COLUMN-Commentary: Tillerson fall shows Trump learning game of politics

(Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist. The opinions expressed here are his own.)

March 13 (Reuters) - Donald Trump is learning to work the presidency.

The current U.S. president is like few – if any – other leaders in American history. He reportedly shows little interest in reading briefing documents, spends much of his time on the golf course or watching cable television – all the while disagreeing with the Washington establishment on just about everything. After 14 months in the Oval Office, however, it’s hard to dispute that he is becoming more successful at marrying his idiosyncratic style with the levers of power to get his own way.

Tuesday’s ousting of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggests Trump’s confidence is still growing – as is his ability to use the power of his office. The two have clearly been at odds for some time, with Tillerson failing to deny reports last year that he had called Trump a “moron.” Trump’s announcement of his plan to replace of Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo comes days after Trump’ decision to tell a South Korean envoy that he was willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Tillerson later said the decision was “not a surprise” although its suddenness prompted speculation he wasn’t consulted in advance.)

Whether Trump is acting wisely is a matter of division and debate. On North Korea, many foreign policy experts say he is making a mistake by starting with a summit. With tariffs, Trump essentially signaled a trade war with a tweet, again with little of the policy or diplomatic consultations that would normally precede such a step.

On gun control, the administration has ensured that Trump’s personal – if controversial – thoughts on arming teachers are a focus of the discussion, and perhaps new legislation. His tax cuts are at the center of U.S. economic policy. Immigration policy remains largely deadlocked, but Trump is unquestionably setting the tone and agenda.

It’s unclear how much success Trump will have pushing his views into law. All are intensely polarizing. But then, that may be partly the point. Even if he fails to get his way, most of these views can be expected to energize his political base ahead of the November midterm elections – a significant bellwether for his prospects of re-election in 2020.

His surprise policy pronouncements also provide temporary distraction from prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probe into allegations that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, an investigation where the president holds no control – to his clear frustration and fury.

That the 45th POTUS is settling into the role should hardly be a surprise – all leaders in all nations go through a similar process, and Trump has never lacked for self-confidence. Still, the administration has become better at managing the initially chaotic and sometimes vicious battles within it.

As late as last year, Trump’s Twitter feed and public pronouncements were a hodgepodge, some barely followed up, which often played badly in the media; his May 2017 appearance at a NATO summit in Europe was a particularly unsuccessful example. More recently, however, he has used Twitter more strategically, often to issue surprise announcements or to shape the political battlefield on issues such as trade and taxes.

The administration has also become more disciplined at following such utterances through. That includes forcing others to embrace his “deal-making” persona, as South Korea did unashamedly in presenting him with Kim’s offer of a summit. Friend and foe alike know they must flatter him to progress, even if political constraints and personal taste mean they do not always do so.

When he ran his business, Trump was said to operate through a very narrow group, often keeping them in a state of intense and insecure rivalry. The main outlet for his need for public attention was his “Apprentice” reality show, with its slogan “You’re Fired” designed around that concept. The model did not serve the presidency well, as its first months last year demonstrated.

The president is clearly frustrated that he cannot simply dictate whom he has around him. The departure of White House communications director Hope Hicks may be a particular blow. Alongside daughter Ivanka, she was one of only a handful to follow him across from his business empire. The appointment of former U.S. Marine general John Kelly as White House Chief of Staff last year clearly ushered in a more ordered era, although tensions continue amid talk that Kelly and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster may also leave.

By some measures, turnover within the Trump administration – particularly of White House political appointments – has been the highest of any recent presidency. That has often been a reflection of either personal disagreements or embarrassing revelations, such as former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn’s admission that he had lied to the FBI about contacts with the Russian government after Trump’s election.

Still, others survived sometimes spectacular spats – replacement Attorney General Jeff Sessions is one example – and for the most part they appear to have exercised autonomy in the running of their departments. Tillerson was able to strip back the State Department and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has bolstered the Pentagon by winning support for extra spending.

Mattis in particular has been allowed to show notable independence – perhaps a sign of the president’s famed respect for military authority. In declaring Mattis its “person of the year,” the Financial Times wrote that one of the few reasons the world could sleep at night was that Trump would have to go through the former Marine if he wished to launch a unilateral strike on North Korea.

That may or may not be an accurate judgment. More broadly, though, this year gives the lie to any suggestion that the president is restrained by those about him. The North Korea meeting is the latest in which Trump has used the limited but real capabilities of his office to dictate policy, regardless of protocol and what others might think.

He is finding his feet – and no doubt wondering where next to take them. (Reporting by Peter Apps)

03/13/2018 22:02

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