For a few months this fall and winter, someone who was squinting just right could see the Trump administration starting to finally get its footing. Chief of Staff John Kelly’s tenure had started off bumpily, with Trump’s sort-of backing for white supremacists after Charlottesville, but there had been some calming effect.
Kelly improved the quality of information getting to the president and calmed some of the internecine warfare in the West Wing. Trump’s tweeting became slightly less frantic, though he could still manage an occasional eruption. The president gave fewer of the wide-ranging, news-upending interviews he once had. He avoided publicly sniping at special counsel Robert Mueller, or threatening to fire him. Congress finally passed one of his legislative priorities, a suite of tax cuts, in December. Trump’s approval rating started to rebound.
But the month of February has destroyed any illusion that the White House was getting on track. The president, and the presidency, are as far off the rails as ever. The story that exemplifies this, strangely enough, is steel tariffs.
Wednesday evening, The Washington Post reported that the administration would impose new tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, with the announcement coming as soon as Thursday. The news didn’t just take media organizations, business, and interest groups by surprise: It also came as a shock to many in the White House. Post reporter Damian Paletta says tariff backers kept the news completely under wraps, even omitting it from a high-level trade meeting on Wednesday. That’s impressive information-management for a White House that leaks nearly everything, but it’s also no way to run any kind of organization.