On Thursday evening, President Trump sat for an interview with Laura Ingraham, the newest member of the exceedingly Trump-friendly prime time lineup on Fox News. During the 15-minute conversation, Trump discussed tax cuts, foreign policy and the investigation into his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia.
He also made an astonishing assertion of his own power, lending credibility to longstanding concerns that Trump trusts his own counsel above that of all others.
“The one that matters is me,” Trump said. “I’m the only one that matters. Because when it comes it, that’s what the policy is going to be.”
Trump’s remarkable statement came after Ingraham asked him about his trip to Asia, which commences on Friday and comes as fears of a confrontation with North Korea continue to rise. Ingraham noted that the State Department “still has some unfilled positions,” which Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has seemingly shown little urgency in filling.
“Are you worried that the State Department doesn’t have enough Donald Trump nominees in there,” Ingraham wondered, “to push your vision through?”
Trump said he was not.
“We don’t need all the people that they want,” he answered. “We have some people that I’m not happy with there.” This was presumably a reference to career diplomats and Obama administration appointees. It was after this that Trump said that only he “matters” in the realm of foreign policy decision-making.
In this, as much else, Trump departs from historical precedent. Abraham Lincoln played host to a team of rivals at his White House. Franklin D. Roosevelt relied on his famed brain trust during the Great Depression. John F. Kennedy brought the best and the brightest to the West Wing. It’s hard to think of a president in modern history who didn’t rely on a coterie of advisers to help craft domestic policy and answer challenges abroad.
Except for Trump. He made no secret of this during the presidential campaign. When asked whom he consulted on foreign policy, he answered, “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.” Later, during the presidential transition, he routinely spoke with world leaders without having reviewed State Department briefing books, leaving diplomats "aghast."
As such, his statement to Ingraham was a window into his understanding of the presidency. It is a ship on which he is first captain, first mate and most of the crew.
Trump seems to enjoy having his advisers argue, but the arguments seems to be only for his amusement, not waged in the name of productive consensus. “Trump only listens to Trump, and the culture of chaos at the White House starts at the top,” Colin H. Kahl, a national security adviser in the Obama administration, perceptively observed earlier this year.
Trump’s disdain for the federal apparatus has had a notable effect on the State Department. An analysis by Fox News found that five of six undersecretary positions remained empty. So were 21 of 24 assistant secretary posts.
“There is a serious problem within the Trump administration,” said John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who is hardly a fan of Foggy Bottom’s bureaucratic class.
Writing in Politico last month, Nik Steinberg, who’d served a senior counselor to U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, said he was “alarmed” at the numbers of promising young diplomats unwilling to work for Trump. “I know far too many people at the beginning or middle of their careers—with many diplomatic tours ahead of them—who have decided they can no longer bear to serve in the current administration,” he wrote.
If this worried Trump, he certainly didn’t show it on Thursday. And he pointedly refused to endorse Tillerson. Asked by Ingraham if the former Exxon chief executive would be with the administration for “the duration,” Trump gave one of his favorite answers: “We’ll see.”
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