Time for Trump to Hit the Reset Button

Dump his inner circle. Focus on domestic policy. Lean on Gary Cohn.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with teachers, school administrators and parents in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, February 14, 2017.
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with teachers, school administrators, and parents in the White House on Tuesday.

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

The Trump administration is in chaos. The resignation of Michael Flynn as national security adviser hasn’t put an end to questions about Trumpworld’s ties to Russian intelligence. If anything, it’s spurred calls for further investigation, and not just among Democrats. Hawkish Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham are pressing for more details on what exactly Flynn discussed with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., and a few of their GOP colleagues, including Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, are tentatively joining in. Most Republicans, though, have yet to back an independent investigation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan seem to be hoping that Russia questions will go away of their own accord. And that’s just not going to happen. As saturation coverage of Russia-related leaks continues, it seems likely that more and more congressional Republicans will either distance themselves from Trump himself or work with the Trump White House to find scapegoats.

Amidst the chaos, some of Trump’s populist allies are turning on Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, whom they see as an ineffectual weakling. Other Republicans are hoping that the president will get rid of Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Kellyanne Conway, whom they see as enablers who egg Trump on when they should be giving him sound advice. According to this line of thinking, a complete reset would give President Trump a fighting chance of making it through a wave of Russia allegations, which he could blame on the incompetence of his initial wave of advisers.

What might a complete reset look like? The first and most important step would be for Trump to choose his battles. Right now, the administration is fighting on every front: against a bipartisan national security establishment that resents Trump’s recklessness and his Russophilia, a press corps that smells scandal, and a Democratic Party that’s united in opposition to pretty much all of his policies. On top of that, Trump has to placate elite Republicans who see him as a loose cannon who can’t be relied upon to deliver a pro-business agenda. Even if Trump were surrounded by an army of experienced geniuses, dealing with these various challenges would be daunting. And Trump is not surrounded by an army of experienced geniuses.

One course of action would be for Trump to double down on his war against America’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the hopes of plugging leaks. The trouble is that going this route would consume Trump’s entire presidency, and it would almost certainly backfire, leading to even more leaking to the press, which would in turn strengthen the hand of Trump’s enemies. The alternative is for the president to appoint a more conventional figure as national security adviser, as he seems ready to do, defer to widely respected figures like Defense Secretary James Mattis, and stop tweeting about foreign and defense policy altogether. Trump’s main foreign policy pitch was that he’d keep the United States out of major wars and that he’d demand that U.S. allies do more to share in the burden of paying for their defense. All of that is perfectly compatible with taking a more cautious, measured approach that doesn’t alienate the intelligence community. Are there downsides to this approach? Of course. It may well be the case that the intelligence community needs to be shaken up. It just so happens that Trump is not the right man for the job.

If President Trump became more deferential on foreign and defense policy, he could focus on domestic policy, where his best bet is to govern as a Mr. Fix-It who can get things done. In October, Luke Thompson made the case in National Review that Trump was less a populist than a centrist who believed that all problems could be solved if only you put the right technocrats in charge:

In substance, Trump could not be farther from a true populist such as William Jennings Bryan. Trump never promises to crush disposable elites. Quite to the contrary, Trump’s brief has always been that the particular set of elites running America today have failed to do their job as elites. They are weak, stupid, and ineffective. Trump promises to be a better, tougher, more successful elite. He’s “a negotiator,” after all. This is why Jon Huntsman Jr. rushed to endorse Trump but a vanishingly small share of Bernie Sanders’s supporters has done likewise. Trump preaches a changing of the guard, not a political revolution.

That analysis helps explain why the first weeks of his presidency have been such a political disaster: Trump has been coming across as a revolutionary, not as a smart businessman who could, say, fix the Oroville Dam.

If Trump were indeed to go this route, he could do worse than installing Gary Cohn, the head of the National Economic Council, as his new chief of staff. Though the president hasn’t known Cohn for long, the former Goldman Sachs executive has already amassed a great deal of influence. Among other things, Cohn has been leading the charge on tax reform and overhauling the Affordable Care Act. Strikingly, he’s suggested that in crafting the Trump administration’s tax reform road map, he and his colleagues were not particularly interested in cutting taxes on high-income households. That would put the Trump White House at odds not only with the Trump campaign’s somewhat fanciful tax reform proposal but also with Republicans in Congress.

A more moderate tax reform package could start changing how voters see the Trump White House. Right now, Trump is seen as crazier than conventional Republicans. With Cohn’s guidance, he could be viewed as more pragmatic and business-minded. There is some evidence to suggest that Trump is thinking along these lines. According to a recent report in Politico, the president feels burned by advisers who rushed him into issuing the sloppily drafted travel ban that’s already blown up in his face. Having a non-ideological technocrat like Cohn at the helm could help ensure that the Trump administration doesn’t walk into similar traps in the future. The same goes for putting experienced bureaucrats in charge of foreign policy. Trump won the presidency by constantly sowing chaos. He’s learning very quickly—or at least he should be learning very quickly—that he can’t govern that way.