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reflections

Apr 28, 2017 | 00:53 GMT

Parsing the Trump White House at 100 Days

The family comes first in setting the policy course, while the ideologues seem to be losing their voice.
(MARIO TAMA/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Saturday marks the 100th day of U.S. President Donald Trump's term, a benchmark that has received perhaps undue attention. But the occasion can still serve as a useful milestone to review the direction of his administration's policy so far and explore the inevitable constraints that await those attempting to implement the president's vision. Newly elected presidents generally enter the White House accompanied by a political tailwind that enables them to prioritize a set of key issues and try to gain as much traction as possible before pockets of resistance are able to entrench. But Trump's political honeymoon was virtually nonexistent, and the next 100 days of his presidency point to even bigger challenges ahead.

As problems at home and abroad grow in scale and complexity, the constraints to dealing with them will also harden and become more visible. It will ultimately be up to those in the West Wing to recognize where those constraints collide with strategic objectives and shake out the workable priorities. Based on what we can observe in the president's first 100 days, that group can be divided into three camps: the Tribe, the Professionals and the Ideologues.

The Tribe sits atop the power pyramid. Trump puts enormous trust in the counsel and abilities of his family members, most notably the more liberally minded young power duo of self-effacing daughter Ivanka and her extraordinarily taciturn husband, Jared Kushner. He is a senior adviser to the president who appears to be informally charged with managing the West Wing while formally tasked with patching up seven decades of Middle East conflict, managing relations with China and Mexico, solving the U.S. opioid epidemic and implementing his father-in-law's vision of a more efficient federal government — among other ambitious duties.

As an unpaid counsel to the president, Ivanka has been a regular feature of the White House diplomatic team. She has been given the space and influence to push forward elements of a domestic economic and social agenda to include improved rights for working mothers while attempting to moderate the administration's climate policy. Ivanka has also quietly made humanitarian appeals on such matters as holding Syrian President Bashar al Assad responsible for chemical weapons attacks while raising the voice of figures such as Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategy Dina Powell. Powell, an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian who also worked in the State Department during the George W. Bush presidency, facilitated recent negotiations with Cairo that led to the release of Egyptian-American aid worker Aya Hijazi. Powell was also the only female leader present in the improvised situation room at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida that oversaw the recent U.S. missile strike on Syria.

The second echelon of influence consists of the more seasoned professionals who can recognize when intent has stretched beyond reality and can keep the White House focused on the strategic objective at hand. The Professionals strongly favor military heavyweights Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. And in stark contrast to Barack Obama's reputation for micromanaging major military actions and troop levels, Trump has delegated a great deal of authority to his military commanders. As recently exposed, that approach can also come with a political cost.

While the White House was simultaneously managing the aftermath of the Syrian missile strike and an escalation in military tension over North Korea, neither Mattis nor McMaster were reportedly in the loop when Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, decided to drop a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb for the first time in combat. That highly visible action may have melded well with the administration's tough talk against Pyongyang and Damascus regardless, but a bigger and more consequential communication gap between the generals and civilians occurred just a few days later when U.S. Pacific Command Chief Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. ordered the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its battle group "to sail north" from Singapore, unaware that the White House was in the meantime broadcasting that the naval strike force was rushing to the Korean Peninsula. The carrier group in fact headed south for exercises with the Australian navy before it would take the turn north. Harris ultimately took the fall for the miscommunication, but the disconnect has left U.S. allies in South Korea and Japan anxious about whether they can trust Washington's assurances that U.S. forces are coming to reinforce their defense when they end up going the opposite direction.

Delegating more authority to U.S. military commanders can also result in less risk-averse calculations overall when decisions on significant military actions are not necessarily required to factor in the broader strategic picture and priorities in other theaters. Nonetheless, the presence of professionals such as Mattis and McMaster in the White House situation room will likely end up being critical to underscoring the constraints and consequences of major military decisions and providing answers to essential questions, such as whether the United States can realistically afford a preventive strike on North Korea when the retaliatory cost could include a regional war, or whether it makes strategic sense for the United States to reopen another potential military theater in the Persian Gulf if it walks away from the Iran nuclear deal.

While the Ideologues were essential to galvanizing the political support from Middle America that put Trump in the White House, they are now predictably struggling to find their voice in actual policymaking.

The cadre of Professionals also encompasses necessary political operatives such as White House chief of staff Reince Priebus to manage the administration's countless battles with Congress, from health care to tax reform, that will remain in gridlock for some time to come. On economic policy, the input of Peter Navarro, the hard-line protectionist and trade deficit-obsessed director of the White House National Trade Council and of Trade and Industrial Policy, is increasingly being drowned out by the views of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and National Economic Council chief Gary Cohn, all firmly in the Professional camp, in shaping a more moderate trade agenda. That dynamic will be most relevant as the White House begins the process of renegotiating and updating the North American Free Trade Agreement and encounters the obstacles that will surface when it attempts to forcibly correct trade deficits by strong-arming trading partners on complex foreign policy issues that can stretch and twist well beyond the economic sphere. Cohn, Mnuchin and Ross will also end up having to perform a reality check on the president's tax proposal as they come up against the details of how to pay for it and encounter heavy resistance from Congress over ballooning the budget deficit.

Political outsiders such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson can also be considered members of the Professionals. The State Department is running well below capacity at the moment under Tillerson as he comes to terms with staffing and managing his global team, but he carries decades of experience in dealing with foreign entities from his time at the helm of ExxonMobil. The man of few words did notably succeed in securing a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a recent visit to Moscow and was able to win the resumption of a critical deconfliction agreement with Russia to avoid collisions on the Syrian battlefield.

That leaves the Ideologues, the White House group most visibly waning in influence. One of their rank, Michael Flynn, departed after just six weeks as national security adviser under a cloud of questions about his Russia contacts. White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has been dropped from the National Security Council and appears to be on the defensive in his battle for influence against Trump's son-in-law. Navarro's views on issues from China to NAFTA are being overruled. The group also includes backstage figures such as potent financial backers Robert Mercer and daughter Rebekah, who believe the Trump presidency could carry enough firepower to destroy, then rebuild, what they see as a broken federal government. While the Ideologues were essential to galvanizing the political support from Middle America that put Trump in the White House, they are now predictably struggling to find their voice in actual policymaking.

A confluence of crises awaits the president. The burden of navigating them over the next 100 days will ultimately fall to the Tribe and the Professionals as Trump stands at the helm, hunting hard for wins.

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