Presidents evolve. And so do their administrations.
John F. Kennedy was noticeably more cautious and skeptical of military advisers after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. First-term failures and the Republican capture of Congress forced Bill Clinton to take a more bipartisan approach. Staff changes are common.
And in recent weeks, a confluence of events has started to change the preconceptions and mindset Donald Trump brought to the Oval Office, though every unprompted tweet is a reminder that, while his administration’s approach may be changing, the man remains the same.
The most noteworthy change, of course, was Trump’s decision to bomb the Syrian air field from which President Bashar Assad launched a brutal chemical attack on civilians and his administration’s subsequent tough talk toward Russia. Both represent an about-face from Trump’s pre-presidential warnings against such U.S. attacks and his own secretary of state’s stand-offish comments just days earlier.
But the presidency’s tendency to adapt to events has also been reflected in his talk about reaching out to Democrats after the House failed to pass a repeal of the Affordable Care Act and in reports he may be considering alleviating the administrative chaos he created with an unstructured White House staff.
In each case, it remains to be seen if Trump’s initial reactions produce the substantive revisions needed to get his floundering administration back on course. The president and his top advisers have given conflicting signs whether significant U.S. policy changes will follow the Syria attack, and Trump has made only modest changes so far in revamping his staff.
On Syria, Trump decided to launch a targeted air strike after seeing the heart-breaking televised pictures showing victims suffering from Assad’s chemical attack. Even some Trump critics praised his initial response as appropriate, and his action enabled him to display decisiveness in a situation where predecessor Barack Obama had waffled.
But Trump’s attitude toward the region has always contained contradictory elements. In 2013, he urged Obama not to attack, and he has criticized excessive U.S. involvement in the region’s bloodshed. Just days earlier, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reversed the Obama administration’s goal of overthrowing Assad. But U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said peace in Syria was impossible if Assad stayed, and Tillerson soon agreed.
Trump has advocated an expanded U.S. military effort to overthrow the Islamic State and has indicated he may authorize a more active role in Yemen’s civil war. But it remains unclear how far Trump will go militarily. Aides stressed his response in Syria was the most limited of those he considered.
The response in Syria represented the growing influence of his changing national security team, specifically the new national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, and the secretary of defense, James Mattis, and the reduced role of chief presidential strategist Steve Bannon, who was unceremoniously removed last week from the National Security Council.
Those changes, plus the weekend ouster of Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland and the earlier dismissal of Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser, suggested that more experienced and measured voices were assuming key national security advisory roles.
By contrast, the prospect for staff changes remains uncertain on the domestic side, where Trump has suffered from the inexperience of his team and the in-fighting among several competing power centers. The White House rejected a story in The Wall Street Journal suggesting staffing changes were afoot that could change the roles of Bannon and the chief of staff, former Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus.
But The New York Times, The Washington Post and Politico all cited the growing influence at their expense of Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs president who directs the National Economic Council, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s increasingly influential son-in-law.
Both reportedly favor a more inclusionary approach than the initial White House reliance on Republicans, which would fit with the widespread belief that Trump is inherently less ideological than he has been so far as president.
But despite occasional talk of reaching out to Democrats, the president has not done anything tangible to do so and has repeatedly insulted them. They feel they have him on the run politically.
Besides, there is no sign yet that Trump is ready to make the substantive policy accommodations needed to attract Democratic support. The key will be how he structures his tax reform and infrastructure proposals, since both will likely require significant bipartisan support to pass.
Trump came to the White House deficient in knowledge of both the substantive and procedural aspects of governing. As he learns the ropes, the president and his administration may look very different than they do today. And that is hardly unusual.
Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.