His staff hollowing out and his agenda languishing, President Donald Trump is increasingly flying solo.
Always improvisational, the president exercised his penchant for going it alone in a big way this week: first, by ordering sweeping tariffs opposed by foreign allies and by many in his own party, then hours later delivering the stunning news that he’ll meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
An on-the-spot decision with global ramifications, Trump’s agreement to sit down with Kim came after a meeting with a South Korean delegation and took some of his top aides by surprise.
The president has long considered himself his own best consultant, saying during the presidential campaign:
“I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”
Trump has told confidants recently that he wants to be less reliant on his staff, believing they often give bad advice, and that he plans to follow his own instincts, which he credits with his stunning election, according to two people who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about private conversations.
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Trump’s latest unilateral moves come at a moment of vulnerability for the president. Top staffers are heading for the exits, the Russia investigation continues to loom and Trump is facing growing questions about a lawsuit filed by a porn actress who claims her affair with the president was hushed up.
The White House pushed back against the notion that Trump’s decision to meet with Kim was made in haste, with spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying, “This has been part of an ongoing campaign that’s been going for over a year.”
White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway said Trump takes input from a “diverse set of viewpoints,” but added that “he knows it was his name on the ballot and he controls timing, content and tone.”
Advisers argue that tales of Trump’s freelancing are exaggerated and that in many cases – as with tariffs – he is following through on long-stated promises. Still, the president’s decisions, as well as his proclivity for off-the-cuff announcements, frequently leave aides and allies guessing.
News that the president would accept a meeting never taken by a sitting U.S. president came from an unlikely source Thursday evening: a last-minute press statement by a South Korean official standing in the dark on the White House driveway.
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With reality-show flair, Trump built suspense for the announcement by making an impromptu visit to the White House briefing room.
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The South Korean official, Chung Eui-yong, spoke with Trump on Thursday after meeting with national security adviser H.R. McMaster and others. Trump asked Chung about a recent meeting with the North Korean dictator. The South Korean official relayed that Kim wanted to meet with Trump – and the president immediately accepted, according to a White House official, who was not authorized to discuss the meeting and was speaking on condition of anonymity.
Trump then asked Chung to announce it to the White House press, but Chung wanted first to check in with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the official said. Moon granted permission, prompting Trump to make his first known foray into the White House briefing room to inform reporters that the South Koreans would soon be making a major announcement.
“Great progress being made,” Trump later tweeted, adding: “Meeting being planned!”
This was not the only recent moment where Trump opted to trust his gut and go it alone.
Determined to keep what he viewed as a crucial campaign promise, Trump forged forward with a plan to order new tariffs this week. In the process, he saw his top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, head for the exit and faced his most public condemnation to date from Republican lawmakers.
Trump let advisers Cohn and Peter Navarro, who stood on opposite sides of the issue, debate tariffs for weeks, at times contentiously. At another point, during a meeting with steel and aluminum executives, Trump urged Cohn to engage in a debate with U.S. Steel CEO Dave Burritt, according to two people familiar with the exchange and not authorized to discuss it publicly.
Cohn announced his departure as it became clear Trump would move ahead with the tariffs.
In recent days, Trump told advisers that his experience in business gave him an edge in deciding what to do on tariffs. He told aides that he been proclaiming for 30 years that the United States needed a more protectionist approach, according to two White House officials not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
The president also boasted to outside advisers that he knew the tariffs issue better than his advisers and suggested that the move could help him lock up Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan again, according to a person familiar with the president’s thinking but not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations.
The president has previously shown his preference for working alone – with mixed results.
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Trump surprised the Pentagon last year with a series of tweets announcing he would reverse Obama-era policies allowing transgender individuals to serve in the armed forces. He made a surprise spending deal with Democrats “Chuck and Nancy” that boxed out his own party. And he sent out a series of puzzling tweets about a key spying law that threw Congress into disarray ahead of votes to reauthorize the program.
Advisers and supporters were caught off guard recently when Trump appeared to embrace gun control measures at a freewheeling roundtable with lawmakers in the wake of a Florida school shooting. He later met with the National Rifle Association and appeared to soften his stance, but his comment “take the guns first, go through due process second” drew strong criticism.
Still, Trump continues to hold that – as he said at the 2016 Republican Convention – he “alone” can fix things. He made that clear when he ran into an ABC reporter in the moments before the North Korea announcement.
Trump wouldn’t say exactly what was coming, but he stressed: “Hopefully, you will give me credit.”