Republican foreign policy was once defined by clashing world views. Now it’s defined only by loyalty to the president.
At first glance, the recent drone strike ordered by President Trump against an Iranian general would seem to return Republican foreign policy to the George W. Bush era. Several elements of the attack reflected the approach to the world defined by Mr. Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney: a belief in the efficacy of military force, the validity of pre-emptive attack and the determination to avoid seeking approval from congressional leaders. But on closer examination, such comparisons fail. In his foreign policy, Mr. Trump represents something wholly new.
The president’s recent actions underscore the fact that the Republican Party has no guiding principles; it has only Mr. Trump, who demands loyalty to himself as its leader. Nor does the party leadership have senior figures with long experience in foreign policy who might challenge Mr. Trump’s thinking. The Republican Party, which once served as home for a variety of clashing philosophies about foreign policy, has lost its moorings.
Consider the party’s history in recent decades and the contrast with where the party stands today. Over the past half-century, the Republicans had been loosely split between two approaches for dealing with the world. One was the traditional, alliance-centered internationalism that had held sway, for example, under President George H.W. Bush. The other was the hawkish unilateralism of the party’s neoconservatives, who had gathered strength during the Reagan administration.
During the George W. Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell carried forward, if imperfectly, the ideas of internationalism; Vice President Cheney embraced many of the views of the neoconservatives. These two schools of thought came into acrimonious conflict over Iraq, Israel, North Korea and other issues.
Now, under Mr. Trump, the Republican Party has been transformed in such a way that neither internationalists nor neoconservatives hold influence in the White House. Mr. Trump has weaved, wavered and reversed course on foreign policy based on his views of the moment, and as he has, the Republicans have followed. The factional disputes that characterized the Bush years have been replaced by a single question: Are you loyal to President Trump or not?
There is no one to challenge Mr. Trump now. In contrast, consider the era of Mr. Cheney and Mr. Powell. Those two men were the most durable figures at the top of America’s foreign policy apparatus from 1988 to 2008, encompassing the end of the Cold War and its aftermath.
During those 20 years, Mr. Powell served for nine years under four American presidents as national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs and secretary of state. Mr. Cheney served for a total of 12 years as secretary of defense and vice president. The Trump administration has nothing comparable; indeed, not one of the senior leaders in the current administration, including the vice president, secretary of state and defense or national security adviser, has been involved at the top ranks in any previous administration.
Even the more experienced officials Mr. Trump initially appointed to senior foreign-policy jobs, like former Defense Secretary James Mattis and the former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, had spent less previous time in senior Washington positions than veterans of previous Republican administrations (who also included figures such as Brent Scowcroft and Robert Gates). And even these older hands — the “adults in the room,” as they were often called — left the Trump administration within two years.
Determined, experienced advisers can sometimes deflect a president’s worst instincts and ideas. While doing book research in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, I ran across the astonishing fact that in the fall of 1988, well after the Iran-contra scandal was behind him, President Reagan secretly tried to revive efforts to pay Iran for the release of American hostages in Lebanon, and to forge a new relationship with Iran.
“We have billions,” Mr. Reagan told Mr. Powell, his national security adviser. But Mr. Powell was adamantly opposed to the idea and made sure it didn’t happen. (In the early 2000s, he was less strongly opposed to the idea of going to war in Iraq, the venture strongly supported by Mr. Cheney.)
It is tempting for liberals to assume that all their opponents on the political right are alike, or stem from the same source — and that therefore, Dick Cheney somehow led to Donald Trump. But that’s not correct; Mr. Trump’s origins, outlook and style are quite different from those of Mr. Cheney.
Mr. Cheney’s rise to power — indeed, his very persona — was based on a preoccupation with government processes and a familiarity with the national-security bureaucracies (call them the “deep state”) that Mr. Trump so often disdains. Mr. Cheney has at times voiced disapproval of some of the linchpins of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy, such as his dealings with Russia and North Korea. John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, represented the last link in the top ranks of the Trump administration to the determinedly hawkish policies advocated by Mr. Cheney.
As for Mr. Powell, it is at this point hard even to recall how or why he identified himself as a Republican. Yet at the time the Cold War was ending, the Democrats were calling for a “peace dividend” that included substantial cuts in the defense budget, and Mr. Powell, working closely with Mr. Cheney, labored hard, and for the most part successfully, to resist those efforts.
Mr. Powell’s eventual alienation from the Republican Party was a result of the same forces and dynamics that would eventually propel the rise of Mr. Trump: nativism and hostility toward immigrants and racial minorities. When Mr. Powell appeared before the Republican National Convention in 1996, he made a plea for diversity and tolerance.
“The Hispanic immigrant who became a citizen yesterday must be as precious as a Mayflower descendant,” he told the delegates then. That speech was greeted by a smattering of boos. In 2008, when Mr. Powell announced he could not support the Republican presidential nominee (even though it was his old friend John McCain), Mr. Powell specifically cited the mood of Republicans who had claimed that Senator McCain’s opponent, Barack Obama, was a Muslim.
The Trump Republicans long ago abandoned Mr. Powell and virtually everything he stood for — and while it may seem less obvious right now, they have cut loose from Cheneyism, too. We can see the party’s absence of ideas or strategy in the current policies on the Middle East and North Korea.
The drone strike came alongside Mr. Trump’s purported effort to lessen America’s involvement in the Middle East. His personal diplomacy with Kim Jong-un of North Korea and President Vladimir Putin of Russia might appear to be in line with Mr. Powell’s emphasis on diplomacy — but under Mr. Trump, what has counted so far is only the word “personal,” not the diplomacy. As a result, the Republicans are left with no past and no ideas, merely a single man and his vagaries.
With Twitter as his Excalibur, the president
takes on his doubters, powered by long spells
of cable news and a dozen Diet Cokes. But
if Mr. Trump has yet to bend the presidency
to his will, he is at least wrestling it to a draw.
Mr. Trump’s uninhibited approach seems erratic to many veterans of both parties in the capital and beyond. Some politicians and pundits lament the instability and, even without medical degrees, feel no compunction about publicly diagnosing various mental maladies.
.. Before taking office, Mr. Trump told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals. People close to him estimate that Mr. Trump spends at least four hours a day, and sometimes as much as twice that, in front of a television, sometimes with the volume muted, marinating in the no-holds-barred wars of cable news and eager to fire back.
.. Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, has told associates that Mr. Trump, deeply set in his ways at age 71, will never change. Rather, he predicted, Mr. Trump would bend, and possibly break, the office to his will.
That has proved half true. Mr. Trump, so far, has arguably wrestled the presidency to a draw.
.. Mr. Kelly is trying, quietly and respectfully, to reduce the amount of free time the president has for fiery tweets by accelerating the start of his workday. Mr. Priebus also tried, with only modest success, to encourage Mr. Trump to arrive by 9 or 9:30 a.m.
.. Mr. Trump, who enjoyed complete control over his business empire, has made significant concessions after trying to micromanage his first months in office. Despite chafing at the limits, the president actually craves the approval of Mr. Kelly, whom he sees as a peer, people close to Mr. Trump said.
.. He calls Mr. Kelly up to a dozen times a day, even four or five times during dinner or a golf outing, to ask about his schedule or seek policy advice, according to people who have spoken with the president. The new system gives him “time to think,” he said when it began.
.. For most of the year, people inside and outside Washington have been convinced that there is a strategy behind Mr. Trump’s actions. But there is seldom a plan apart from pre-emption, self-defense, obsession and impulse.
.. Occasionally, the president solicits affirmation before hitting the “tweet” button. In June, according to a longtime adviser, he excitedly called friends to say he had the perfect tweet to neutralize the Russia investigation. He would call it a “witch hunt.” They were unimpressed.
He has bowed to advice from his lawyers by not attacking Mr. Mueller, but at times his instincts prevail.
.. When three former campaign advisers were indicted or pleaded guilty this fall, Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer handling the investigation, urged the president not to respond. If he did, it would only elevate the story.
Mr. Trump, however, could not help himself. He tweeted that the financial charges lodged against his former campaign manager, Paul J. Manafort, had nothing to do with the campaign and that investigators should be examining “Crooked Hillary & the Dems” instead. By the next morning, he was belittling George Papadopoulos, the campaign adviser who pleaded guilty to lying about his outreach to Russians, dismissing him as a “low level volunteer” who has “proven to be a liar.”
.. By Sunday morning, with news shows consumed by Mr. Flynn’s case, the president grew angry and fired off a series of tweets excoriating Mrs. Clinton and the F.B.I., tweets that several advisers told him were problematic and needed to stop
.. Once he posts controversial messages, Mr. Trump’s advisers sometimes decide not to raise them with him. One adviser said that aides to the president needed to stay positive and look for silver linings wherever they could find them, and that the West Wing team at times resolved not to let the tweets dominate their day.
.. The ammunition for his Twitter war is television. No one touches the remote control except Mr. Trump and the technical support staff — at least that’s the rule. During meetings, the 60-inch screen mounted in the dining room may be muted, but Mr. Trump keeps an eye on scrolling headlines. What he misses he checks out later on what he calls his “Super TiVo,” a state-of-the-art system that records cable news.
.. “I do not watch much television,” he insisted. “I know they like to say — people that don’t know me — they like to say I watch television. People with fake sources — you know, fake reporters, fake sources. But I don’t get to watch much television, primarily because of documents. I’m reading documents a lot.”
Later, he groused about being forced to watch CNN in the Philippines because nothing else was available.
.. To an extent that would stun outsiders, Mr. Trump, the most talked-about human on the planet, is still delighted when he sees his name in the headlines. And he is on a perpetual quest to see it there. One former top adviser said Mr. Trump grew uncomfortable after two or three days of peace and could not handle watching the news without seeing himself on it.
.. If someone on the show says something memorable and Mr. Trump does not immediately tweet about it, the president’s staff knows he may be saving Fox News for later viewing on his recorder and instead watching MSNBC or CNN live — meaning he is likely to be in a foul mood to start the day.
.. In private moments with the families of appointees in the Oval Office, the president engages with children in a softer tone than he takes in public, and he specifically asked that the children of the White House press corps be invited in as they visited on Halloween. Yet he does little to promote that side, some longtime friends say, because it cracks the veneer of strength that he relishes.
.. Only occasionally does Mr. Trump let slip his mask of unreflective invincibility. During a meeting with Republican senators, he discussed in emotional terms the opioid crisis and the dangers of addiction, recounting his brother’s struggle with alcohol.
According to a senator and an aide, the president then looked around the room and asked puckishly, “Aren’t you glad I don’t drink?”
.. Mr. Trump’s difficult adjustment to the presidency, people close to him say, is rooted in an unrealistic expectation of its powers, which he had assumed to be more akin to the popular image of imperial command than the sloppy reality of having to coexist with two other branches of government
.. His vision of executive leadership was shaped close to home, by experiences with Democratic clubhouse politicians as a young developer in New York. One figure stands out to Mr. Trump: an unnamed party boss — his friends assume he is referring to the legendary Brooklyn fixer Meade Esposito — whom he remembered keeping a baseball bat under his desk to enforce his power.
.. advisers said they saw a novice who was gradually learning that the presidency does not work that way. And he is coming to realize, they said, the need to woo, not whack, leaders of his own party to get things done.
During his early months in office, he barked commands at senators, which did not go over well. “I don’t work for you, Mr. President,” Mr. Corker once snapped back, according to a Republican with knowledge of the exchange.
.. he had become more attentive during daily intelligence briefings thanks to pithy presentations by Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director, and a deeper concern about the North Korea situation than his blithe, confrontational tweets suggest.
.. “The bigger problem, the thing people need to understand, is that he was utterly unprepared for this. It would be like you or me going into a room and being asked to perform brain surgery. When you have a lack of knowledge as great as his, it can be bewildering.”
.. In almost all the interviews, Mr. Trump’s associates raised questions about his capacity and willingness to differentiate bad information from something that is true.
.. Mr. Trump is skeptical of anything he does not learn from outside his bubble.
.. “He really loves verbal briefings. He is not one to consume volumes of books or briefings.”
Other aides bemoan his tenuous grasp of facts, jack-rabbit attention span and propensity for conspiracy theories.
.. Ms. Pirro whipped up the president against Mr. Mueller and accused James B. Comey, the former F.B.I.director, of employing tactics typically reserved for Mafia cases, according to a person briefed on the meeting.
The president became visibly agitated as she spoke. “Roy Cohn was my lawyer!” he exclaimed, referring to the legendary McCarthy-era fixer who mentored Mr. Trump in the 1980s, suggesting that was the type of defender he needed now.
.. Mr. Bannon has told allies that Mr. Trump only “reads to reinforce.”
.. Mr. Trump’s insistence on defining his own reality — his repeated claims, for example, that he actually won the popular vote — is immutable and has had a “numbing effect” on people who work with him, said Tony Schwartz, his ghostwriter on “The Art of the Deal.”
“He wears you down,” Mr. Schwartz said.
.. “Who is going to run against me in 2020?” he asked, according to a person in attendance. “Crooked Hillary? Pocahontas?”
.. He is less likely to tweet at this hour, when the news he would react to is mostly recycled from hours earlier. But he watches Ms. Pirro and her fellow Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, and sometimes “hate-watches” CNN to get worked up, especially Don Lemon.