The Trump administration has deep internal conflicts. That was true when President Trump was sworn into office, and it’s true now. But the nature of those conflicts has changed: The mostly ideological fights of 2017 seem to have somewhat subsided, while issues around Russia are creating new (and maybe even bigger) fissures.
You can see much of this play out in Bob Woodward’s new book “Fear: Trump in the White House.” The book is largely about the conflicts of 2017, and parallels reporting from outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post in detailing how factions pursuing different policy goals within the administration competed to get Trump to take their side. Since Woodward’s book is essentially the most comprehensive version to date of this genre of D.C. reporting, its release seems like a good moment to update our taxonomy of the various “wings” of the White House.
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“Fear” depicts several policy fault lines in the administration, including major conflicts on defense issues and trade. It describes then-top White House economics adviser Gary Cohn and then-staff secretary Rob Porter trying to talk the president out of overhauling international trade agreements or withdrawing completely from them. Woodward also writes that Secretary of Defense James Mattis and other national security officials pushed Trump to maintain GOP establishment positions on defense policy, like keeping some U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
But the fight over pure policy issues, I would argue, is basically over. Trump has essentially settled on a traditionally Republican pro-tax-cut, anti-regulation economic vision1; stances on cultural issues that appeal to his base, particularly white evangelicals2; and a fairly hawkish foreign policy.3 The president opted to move forward on his agenda of rethinking international trade agreements, so Cohn quit. Trump has decided he doesn’t want to embrace traditional American allies like Germany, leading to tension with top aides like National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, both of whom Trump eventually dismissed.
So I don’t think there are as many distinct wings of the administration battling for power as there were at the beginning. The president has figured out what he wants to do and has replaced internal dissenters with people who either agree with him or at least go along with him and don’t regularly leak their concerns to journalists.
In my view, there are two important remaining fissures, and both revolve around Russia and the Russia investigation.
Trump vs. law enforcement officials
Special counsel Robert Mueller, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, FBI Director Christopher Wray, various federal prosecutors
You know the story here: Trump wants the various investigations into whether and how his 2016 campaign was involved with Russia to end, and he wants the Justice Department to start up investigations of Hillary Clinton and the FBI officials who launched the Russia probe. Rosenstein and Wray have repeatedly defended the integrity of the Russia investigation; Sessions has not withdrawn his recusal from the Russia probe, nor launched a formal probe into Clinton. Not only has Mueller indicted a number of Trump’s allies, but U.S. attorneys’ offices in California and New York have brought charges against two reliable Trump supporters on Capitol Hill, Reps. Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter Jr., irritating the president. Facing indictment by New York-based federal prosecutors, onetime Trump attorney Michael Cohen publicly declared that the president had encouraged him to make payoffs to women that prosecutors said amounted to violations of federal campaign finance law.
Woodward’s book captures the tension between Trump and figures like Cohn very well, and some of the president’s annoyance with Sessions is described in “Fear.” But the book contains little on Rosenstein and Wray, now hugely important figures in the Trump administration. (Woodward’s books tend to tell the narratives of his sources, and it appears that Cohn and Porter in particular were willing participants. Rosenstein and Wray may not have talked to the reporter.) I suspect, when we look back on this presidency, the tension between Trump and senior law enforcement officials like Rosenstein and Wray will prove more important than his squabbles with Cohn.
It does not seem like other senior officials in the administration want to join the president in his war with the Justice Department and FBI. That’s one reason that the president’s ties to the House Freedom Caucus and Fox News are so important — those two entities are willing to take Trump’s side in the Russia investigation.
Trump vs. the national security establishment
Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman
Whatever you think of the senior administration official who wrote the much-discussed anonymous op-ed piece in The New York Times claiming that the author was part a group of officials “working diligently from within to frustrate” some of Trump’s goals, I think the writer got one thing right: Trump’s staff is implementing a more anti-Russia policy than the one the president himself seems to favor. Trump’s own advisers, like National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, have kept fighting him on Russia policy — and appear to be winning the internal debate. Trump is the president, but not only do virtually none of his top aides agree with his desire to build closer ties with Vladimir Putin, but Republicans on Capitol Hill object too.
“In public and in private, President Trump shows a preference for autocrats and dictators, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and displays little genuine appreciation for the ties that bind us to allied, like-minded nations,” the anonymous official wrote in the New York Times op-ed.
“Astute observers have noted, though, that the rest of the administration is operating on another track, one where countries like Russia are called out for meddling and punished accordingly, and where allies around the world are engaged as peers rather than ridiculed as rivals,” the official continued.
There are still, I believe, distinct blocs operating in the administration: Trump policy adviser Stephen Miller, an architect of the white identity politics of Trump’s 2016 campaign, I assume is more opposed to a policy allowing certain undocumented immigrants to become citizens than is, say, Ivanka Trump. But I think Trump would be opposed to programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals even if Miller quit working at the White House. The president is in command, except on things involving Russia, where much of the government seems to be unified against him. And I think that’s the defining tension of the Trump presidency in 2018.