Trump Versus the Government

Can America Get Its Story Straight?

Trump and members of his cabinet meet with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House, May 2018. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

As he reaches the halfway mark of his first term, President Donald Trump is finding the vast U.S. government to be both an instrument of and a frequent barrier to the implementation of policies that he desires. Reflecting on his frustrations, he might be amused by an old anecdote about the struggles of one of his predecessors. As the diplomat Charles Frankel recalled in his memoir, a White House visitor once presented a proposal to President John F. Kennedy. “That’s a first-rate idea,” Kennedy said. “Now we must see whether we can get the government to accept it.”

The distinction between the president and the government is not a product of the Trump era, but it has become one of the administration’s defining characteristics. Rhetorically, the president has often squarely rejected the U.S. foreign policy consensus of recent decades. He has questioned the United States’ commitment to allies in Asia and Europe, fumed about U.S. wars in the Middle East, and lauded the leaders of Washington’s geopolitical rivals. But speeches are one thing and official action is another. Although Trump’s pronouncements have ruffled feathers, his administration’s policy has been marked more by continuity than by change. The United States remains in NATO, thousands of U.S. troops are still deployed throughout the Middle East, and Washington is pursuing a hard line against China and Russia.

What explains this divergence? In part, it may be the result of an intentional ploy by a president who thrives on chaos—a good cop, bad cop routine in which Trump states a maximalist position and then leaves it to his subordinates to discover a compromise. Part of the gap, however, appears to be the result of an effort by some within the government, and even in Trump’s own cabinet, to blunt his initiatives, carrying on business as usual in direct opposition to the wishes of the president.

Trump’s opponents may applaud this internal resistance, but

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