Over at the Pentagon, officials reasserted support for Qatar after its Arab neighbors cut ties. The U.S. has a base in Qatar. But in a tweet, the president sided with Qatar’s opponents, and took credit for the move against the country as fruit of his recent overseas trip. In Politico this week, Susan Glasser detailed how the president surprised his foreign-policy team at a NATO summit during that trip. Though the president's top advisers had told allies he would offer public support for the bedrock Article 5 commitment—an attack on one is an attack on all—at the last minute, Trump decided not to read that line in his speech.
Successful presidents know how to translate their will to their staffers, and successful staffers know how to move without the ball. Aides to presidents of both parties that I’ve talked to over the years tell a version of the same story. A White House works well when a president’s staff can intuit what its president wants and act without needing direct contact. A former senior Obama official spoke approvingly about Ronald Reagan when explaining this phenomenon to me. Reagan’s team didn’t need to check in with Reagan to know his desires: increase personal freedom, limit the growth of government and fight the communists.
Oliver North went a little too far, of course, but the Trump White House faces the opposite problem. In the Trump White House, when staffers try to anticipate the boss they get undermined by the boss.
When Trump fired James Comey, Vice President Pence offered a dramatic explanation for the decision, suggesting that it was based solely on the recommendation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein: “A man of extraordinary independence and integrity and a reputation in both political parties of great character, came to work, sat down, and made the recommendation for the FBI to be able to do its job that it would need new leadership.” Then the president explained he had already made the decision and the Russia investigation at least factored in.
Three weeks ago, National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster issued sweeping statements knocking back reports that the president passed on sensitive information to Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting. The next day, the president offered a different story.
These kinds of moves lead to embarrassing paralysis. No staffer wants to get too far out on a limb when they’re working for an unpredictable arborist. For two days in a row this week, White House spokespeople couldn’t answer if the president still had faith in his attorney general. Usually a staffer would say, “Of course he does,” but that guess can’t be made in the Trump administration. Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked if the president had confidence in Comey and said of course he did, but then six days later, Trump fired Comey. Soon enough, the president was describing Comey as a nut who was mentally unstable.