Commander in Chaos

With a Category 4 hurricane barreling down on Texas, President Trump pardoned a controversial lawman, sent a ban on transgender soldiers to the Pentagon, and lost a flamboyant aide.

President Trump waves from the White House lawn as he departs for Camp David on Friday.
President Trump waves from the White House lawn as he departs for Camp David on Friday. (Yuri Gripas / Reuters)

Dramatic Fridays have become a hallmark of summer 2017 in the Trump administration. The hiring of Anthony Scaramucci and resignation of Sean Spicer happened on a Friday; Reince Priebus was pushed out the following Friday; and a few Fridays later, so was his old antagonist Steve Bannon.

It seems fitting, then, that the most overwhelming of them all would come at the very end of the summer. In a span of just a few hours on Friday, President Trump signed a directive barring transgender troops from the military, pardoned former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and bade farewell to Sebastian Gorka, one of his more flamboyant aides. Meanwhile, North Korea launched several ballistic missiles and the hurricane bearing down on the Gulf Coast was upgraded to a category 4 storm.

TGIF? Maybe not so much.

Given the broad range of what’s happened in the course of just a few hours—all significant news events in their own right, all breaking late on a Friday—it’s difficult for any observer to know where to focus, or how to interpret the importance of any one event.  And, likewise, the frenetic developments represent an important test for a White House that has not shown especially sure footing in high-pressure situations.

What makes the series of events on Friday especially remarkable is that some of them are crises (or at least events) of Trump’s own making, while other are external crises. The transgender ban, the Arpaio pardon, and Gorka’s departure were all under White House control. But they occur amid an impending natural disaster in Texas, one of the biggest hurricanes to strike the mainland U.S. in years, and further missile tests by North Korea, part of a spree that has brought the U.S. and North Korea closer to a hot war than they have been in years.

The Friday news dump is an old and venerable technique adopted by politicians who hope to bury a news event by announcing it at the end of the week, ostensibly when the public is less likely to pay attention. The transgender ban and Arpaio pardon bear all the hallmarks of the news dump. And it’s likely to work—at least in the immediate—as a massive hurricane commands national attention.

The question, then, is whether the administration will be able to retain its own focus. Trump himself has a tendency to become fixated on certain things, often to his own disadvantage. He knew that the Arpaio firing would be a political hot potato, and at a rally in Phoenix on Tuesday, he did not announce the pardon—saying he didn’t want to cause controversy—though he all but promised it would come. (Drawn-out drama is also a classic Trump move, a teaser strategy from his years as a successful reality-TV host.) It is difficult to imagine even the most smoothly operating White House juggling so many crises at once, and this White House is nowhere near smooth operation.

The frantic stretch of news began after 6 p.m., with the news that Trump had signed the directive on transgender servicemembers. The move was long telegraphed. The president had announced his intention to bar transgender members from the armed services in a tweet almost a month ago, but he had not actually delivered any guidance on how to do that to the Defense Department until Friday. That left generals in the uncomfortable position of not knowing how or whether to implement an order. The end product is somewhat watered down: It prevents new enlistments by transgender people and reverses a decision to pay for gender reassignment surgery, but it grants Defense Secretary James Mattis latitude to allow currently serving members to remain in the armed forces. Top Pentagon and branch officials had not greeted Trump’s initial order with enthusiasm.

Next came the Arpaio pardon. That move is legitimate as a matter of law, but as my colleague Matt Ford writes, it does break with various norms. The pardon comes far sooner in Trump’s term than other presidents’ first pardons. Typically, an offender must wait at least five years after conviction to apply for a pardon. (CNN reported that Arpaio’s pardon did not move through standard Department of Justice procedures but emanated from the White House.) And while the president has the authority to pardon whomever he wants, it is a dubious move to pardon Arpaio, who was convicted for contempt of court by a federal judge—especially for a man who claims to be a “law and order” president. In pardoning Arpaio, he is also implicitly endorsing racial profiling—at a time when racial tensions in America are causing intense and sometimes violent clashes across the country.

But Trump has questioned the authority of federal judges too, from his campaign attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel to his criticism of federal courts that struck down parts of his Muslim immigration ban. And Trump and Arpaio were fellow exponents of the lie that Barack Obama was not a native-born American citizen.

It might not be the last eyebrow-raising exercise of the presidential prerogative. The White House has reportedly researched the limitations of Trump’s pardoning power in relation to the growing investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Russia. In another nugget of news likely to be overlooked Friday, NBC News reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has compelled testimony from associates of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The president has reportedly clashed with several GOP senators in recent week over that investigation.

The Gorka departure is perhaps more symbolically important than of actual import. An alleged counterterrorism expert—his own work was notably flimsy, and reputable terror authorities disdained him—Gorka was controversial for his ties to a dubious Hungarian organization and for his inflammatory anti-Muslim views. A former Breitbart staffer, he was a protege of fired strategist Steve Bannon, and his departure only ratifies further the ongoing purge of “alt-right” figures from the White House as Chief of Staff John Kelly and National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster assert their authority.

As far as North Korea goes these days, Friday’s missile launch appears to be a minor event—an assessment which is perhaps revealing in and of itself. Pyongyang apparently launched three short-range missiles (as opposed to the longer-range missiles, capable of potentially reaching the U.S., that have been a recent point of contention) and all three failed. Still, the launch is a provocation by North Korea, especially since Trump threatened “fire and fury” if Kim Jong-Un made further threats against the U.S.—a red line that North Korea almost immediately crossed.

Looming over all of this is Hurricane Harvey, which could (but just as easily could not) prove a defining moment for the Trump administration. Around the same time the U.S. announced the North Korean missile launch, the storm was upgraded to a Category 4 hurricane. It will be one of the strongest storms to strike the U.S. mainland in years, potentially bringing winds of 130 miles per hour and between 15 to 30 inches of rain across a swath of Texas—with the possibility of up to 40 inches.

Trump is monitoring the storm from Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. Natural disasters often serve as crucibles for presidents. Barack Obama’s 2011 visit to Joplin, Missouri—after a devastating tornado there—helped establish his reputation as comforter-in-chief. But the botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 proved a final straw for the George W. Bush administration, which never regained its footing.

Trump has not spoken much about the storm so far, though his homeland-security adviser and FEMA administrator made public rounds on Friday. The president offered a terse “Good luck” and a thumbs-up as he departed for Camp David. Later, he tweeted, “Just arrived at Camp David, where I am monitoring the path and doings of Hurricane Harvey (as it strengthens to a Class 3). 125 MPH winds!” He’s expected to visit Texas next week to survey the damage, the White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.

If Trump leads a competent federal response to Harvey, it might represent his first truly successful handling of a crisis. If it does not go so well, however, quietly releasing the Arpaio and transgender-ban news during the storm’s approach could prove a pyrrhic victory.