When historians review Donald Trump’s presidency, they may look back at two events this past week as pivotal: unprecedented Republican and institutional resistance to the president from Capitol Hill to the Pentagon, followed by his installation of a tough new chief of staff.
At this point, it’s hard to say which of these will prevail. Increasingly wary Senate Republicans make clear they won’t readily follow Trump’s lead. And new staff chief John Kelly faces a tough job in bringing order to White House chaos, because the central problem in Trump’s unpopular, ineffectual presidency is Trump.
It took several days in which his administration seemed to be imploding for the president to trigger the long-rumored shake-up. Normally, any of these would be seen as signifying major trouble:
Trump’s open and covert warfare against his own attorney general, the first senator to back his long-shot candidacy, produced a sharp reaction from Jeff Sessions’ former colleagues. They told the president in no uncertain terms they would not consider a successor if he was fired.
A directive to reverse former President Barack Obama’s acceptance of transgender people in the military, issued with minimal discussion and consultation in Trump’s unconventional manner with a series of tweets, drew bipartisan condemnation. The nation’s top military officer refused to implement it, pending receipt of a more formal order.
Trump’s new communications director, another political neophyte who boasted he “loves” the president, set off an unprecedented spectacle by trashing Chief of Staff Reince Priebus in vulgar and scatological language to a reporter who promptly his conversation with Anthony Scaramucci public.
And Trump began the week with another one of his embarrassingly un-presidential performances, turning a speech to the Boy Scout Jamboree that should have been focused on broadly acceptable subjects like American values into yet another political paean to himself.
The climax of the disastrous week came when a stripped-down version of the long-promised bill to repeal and replace Obamacare collapsed in a dramatic early morning Senate vote on which three GOP senators provided the crucial votes for the year’s biggest Republican legislative disaster.
Though that defeat was no orphan but had many parents, Trump reacted with a barrage of tweets threatening further efforts to undermine Obamacare. He then fired Priebus, the former Republican national chairman who had seemed over-his-head in trying to manage Trump and his White House.
His successor, a Marine general widely respected among his peers, has succeeded as secretary of homeland security in cracking down on illegal immigration, making it one of the administration’s more effective parts. Such staff changes are not uncommon in new administrations; Bill Clinton replaced his initial, overmatched chief of staff with a more experienced Washington hand.
But Clinton’s choice, Leon Panetta, was a former congressman with two decades of political and governmental experience. By contrast, Kelly is a career military officer without political experience, who only met Trump months ago. He takes over a White House in which several top aides, plus members of Trump’s family, are not used to taking orders from a chief of staff. But Kelly immediately showed his clout by firing Scaramucci.
In one sense, last week was the inevitable result of a president with neither governmental experience nor much interest in learning the ropes. But it also reflected the impact of Trump’s preoccupation with the simmering investigations into whether his campaign improperly colluded with the Russians during the 2016 election campaign.
His clash with Sessions stems directly from his view the attorney general acted improperly in recusing himself from the Russia probe because of his role in the Trump campaign. That and Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, also because of the Russia probe, led to appointment of Independent Counsel Robert Mueller.
And all indications are that Mueller has taken a broad view of his responsibilities that includes looking at Trump’s business ties to the Russians, a subject the president has sought to keep off limits.
Many GOP senators who reacted so strongly against Trump’s threats to fire Sessions were motivated by their belief his real target was Mueller. If he tries to fire the independent counsel, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned, “it could be the beginning of the end” of Trump’s presidency.
That may be an exaggeration at this stage, given the fact that Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, which would launch any impeachment proceedings, made clear last week they are more interested in investigating 2016 loser Hillary Clinton than Trump.
Still, if Gen. Kelly can’t cope with the loose cannon in the Oval Office, last week’s institutional resistance to the neophyte president will be only the beginning of his problems.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.