For the first year of the Trump administration, the story was one of containment and constraint. President Donald Trump was constrained ideologically by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, pursuing a conventional Republican agenda on health care and taxes and letting his populist promises hang fire. But more important he was constrained institutionally, in roughly the ways that Republican politicians had promised that he would be – surrounded by a conventional Republican Cabinet and (after a while) a conventional White House that essentially governed for him, letting him play the authoritarian on Twitter while the business of the presidency was conducted elsewhere.
The problem with this arrangement is that unlike other out-of-the-loop presidents – Richard Nixon at his nadir, Woodrow Wilson after his stroke, Ronald Reagan with a bullet in him – Trump was not actually incapacitated or about to be impeached. He was just, well, Donald Trump: a septuagenarian cable-TV addict ill-suited for the responsibilities of his office but still fully capable of attempting to exercise its powers. Which meant that the containment game had to last, not weeks or months, but three more long years to work.
And it may not last that long. From his exciting new steel tariffs to his promised summit meeting with Kim Jong Un, Trump has been acting lately like a man less inclined to listen to his handlers – and now those handlers have begun to disappear. The firing of Rex Tillerson, on the heels of Gary Cohn’s departure about a week ago, evokes the wildly chaotic atmosphere that characterized Trump’s first few months in office. But as my colleague Maggie Haberman tweeted, this time it seems less like something happening to Trump and more like chaos orchestrated from the Oval Office: “The narrative of Trump unglued is not totally wrong but misses the reason why – he was terrified of the job the first six months, and now feels like he has a command of it. So now he is basically saying, ‘I’ve got this, I can make the changes I want.’”
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In other words, Trump knows that he’s been constrained and tamed – for all I know he might have read my columns, or at least the headlines, saying so – and doesn’t want to play the incapacitated Twitter president anymore. He wants to actually use the office, and not just occupy it – and since he is the president, nobody can stop him from trying.
What would Trump becoming a real president mean in practice? In terms of personnel, it might mean that instead of easing out the hacks and cranks and TV personalities, as his staff managed to do during the year of constraint, Trump will begin to usher out his more qualified personnel and replace them with, well, TV personalities – Cohn with Larry Kudlow, or H.R. McMaster with John Bolton, perhaps. But it also promises to further multiply the number of important vacancies within the government, since more true-to-Trump personnel choices would inevitably have some trouble with the confirmation process, which in turn – as Haberman notes – will encourage Trump to take more counsel from the shadow Trumpland of his campaign, where his more misfit-toy advisers tend to congregate.
In domestic policy, an unbound Trump would give us a little more populism and protectionism but mostly a continued legislative stalemate, since an empowered Trump isn’t likely to be any better than a constrained Trump in getting legislation through the Congress. In foreign policy, it’s probably good news for Saudi influence and bad news for the Iran nuclear deal, which Tillerson defended and Mike Pompeo, tapped to be his successor, hates.
But analyzing an unbound Trump in these kind of normal policy terms is of limited value, since the main Trumpian qualities that have been constrained to date are his impulsiveness and anger and impatience with rules and norms and limits. So if he actually begins to exercise the full powers of his office, it’s not so much that the odds of any particular policy course go up as that it becomes more likely that we get more extreme and destabilizing outcomes, somewhere.
That could mean war with North Korea, or it could mean some sort of unexpected and possibly disastrous treaty with Kim’s regime; both become more likely the more Trump alone takes responsibility for our peninsular diplomacy.
It could mean the real détente with Russia that Trump’s harshest critics think he’s obliged by some corrupt bargain to seek out … or it could mean the kind of military conflict with Moscow that we sometimes seem to be stumbling toward in Ukraine and Syria.
It could certainly mean a sudden Saturday night massacre in response to adverse news from the Mueller investigation. (Every day that Tillerson and Cohn are gone and Jeff Sessions is still there will be fascinating given Trump’s obvious feelings about his attorney general.)
Or it could mean none of these things, if the Trump-unbound period lasts only until a different coterie of advisers find new ways to contain and soothe their boss. Maybe Pompeo (who has the president’s ear and is unlikely to be more hated at the State Department than his predecessor) and some combination of TV personalities can do better at managing the president in the long run than the Cohns and Tillersons and McMasters, because Trump will feel that he picked them all by himself. Maybe this president will spend his administration going through periodic frenzies of “I’m in charge” activity, before subsiding back into the virtual presidency of his Twitter feed and Fox injections.
Still, the important point is that if the first year of Trump’s presidency vindicated Republicans who argued that he could be contained, it didn’t tell us anything definitive about whether he will be. As a Trump critic doubtful of the most panicked narratives about this presidency, my watchword thus far has been: It could be worse. But if it eventually does get worse, a week like this one, with a president chafing against his bonds and snapping some of them, is how a descent from farce to tragedy might begin.