Updated on September 24, 2019 at 5:20 p.m. ET
Knowing he was new to all this, White House aides took pains early in President Donald Trump’s term to chaperone him when he got on the phone with world leaders. Former National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, the economic adviser Gary Cohn, and others would sit around the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office and listen to both ends of the conversation. Pens in hand, they’d slip notes to Trump on White House stationery advising him “Don’t answer,” or cautioning him to avoid a particular conversational detour that might prove embarrassing were it to get out. If Trump made a call on short notice, then–Chief of Staff John Kelly might tell the senior aides Robert Porter, Cohn, and others to “get your ass” down to the Oval Office right away so that the president would have backup during the call, multiple people close to the administration told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely about sensitive discussions.
Nearly three years in, Trump is acting more like a president unchained. He’s relying on his own judgment and, one by one, discarding the seasoned foreign-policy advisers and aides who would act as a brake on his worst impulses. As he becomes progressively steeped in the presidency’s immense powers, Trump seems to be in the midst of a kind of awakening: discovering new ways that he can use the machinery of government to advance a partisan, personal agenda uncoupled from the larger public interest.