For about a day it seemed that President Donald Trump had embraced the part of his job that is not just tweets and bluster. Standing in an auditorium of enlisted military–with much of his war Cabinet in the front row looking somber–the President checked his gut on Afghanistan, the U.S.’s longest war. “My original instinct was to pull out,” Trump said on Aug. 21, brushing aside his years of mouthing off against the conflict. “But all my life, I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”
So Trump rebooted yet again and performed like previous Presidents. He stood before the flags as he announced an unspecified increase in troops fighting the 16-year-old conflict. For the audience at home it looked nothing like the racially charged chaos that had defined the previous week. He even praised racial and religious diversity in the military. Would he finally deliver on his campaign promise to start behaving more presidential than anyone but Abraham Lincoln?
It turns out, no. As much of the country has learned begrudgingly, it’s hard to change a man who rose to the top defying all expectations. You can merely hope to limit the collateral damage.
A day after his speech at Fort Myer, the former real estate developer was back onstage in Arizona as Trump the Tormentor. He lashed out at ABC News’ “little George Stephanopoulos,” praised the “heritage” contained in Confederate statues and knocked CNN for firing “poor Jeffrey” Lord, a Trump mouthpiece who got his pink slip for tweeting a Nazi salute, “Sieg Heil!” The President complained that “the damned dishonest” journalists didn’t give him credit for calling out hate groups in Charlottesville, Va., drawing a huge crowd, going to better schools than most or living “in a bigger, more beautiful apartment” than others. “It’s time to expose the crooked media deceptions,” Trump roared in Phoenix, blaming his foes for “fomenting divisions.”
These two contradictory and vacillating faces of the Trump presidency present a clear and present challenge to his own governing coalition, such as it is. When Congress returns after the Labor Day holiday, lawmakers will have to hit the ground at breakneck pace to both raise the debt ceiling and keep the government open after Sept. 30, all while the base is starting to fray. An NBC News/Marist poll found Trump with less than 40% support in the three states on which his election hinged: Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell were horrified with the President’s remarks after white nationalists clashed with protesters in Charlottesville. Communication between McConnell and Trump has gone dark. The Senate tactician has told colleagues he thinks they are watching irreparable damage to the party. And Trump has been attacking incumbent Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a key part of McConnell’s plans to hold Senate control in 2018. “Not a fan of Jeff Flake,” Trump tweeted, as he prepared to depart Arizona.
If there is hope for smoother waters ahead, it comes from the newly reorganized group of aides who now surround the President. Gone are the minders from the establishment wing of the GOP: the longest-serving Republican National Committee chairman in history, Reince Priebus, is out as chief of staff. The burn-it-down nationalists, led by strategist Stephen Bannon, have also been kicked outside the White House’s iron gates.
For now, the pecking order inside the West Wing runs directly through the Trump family tree, the old campaign war rooms in Trump Tower and a network of military brass. The new crew has succeeded in cutting out some of the meddlesome voices that saw it as their duty to protect the presidency from the man elected to it. But the survivors’ power is unproved.
What’s not clear is whether this more harmonious team, many of whose members have never worked in government before, can guide Trump to a more consistent and predictable approach to the presidency. That is needed to manage the nettlesome war in Afghanistan, deliver on promises to Wall Street and keep the economy from teetering off a cliff. For that, they’ll have to count on the President’s own gut instincts–a risky move these days.
This appears in the September 04, 2017 issue of TIME.
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