, because the solutions (if there are any) lie outside what have become the norms of acceptable behavior. We need a randomizing influence to spark new approaches.

    Isolating North Korea, for instance, has been a failure. Both Democrats and Republicans have been afraid to risk legitimizing the North Korean regime, and have had their hands tied by this, and have been unable to change it because they would be lambasted domestically as “weak on North Korea”.

    Donald Trump is not committed to any particular strategy for anything. He will try one thing, and if it fails, he will change direction and try something else without blinking.

    Now, not all randomizing influences are going to be good. The next president will have a lot of damage to repair, but the options on a lot of problems will be massively expanded.

    ——
    How was that?

    For some reason I am reminded of a coworker who came home to discover that her golden retriever had found the faucets and flooded her basement…




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  21. CSK says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Well, Trump has assured us that he has “the best brain,” and that he employs “the best words,” and that he knows more about ISIS than “the generals,” because he watches “the shows.”




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  22. Mister Bluster says:

    In Other News

    Just in case anyone had doubts about who Steve Bannon is:

    President Donald Trump’s estranged adviser Steve Bannon told a far-right gathering in France on Saturday that they should handle accusations of racism with pride.
    “Let them call you racists,” Bannon said to the French National Front Party. “Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.”




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  23. grumpy realist says:

    @Mister Bluster: Well, it does sort of negate the effectiveness of the complaint, no?

    Like feminists took on the epithet “bitch” and “slut”: “Hell, yes, and I’m proud of it!”

    (Stormy Daniels seems to have followed this jiujitsu here as well)




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  24. Lounsbury says:

    @Scott F.:
    Indeed.
    It has been evident for a bloody long time he is a complete rubbish manager. Showman he has some talent as. Management, not really.




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  25. Lounsbury says:

    @MBunge: Trump is the one pulling himself out of his own messes?

    That’s quite amusing for its sheer ignorant delusion.




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  26. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Mister Bluster: Call them cowards who can’t compete with…. lesser human beings. Let them own that.




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  27. teve tory says:

    From the california lawsuit:

    “Donald Trump a.k.a. David Dennison”.

    Yes, america, our president legally has an alias.

    Good job, tards.




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  28. Kathy says:

    @teve tory: Alias? I thought it was his porn star name.




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  29. teve tory says:

    Colbert or seth meyers the other day said, “in other news, Donald Trump is being sued by a pornstar… You know, presidential stuff.”




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  30. DrDaveT says:

    @MBunge:

    Trump is the one pulling himself out of his own messes.

    Do you have, like, even one example of Trump actually pulling himself out of one of his own messes? (Leaving others to foot the bill doesn’t count, FYI.)




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  31. JohnMcC says:

    @Gustopher: Oh my gosh, you took my quick snarky comment for a serious request. I’m sorry, bud. I was trying to comment on how our troll had been handed his head without ‘feeding the troll.’Obviously that’s one of those things one can’t do on an internet thread.

    For the record, yeah, you made the only possible pro-Trump interpretation of his hijacking the established decision-making process: That it has shown itself incapable of reaching effective decisions. Fair enough. Proving that might be difficult and lengthy and interesting. But let’s let it go for now.




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