“No” is one of the shortest words in the English language. It is also one of the most powerful and effective.
Donald Trump does not like to hear that word, not directed at him. He doesn’t like it from the media, he doesn’t like it from other countries, he doesn’t like to hear it from Congress. He particularly doesn’t like to hear it from those who in his mind owe him loyalty, deference and obedience.
So as we are witnessing, anyone within his inner circle who has the standing, courage or integrity to dare to tell Trump “no,” anyone who attempts to restrain his worst instincts, is being removed and replaced by someone who will tell him “yes.” This is a president eager to throw off the shackles after 14 months of feeling constrained and controlled, who is now ready to give those base-pleasing instincts full play.
So if you thought things in Washington have been weird, no. Weird starts now.
Trump’s top economic advisor, Gary Cohn, argued strenuously for months against tariffs that would start a potentially disastrous global trade war. Cohn is now gone, the tariffs are being implemented and there’s nobody in the White House capable of disagreeing when Trump claims that conservative and liberal economic experts are all wrong, that trade wars are good and that we will win.
Next in Trump’s sights? The likely dissolution of NAFTA. His imposition of steel and aluminum tariffs over the clear protests of Republicans in Congress has served to test their willingness to confront him and try to stop him, and they have failed that test. He now feels he has a free hand to do as he wishes on trade.
On Tuesday, we saw another restraint disappear. Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has argued that there is no military solution to the North Korea problem, that the United States cannot unilaterally dismantle the Iranian nuclear deal and that Russia has become a threat that must be confronted rather than placated. Such positions frustrated Trump, so Tillerson is now gone as well, replaced at the State Department by with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who has echoed Trump’s more belligerent line.
Abandoning the Iran deal — and deeply angering our allies who helped us through the painful process of negotiating and enforcing it — now becomes much more likely, as does a military confrontation with North Korea. The chaos and consequences of either step are potentially enormous.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has also served as a restraining, moderating force on Trump, imposing a sense of process, professionalism and discipline into his operation. Process, professionalism and discipline are not attributes valued by Trump, and like Tillerson, McMaster’s departure has long been rumored.
Nowhere has that sense of presidential frustration been more apparent than in Trump’s dealings with the Department of Justice. He has demanded DOJ investigations of his political enemies and the end of investigations into his own actions, and time and again those demands have not been satisfied. Until now, fear of congressional backlash has kept Trump from acting on that frustration, but that concern may now ease. Given how his mind works, Trump cannot help but look at the decision by House Republicans to end their Russia investigation with a whitewash of the evidence and see it as a statement that their loyalty is secure and he has nothing to fear.
So I also wouldn’t bet much on the longevity of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and after them maybe Robert Mueller.