Sunday, May 21, 2017

Trump Discovers the Dangers of Governing at Daredevil Speed

White House aides want President Trump to calm down, spend less time on Twitter and avoid making decisions too quickly.



Trump Discovers the Dangers of Governing at Daredevil Speed

WASHINGTON — President Trump was determined to leave his mark on Washington quickly. Now the city is leaving its bruising mark on him, with the same astonishing swiftness that has been a hallmark of his lightning-strike political career.

Mr. Trump has worn out opponents, journalists, members of Congress, foreign leaders, his staff — and now himself — with a breakneck barrage of executive actions, policy proposals and reversals, taunts, boasts and drowsy-hour Twitter assaults, all meant to disrupt American politics as usual.

But the president, who set a killing pace during his first four tumultuous months in office, has now been knocked off balance by an accelerating inquiry into possible collusion by his presidential campaign with Russia, as well as the backlash against his firing of the F.B.I. director who was leading the investigation.

Ten days of shocks, kicking off with Mr. Trump’s surprise ouster of James B. Comey on May 9 and continuing through the revelation on Friday that the president had called the F.B.I. chief a “nut job” in front of Russian officials, have left the West Wing reeling.

Aides talked about living in dread of “5 o’clock,” marking the arrival of the daily dump of damaging leaks or fresh reports of staff infighting.

What unnerves Mr. Trump and his staff the most is the eerily familiar tempo of these disclosures. It is as if some unseen adversary has copied Mr. Trump’s own velocity and ferocity in an attempt to destroy him, several people close to the president said. Sources are shuttling all kinds of information about Mr. Trump to reporters at a pace the White House cannot match.

Congressional Republicans, fearful that their hopes of passing tax overhaul and health care bills are vanishing, are no less alarmed. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, urged the president to conduct his affairs with less “drama,” and others are openly urging Mr. Trump to plan beyond the short time horizon of a reposted message on Twitter.

“Washington feels like a kiddie soccer game — tons of frenzy but no strategy,” said Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, who has been a vocal critic of Mr. Trump.

“All our leaders — Republicans, Democrats, Congress and the executive — need to be thinking bigger than the news cycle and planning for the policy challenges of five and 10 years in the future. Are we going to have restored public trust or further eroded it? That’s the question each of us should be asking.”

In a telling turnabout, members of Mr. Trump’s team are hoping to slow the tempo set by the president and his hard-charging chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon.

They have suggested that he calm down, spend less time on Twitter, and avoid making decisions too quickly.

Most of his top staff members were suggesting pumping the brakes when the president was suggesting that he was leaning toward quickly hiring Joseph I. Lieberman, the former Connecticut senator, as Mr. Comey’s replacement.

Among an otherwise fractious staff, there seems to be one point of unanimity: They want to buy the president, and themselves, time to maneuver, to reset and to recover from a rapid succession of devastating blows.

But catching their breath is no easy feat while working for a president who posts Twitter messages impulsively, often cuts off briefers after a few minutes and issues iron commands on spur-of-the-moment emotions.

“During the campaign, Donald Trump never stopped to refuel, and he speeded up through every caution flag,” said Brian Fallon, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 press secretary, who helped lead the effort to defend against Mr. Trump’s attacks during the campaign.

“But when you run every single race at a daredevil pace, well, eventually you are going to get into a pretty violent wreck,” he added.

Brian Ott, a Texas Tech professor who has analyzed Mr. Trump’s use of social media, said: “The velocity at which this is happening right now is absolutely unprecedented. News is breaking so fast the stories are stepping on each other.”

So far, Mr. Trump, who lives by a hammerhead shark’s swim-or-die credo, has shown no signs of slowing down.

While aides took pains to describe what they called his calm reaction to the appointment last week of Robert S. Mueller III as a special counsel in the Russia investigation, in reality he expressed anger from the start.

By the next morning, he was in a fighting mood, lashing out in a series of early-morning Twitter posts.

The Russia inquiry, he wrote, is “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.”

He deplored what he viewed as the hypocrisy of investigating his campaign and not “all the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration.”

For all of its perils, the Mueller investigation presents the White House with time to regain lost momentum and switch the dial back to governing.

“I believe that the appointment of Mueller is actually great news for Trump in the short and medium term,” said Jonah Goldberg, senior editor of the conservative National Review and a frequent Trump critic. “If he plays it right, he can do what Bill Clinton used to do, which is to say, ‘I want to talk about the investigation, but we have to wait and see what the investigators come up with.’ That would give him some breathing room.

“The problem, of course, is that Trump is going to be Trump.”

Before the Comey story exploded, Mr. Trump’s staff viewed the nine-day overseas trip that the president began on Friday as a way to press the pause button.

One staff member even Googled the top speed of Air Force One — 631 miles per hour — to see just how quickly he could escape the troubles of Washington.

The president wasn’t quite so eager to leave.

Mr. Trump, according to several people in his inner circle, pressed to shorten the trip to five or six days. He argued that he could get more done “at my desk” than kibitzing with European leaders or staging photo ops in the Holy Land.

While Mr. Trump was the first candidate to fully weaponize Twitter, now that he is president, the rapid speed of social media has been turned against him.

Many of the advantages that Mr. Trump had as a fast-moving outsider candidate — namely his ability to ridicule adversaries into submission on cable or social media — aren’t nearly as useful in the presidency. Twitter is far less effective in defense than offense, and unflattering fact has much greater power than Twitter bombast to set the narrative of a presidency.

Twitter could ultimately be the means of his undoing, current and former White House officials said.

“For Trump, at this point, social media isn’t helping — it’s an accelerant,” said Bob Bauer, President Barack Obama’s first White House counsel, who was known for his caution during his two-and-a-half-year West Wing tenure.

“I think the Watergate example is overused, and we don’t know where all of this will lead, but just think about the slower pace of that investigation,” Mr. Bauer said.

“It took a long time for people to know what Nixon was thinking and feeling. Then they heard those tapes,” he added. “Nixon’s fortunes declined markedly when people heard it all in real time — all those four-letter words, his disrespect for institutions, his crudity. Trump is tweeting all of this in real time. Just think about that. He’s creating tapes with those tweets.”


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