Luis da Vinha. Presidential Studies Quarterly. Volume 49, Issue 2, June 2019.
Donald Trump paved his way to the American presidency by promising to upend Washington’s political establishment and its business‐as‐usual environment. Contrasting himself with other politicians, Trump presented himself to the electorate as someone who “could get things done.” Leaning on the precedents of his career, Trump transferred these to the presidential campaign trail where he consistently juxtaposed his much‐touted managerial skills with the supposed ineptitude of the career politicians. While others had failed and betrayed Americans’ trust in government, Trump assured the electorate that he would solve the nation’s problems and “Make America Great Again.” On the international front, Trump and his associates repeatedly advocated for a strategy emphasizing a greater nationalist zeal and a penchant for unilateral action. Trump’s “America First” foreign policy contemplates international relations as a zero‐sum game in which a gain for one country may only come at the expense of another. This is concurrent with Trump’s alleged “realist” view of international affairs in which world politics is understood as the unrelenting struggle between states for survival, advantage, and dominance. As a result, Trump pledged a wholesale policy transformation and declared “independence from the elites who’ve led us to one financial and foreign policy disaster after another.” In particular, he promised to employ his reputed negotiating skills and achieve the best deals for the United States (see Woodward and Costa).
However, during its first year in office, the Trump administration gained a reputation for chaos. Commentators and analysts alike criticized the administration’s dysfunctional policy‐making process. Much of the reproach focused on the president and his penchant for circumventing standard decision‐making structures and processes. Even allies of the president have acknowledged the bedlam within, going so far as to compare the White House to an “adult day care center” in which aides scramble daily to try to manage the president’s impulsive behavior (Rucker and Demirjian). Several recent academic studies of the administration’s initial months have also underscored Trump’s unorthodox management style and how it has contributed to several political missteps and mistakes (Burke; Pfiffner). In particular, these accounts have focused on the relationship between Trump and his advisors and the complex dynamics of the president’s advisory system.
Political scientists have long determined that presidents’ relationships with their advisors influence policies. Accordingly, over the last several decades scholars of the presidency have paid particular attention to the structures and processes involved in decision and policy making. Their work has contributed to the development and refinement of several conceptual models that help us understand the complex dynamics involved in the advisory systems of the different administrations—that is, formalistic model, collegial model, and competitive model.
The Trump presidency provides an opportunity to further contribute to this body of scholarship. The assessment of Trump’s first year in office is particularly significant because his unconventional style of management departs significantly from the traditional models of presidential management. His initial tenure in the White House reveals several unique decision‐making dynamics that break with the traditional approaches and provide an opportunity to reassess the traditional typology of presidential management employed by modern presidential scholars. In this article, I analyze three of the Trump administration’s most important first‐year foreign policy decisions: the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the decertification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. The case studies are designed to identify the management approach employed by President Trump and understand the general dynamics involved in the administration’s decision‐making process throughout its first year in office. However, before analyzing these three cases, the next section will briefly examine the main models of presidential management, identifying their key characteristics as well as the advantages and shortcomings inherent to each.
Presidential Management Models
It is commonly accepted that presidents should have access to a broad array of policy perspectives that can help them understand and systematically evaluate the complex political environment such that the most appropriate decisions regarding a specific policy may be derived. A president can turn to his advisors for many reasons—for example, to satisfy cognitive needs and provide emotional support, understanding and support for decisions, and political legitimacy (George; ‘t Hart, Stern, and Sundelius). However, advisors are particularly important as sources of information and advice that support policy decisions.
Most presidential scholars will agree that those individuals “who have expertise, authority, or implementation responsibilities must have a way to get their judgments to the president, or the president will act from an incomplete understanding of the implications of the policy decision” (Pfiffner, 364). Besides providing the president with the necessary information and analysis regarding the possible alternatives and potential implications of a policy decision, advisors are also crucial in making sure that the president is not overwhelmed by a surge of data and competing proposals. As Andrew Rudalevige has pointed out, time and cognitive capacity limit the amount of practical information on any given issue a president can receive and process. Therefore, it is up to the president’s staff to help organize and analyze the available information and provide the president with the “good advice” required to make a decision.
A president can try to secure good advice by being judicious in selecting personnel and implementing advisory structures that can help him acquire reliable, complete, diverse, and timely information and advice (Rudalevige). The structures, that is, the organizational configurations that define the relationships between the presidential advisors and the president, are especially important because they can determine the advisory processes (Newmann).
For several decades presidential scholars have employed three conventional management models to help frame their analyses: formalistic, collegial, and competitive. These models were initially developed by Richard Tanner Johnson and Alexander George and have been subject to several revisions and adaptations over the years. Scholars have emphasized some of the models’ limitations (see Haney; Mitchell). For example, some authors have pointed out that there is a high degree of overlap in the characteristics of the three models. Others have argued that the models’ theoretical assumptions are unrealistic and do not reflect the real‐world processes of presidential policy making. Still, some analysts highlight the models’ failure to account for the complex interplay between formal and informal procedures used by presidents. For instance, Mitchell has provided an important contribution in this sense by highlighting how the level of presidential centralization is important in determining the decision‐making process.
Nevertheless, as several authors have noted, while not exhausting all the possible formats presidents have employed to manage their advisory systems, the presidential management models developed by Johnson and George still offer a robust analytical framework for analyzing the decision‐ and policy‐making processes. In fact, as Haney, 8) observed, “much of what we do know about how presidents structure advisory groups is still drawn from the empirical work of Richard Johnson and Alexander George” and since then “there has been little empirical research on this topic that lends new insights.”
The formalistic model emphasizes an orderly, disciplined, and hierarchical decision‐making structure with well‐defined formal routines and processes for soliciting, developing, and selecting policy proposals and recommendations. Walcott and Hult considered the formalistic approach to be the “standard model” of contemporary presidential decision making. Variations of the formalistic model have been associated with several presidents, such as Harry Truman (George), Dwight Eisenhower (Johnson; George), Richard Nixon (Johnson; George; Mitchell), Ronald Reagan (Pfiffner; Rudalevige; Walcott and Hult), and George W. Bush (Mitchell; Rudalevige). Despite the inherent differences in the size and the configuration of the advisory structures in each of these administrations, the formalistic model reveals several distinguishing characteristics:
- The president centralizes the advisory system in his White House staff that is responsible for managing the information flow to and from the president;
- Division of labor is based on the functional expertise of each department or agency, which briefs the president exclusively on the policy area under its jurisdiction;
- Advisors, such as cabinet members and heads of agencies, are responsible for collecting and forwarding information and advice from their subordinate units;
- The advisory process is centered around briefing papers prepared by the competent department or agencies;
- White House staff, particularly the chief of staff, is responsible for filtering the incoming information from cabinet members and heads of agencies and formulating policy recommendations for presidential approval;
- The president abides by formal channels of communication and rarely circumvents cabinet heads in search of independent information.
The formalistic model does not seek to develop a compromise policy solution that integrates the multiple conflicting perspectives and recommendations within the administration. Rather, as Johnson has pointed out, the ultimate objective is to achieve “the best” decision. There is, thus, a rational‐choice perspective underlying this model that assumes that there are optimal policies that can be identified and implemented. While the staff breaks down problems into their pros and cons, usually emphasizing their technical criteria and considerations, the president is expected to decide on policy based solely on the merits of the information and advice received.
Studies over the years have emphasized several benefits of the formalistic model. For instance, by centralizing the management of the advisory process in the White House, the president guarantees a significant level of control over the decision‐making process (Porter). By defining formal hierarchical structures that are not dependent on interagency interactions, the president discourages conflict usually associated with bureaucratic politics (Johnson; George).
However, the formalistic model also has many limitations that can impair the decision‐making process. To begin with, by concentrating management of the process in a small group of key staffers, there is the risk that these individuals will become policy activists rather than neutral brokers who can guarantee that all the interested parties’ views are represented and that policy debates are balanced. Moreover, the model also places considerable burden on the staffers responsible for managing and supervising the advisory process (Porter). In periods of crisis or those beset with multiple serious issues, an amplified information flow can overwhelm even the most capable manager and lead to a bottleneck in the decision‐making process. Moreover, the hierarchical structure of the formalistic model can disenfranchise key officials and, consequently, hamper the president’s leadership (Porter). If cabinet members and agency heads feel they are not involved (or are viewed by their subordinates as not being involved) in the decision‐making process, their commitment to implementing the policy may be weakened.
Contrary to the highly centralized and hierarchical structure of the formalistic model, the collegial model emphasizes inclusiveness through the creation of a collective problem‐solving environment. Initially modeled on the Kennedy administration’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis, this model has been referenced on numerous occasions for its alleged benefits to foreign policy decision making (Bose). The model has since been associated with Presidents Lyndon Johnson (Pfiffner; Hess), Jimmy Carter (Moens; Da Vinha), George H. W. Bush (Snow and Haney), Bill Clinton (Mitchell; Snow and Haney), and Barack Obama (Rothkopf; Hook; Snow and Haney). The collegial model is essentially characterized by the following distinctive features:
- Advisors function as a problem‐solving team and are incentivized to openly air and discuss their differing views;
- Policy discussions are kept informal enough to encourage forthright discussions of all the information and the competing ideas and proposals;
- Advisors are encouraged to act as policy generalists rather than functional experts;
- Information flows into the problem‐solving team from multiple sources in the bureaucracy and is not subject to individual filters;
- The president acts as a magistrate who is directly exposed to the competing arguments and proposals of the different policy advocates;
- The president occasionally allocates overlapping assignments and will occasionally seek alternative sources of advice from subordinates.
In contrast to the formalistic model, the collegial system requires a much more active involvement on the part of the president. As Alexander Moens has made clear, the “president should follow the advocacy process closely by attending meetings if possible and by reading reports on all policy options so as to be informed about both the search and evaluation stages of the process.” However, the collegial model does admit the use of a custodian‐manager, usually in the person of the assistant to the president for national security affairs (APNSA), who can help the president manage the advisory process and guarantee he has access to a broad spectrum of assessments and proposals (George; Porter; Moens).
The comprehensive dimension of the collegial system also diverges from the formalistic model’s focus on optimal policy solutions. In other words, by seeking to create an inclusive advisory process, the collegial model emphasizes negotiation and compromise among the multiple advisors. This implies that the resulting policies are usually “substantively sound and politically doable” (Johnson). By airing opposing views and opinions, rather than suppressing them, the collegial model exposes the trade‐offs inherent in each proposal and allows the president to be cognizant of the multiple complex interests, objectives, and implications and to try and reconcile them in the formulation of policy. Moreover, by including all the relevant policy actors in the decision‐making process, the collegial model reinforces the president’s standing with the executive bureaucracy and helps assure greater congruence between policy formulation and implementation. Yet, regardless of its many acclaimed virtues, the collegial model also reveals several shortcomings. To begin with, the comprehensive nature of the deliberation process places a significant demand on the president and/or his custodian‐manager to guarantee that all views and opinions are presented and discussed (Johnson). Moreover, the model does not guarantee that the different advocates will represent all the available options. Participation alone does not assure that the advisors will present all the relevant information and policy alternatives. Be it for bureaucratic turf wars or political compliance, advisors may intentionally or unintentionally withhold information and advice, therefore, limiting the choices available to the president.
The competitive model is fashioned on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unique management style and has not been associated with any other president since. Considered one of the most politically proficient presidents of the modern era, Roosevelt espoused a “competitive theory of administration” in which he kept “grants of authority incomplete, jurisdictions uncertain, charters overlapping” (Schlesinger). Roosevelt’s high level of tolerance to conflict and disagreement led him to actively incentivize competition among his advisors to harness new and diverse views and opinions (Johnson; Greenstein). Accordingly, the competitive model is distinguished by several unique characteristics:
- The president purposefully encourages competition among advisors by attributing overlapping assignments and authority to individuals on an ad hoc basis and, subsequently, fostering organizational and jurisdictional ambiguity;
- The president centralizes the decision‐making process on himself by having competing advisors forced to bring policy problems and advice to him for final resolution;
- There are multiple channels of communication that the president frequently uses to communicate directly with subordinates in the bureaucracy (circumventing cabinet members and agency heads);
- There is minimal cooperation and collaboration among advisors;
- The president manages the advisory system selectively, thus avoiding being overloaded by policy discussions and recommendations (insisting on occasion that subordinates resolve existing conflicts among themselves).
The competitive model ultimately seeks to encourage the uninhibited airing of opinions, analyses, and advice and generate innovative policy solutions. While the model has seldom been implemented beyond Roosevelt, several presidential scholars have underlined its multiple benefits. Recognizing the limitations imposed by the growing institutionalization of the modern presidency, Richard Neustadt argued in favor of the benefits reaped by sowing rivalry among presidential advisors. More precisely, he claimed that “[i]n their relations to each other and the President, his official associates need stirring up; not with such frequency that they shrink into immobility, but just enough so that they are never absolutely confident in unchecked judgement of their chief’s own judgement, or of their colleagues’ either”. Others have made similar claims by endorsing the virtues of competition in generating “parallel processing” that provides presidents with better information and advice (Rudalevige).
Several other benefits have been associated with the competitive model. For instance, Porter has accentuated that, by having all advisors report directly to him, the president is able to convey a heightened sense of leadership and control. In addition, the model’s lack of routine and systematic processes offers the president a great deal of flexibility and allows him to act quickly and integrate multiple political considerations into a single process.
However, just like the previous approaches, the competitive model reveals several limitations of its own. For starters, the competitive model places a high burden on the president’s limited resources, namely on his time (Johnson; Porter). Contrary to its collegial counterpart, the competitive model minimizes the use of standardized and systematic patterns of policy deliberation. More precisely, the lack of formally structured processes creates a constant flux of information and a level of interaction that are not always easily managed by the president due to the pressing obligations of his office. The constant and overlapping flow of information also implies that the president is personally responsible for discerning what information is relevant and reliable and formulating a set of coherent policies within the administration. In other words, the lack of planning and formal procedures hinders the development of a comprehensive decision‐making process. In its place surface haphazard and ad hoc procedures and policies that can ultimately undermine a president’s long‐term success (Porter). Furthermore, the competitive model’s emphasis on rivalry is prone to generating conflict among the president’s subordinates. Internal conflict among political rivals has traditionally led to attempts of manipulating or “rigging” the policy‐making process (Hoyt and Garrison; Stern and Sundelius).
As mentioned above, the three models are ideal‐type conceptual and analytical frameworks. In reality, they are not mutually exclusive and presidents can and do adopt numerous elements and different mixes from each (George; Porter). Ultimately, each president employs the management model he believes best helps him deal with the challenges of the decision‐making process. These choices are also evidently tempered by a wide assortment of personal traits and proclivities that are exclusive to each individual president such as his need for power and control (Preston; Mitchell), sense of efficacy (George), political experience and knowledge (Neustadt; Preston), cognitive style and complexity (George; Preston; Hermann et al), level of tolerance of political conflict (Johnson; George), and political strategy (Newmann; Pika) as well as the political context at each particular moment in time (Neustadt; Johnson; Hermann et al). Moreover, presidential advisory systems evolve over time. Research on multiple presidential administrations has demonstrated that the relationships between presidents and their advisors change over the course of their presidencies (see Da Vinha; Link ; Newmann; Stern and Sundelius).
Foreign Policy Making in Trump’s First Year in Office
Without any prior significant political experience, Donald Trump arrived in Washington confident in his ability to implement his corporate management style and demonstrate that he could be as successful governing the nation as he allegedly was in running his business empire. Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump boasted that he was a “great” manager who could get things done. He blamed the misfortunes of America on the ineffectiveness of the Washington establishment and claimed to possess the talent others were lacking. For instance, when questioned early in the campaign about how he would deal with the issue of illegal immigration, Trump responded: “Government is incompetent. Guys like Bush and some others that I won’t name, they’re incompetent people. They don’t have it. They don’t have it. I agree, they can’t do it. But I’m a great manager. I know how to manage things” (cited in Cillizza).
Trump’s overarching confidence that he could successfully run the country stems from his conviction that there are no significant differences between running a private corporation and the executive branch of government. In fact, Trump has compared the functioning of the real estate business to government on multiple occasions. When considering running in the 2000 presidential race as the Reform Party candidate, he dismissed the New York Times‘ Adam Nagourney’s question about his lack of political experience by claiming that he was the biggest developer in New York and “[w]hile that’s real estate and this is politics, are they really so different?” (cited in Nagourney). In his book, Trump: The America We Deserve, Trump again discovered common traits in managing these two distinct worlds. While recognizing that “[t]here’s nothing really comparable to unleashing a squadron of bombers,” Trump, however, continued insisting that “in the world of business sometimes you have to make quick, secret, decisive moves in order to gain a negotiating advantage. I’ve done so a number of times, in getting around the objections of would‐be landmarks preservation people, in gaining the advantage in trying to secure air rights or a piece of property” (Trump and Shiflett, 132).
In reaching the White House, Trump vowed to complement his professed managerial prowess with a team composed of “the best people” and “experts in the field” (New York Times). In assembling his national security team, Trump selected individuals who largely espoused a realist internationalist view of international affairs (Pfiffner). Along with former Exxon Mobil chief executive officer (CEO), Rex Tillerson (secretary of state), many of the key positions in the realm of national security and foreign policy were occupied by military officials: General James Mattis (secretary of defense), General H. R. McMaster (APNSA), General John Kelly (secretary of homeland security), and General Joseph Dunford (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). Many reluctant observers believed that the generals would provide a balance to the nationalist and populist factions in the White House as well as moderate some of the president’s more radical views on international affairs (Kitfield).
In fact, Kelly’s elevation to chief of staff in mid‐2017 contributed to instilling more formal decision‐making processes in the White House after the chaotic initial months. Besides monitoring, limiting, and debriefing individuals who had contact with Trump (Haberman, Thrush, and Baker), Kelly sought to discipline the information flow to the president. Upon arrival, Kelly issued two memos codifying the rules and procedures defining how information was handled in the advisory process. With the help of the White House staff secretary, Robert Porter, Kelly established a process in which all materials prepared for the president needed to be vetted and cleared by Porter and then approved by Kelly before reaching the president’s desk (Haberman). In addition, Kelly set up a process in which all legally relevant policy issues—for example, executive orders—needed to be thoroughly discussed with the relevant interlocutors and organizations (Haberman).
In a similar fashion, McMaster also endeavored to restructure the National Security Council (NSC) after an initial period of instability marked by the unanticipated resignation of General Michael Flynn as APNSA after only 24 days on the job. McMaster replaced several members of the NSC brought on by Flynn and revised its organizational structure (Bender, Dawsey, and Toosi). National Security Presidential Memorandum–4 (NSPM‐4), issued on April 4, 2017, made some changes to the NSC, clarifying some earlier confusion regarding membership, and consolidated the APNSA’s authority in managing the NSC and the reinstated Homeland Security Council (HSC). In particular, NSPM‐4 reinforced McMaster’s role by establishing that the APNSA was responsible for determining the agenda for the NSC and HSC.
However, regardless of the formal structures established, the president can choose whose advice he wants to heed. As Henry Kissinger reminded us, “Presidents listen to advisers whose views they think they need, not to those who insist on a hearing because of the organization chart.” As mentioned above, Trump’s unique management style has markedly impacted the advisory process. Four decades of public exposure have revealed a consistent pattern of behavior that allows us to confidently identify the contours of Trump’s leadership style. Before assuming the presidency, Trump ran a small and informally structured private organization that lacked standard organizational protocols and procedures and a formal business development strategy (Kruse; O’Brien). Contrary to public perception, Trump’s role in his business organization did not resemble that of a typical CEO because the Trump Organization is a family‐owned limited liability company that does not have to abide by the many legal obligations regarding corporate transparency and where managers are subject to a substantial degree of oversight. As a result, Trump did not have to answer to a board of directors or shareholders and was able to make corporate decisions without restraints from other internal stakeholders. Parsing his public life and corporate career, journalist Michael Kruse keenly summarized Trump’s main managerial traits, highlighting “his impulsiveness, his affinity for broad‐brush thinking over nitty‐gritty policies, his preference for a small staff, his taste for internal competition and a kind of creative chaos, his reflexive reliance on blind loyalists instead of more disciplined surrogates, his reluctance to cede control.”
As president, Trump’s penchant for informality and loose organizational structures led him to assign overlapping responsibilities among his advisors, generating some confusion regarding who speaks for the administration on foreign policy. For example, despite the formal national security structure, Trump appointed his son‐in‐law, Jared Kushner, as the White House senior advisor responsible for several important international issues, such as promoting Middle East peace, and as liaison to Mexico, China, and the Arab states (LaFraniere, Haberman, and Baker). Moreover, Trump’s lax involvement in White House affairs also allowed uncertainty to foster as to who had effective authority on defining foreign policy. Several administration officials clashed on the details of Trump’s foreign policy on numerous occasions throughout the first year (see Nelson; Phillip and DeBonis; Rucker and Costa).
News media and other commentators would have us believe that Trump employs a management style that bears considerable resemblance to the competitive model (see Bauer; Carafano; DeMuth; Sullivan and Costa; Associated Press). According to these accounts, Trump has a well‐defined modus operandi in which staff is “encouraged to hustle their way up the food chain, competing ferociously with each other to win Trump’s respect, and always seeking out new ways to prove their value” (Coppins). Former Trump campaign aides James Carafano and Sam Nunberg have justified Trump’s alleged penchant for instigating internal competition as a means of encouraging creativity and policy innovation (Associated Press; Carafano.
However, these accounts do not withstand empirical scrutiny. The following three case studies counter the conventional accounts of President Trump’s management style: the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the decertification of the JCPOA, and the recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
These studies illustrate how Trump’s decision‐making style deviates from the three standard approaches to presidential management. The internal competition reported by the media and other observers has not resulted from a deliberate attempt to implement coherent structures and processes. Rather, it is the byproduct of Trump’s policy detachment and proclivity for making improvised decisions based on his gut feeling. All three case studies focus on policy discussions that were carried out during the administration’s first year in office and resulted in changes to existing U.S. policy. The case studies employ a structured‐focus comparison method that is framed on a set of general and standardized questions used to analyze each individual case (George and Bennett). The questions framing the analyses are: (1) What is the role of the president in the advisory system? (2) What is the role and relationship among the advisors in the advisory system? (3) What are the procedures for managing the advisory system? (4) What is the general dynamic of the decision‐making process?
Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change
The 2015 Paris Agreement was a watershed in the global struggle to tackle climate change. After the failure of several attempts to address the issue at the global level—for example, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992), the Kyoto Protocol (1997), and the Copenhagen Accord (2009)—the Paris Agreement represents the first international accord that contains policy obligations for addressing climate change for all countries. The agreement sought to coordinate individual nations’ attempts to confront global climate change by mitigating emissions, adapting to the effects of climate change, and mobilizing the financial support required for this transformation. It committed all its signatories to regularly prepare, update, and report on national mitigation targets and other measures aimed at meeting their domestic targets. However, unlike previous accords, a nation’s reduction targets are not legally binding (Brun). The agreement received widespread international praise. Even those skeptical of its success acknowledged that “the Paris Agreement justifies cautious optimism about the future of international climate policy” (Bodansky, 319).
However, not all agreed with the agreement’s overarching rationale and objectives. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump gave voice to climate change skeptics by deriding climate change as a “hoax” allegedly devised by China (BBC News). He repeatedly denounced the Paris Agreement and promised to renegotiate or pull the United States out of the accord if elected. In a major campaign speech on energy policy delivered in North Dakota, Trump, alluding to the Paris Agreement, warned that “[a]ny regulation that’s outdated, unnecessary, bad for workers or contrary to the national interest will be scrapped and scrapped completely” (cited in BBC News). Not surprisingly, once in office several of his administration’s key officials began preparing to make good on the president’s campaign pledge. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, promptly began working on revising the Clean Power Plan approved by the Obama administration and practically ensuring the United States would not be able to meet the pollution reduction targets laid out in the Paris Agreement (Davenport).
Pruitt had made a career fighting federal environmental regulations and refuting the scientific consensus on climate change. As the debate within the administration over what to do about the Paris Agreement gained momentum, Pruitt found common ground with several other administration officials who also challenged the established canons of environmental science such as the White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and the energy secretary, Rick Perry. By early May, the internal discussion focused on Article 4.11 of the agreement that states that a nation “may at any time adjust its existing nationally determined contribution with a view of enhancing its level of ambition” (cited in Schwartz). Pruitt and Bannon, with the support of White House counsel Don McGahn, argued that the article stipulated that nations could not weaken their commitments for lowering carbon levels without violating the terms of the agreement—thus opening up the administration to potential lawsuits (Eilperin; Schwartz). Therefore, Pruitt and Bannon urged Trump to withdraw completely from the Paris Agreement. On the opposite side of the debate were Rex Tillerson (secretary of state); Gary Cohn (director of the National Economic Council); and the president’s daughter and senior advisor Ivanka Trump, who advocated in favor of continuing U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement. While acknowledging shortcomings in the agreement, they advocated that staying would afford the United States greater leverage in trying to renegotiate some of its provisions.
The policy debate ran its course over the initial four months of the presidency when there were few formal decision‐making structures and processes implemented in the White House. During this period, Trump’s closest advisors, and even lower‐level staff, had walk‐in privileges, meaning they did not require an appointment or authorization to access the president (Karni). This informal operational environment, associated with Trump’s penchant for personal relationships and encouraging competition among subordinates, spurred advisors to regularly interact directly with the president (Palmeri and Restuccia). The chief of staff, Reince Priebus, also lacked the authority to impose discipline in the White House. Besides having to share power with several other key advisors, Trump regularly belittled Priebus, further eroding his authority among administration officials (Parker). In fact, Trump willingly renounced the use of a custodian‐manager who could help organize and mediate the internal debate.
Consequently, both factions struggled to define the policy on the Paris Agreement by employing a host of issue‐selling strategies to try to personally convince the president of the merits of their proposals. According to reports, “Bannon and Pruitt worked quietly to make sure Trump was hearing their side and touched base occasionally on political strategy to woo him” (Restuccia and Dawsey). Both advisors were instrumental in amplifying the voices of the adversaries of the Paris Agreement. Throughout the year, they actively encouraged lawmakers and conservative groups to pressure the president by publicly criticizing the agreement. Moreover, in their meetings with Trump, Pruitt and Bannon used a presentation strategy that sought to legitimize their claims by providing supporting evidence. More precisely, they armed themselves “with reams of documents filled with numbers and statistics showing what they said would be the negative effects on the US economy if the United States remained in the climate deal” (Parker, Rucker, and Birnbaum).
Similar strategies were employed by advisors that favored maintaining the United States in the Paris Agreement. Ivanka Trump, for instance, established a process in which Trump would regularly consult with political leaders, business leaders, and foreign representatives who supported the agreement (Parker, Rucker, and Birnbaum; Restuccia and Dawsey). Corporate executives such as Tim Cook (Apple), Elon Musk (Tesla), and Andre Liveris (Dow Chemical) joined Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron in urging Trump to maintain America’s commitment to the climate accord. In fact, in an open letter to the president published in the Wall Street Journal, 30 of America’s top corporate CEOs appealed to Trump by claiming, “We are committed to working with you to create jobs and boost US competitiveness, and we believe this can be best achieved by remaining in the Paris Agreement” (Winston).
Still another group, consisting of Reince Priebus (chief of staff), Marc Short (director of legislative affairs), and Nick Ayers (senior strategist for the vice president), offered a third alternative. Rather than withdrawing from the accord, these officials argued that the Paris Agreement should be considered a treaty. Accordingly, in accordance with the constitutional distribution of powers, the president should send it to the Senate for ratification (Parker, Rucker, and Birnbaum). However, the proposal garnered little support within the administration and was soon dropped.
As the internal debate ensued, some of the attempts to convince Trump began taking their toll. If there is one thing Trump does not like it is to be contradicted or have his reputation challenged (Johnston; Kranish and Fischer). As the faction in favor of maintaining the United States in the Paris Agreement intensified their efforts to convince Trump, they effectively put into question many of his earlier claims and promises. Reports indicate that many of the efforts to sway Trump actually were counterproductive because they defied not only his views on environmental issues but also his economic proposals. For instance, after advocates such as Cohn argued that the end of the coal era was near, “Trump only became more adamant that pulling out of the Paris pact could help rescue the US coal industry” (Parker, Rucker, and Birnbaum).
While not binding himself to any definite position, by mid‐May, Trump increasingly signaled his preference for challenging the Paris Agreement. In the G7 summit held in Italy that same month, the United States clashed with the other world leaders as Trump refused to endorse the climate accord. The political rift was evident in the summit’s final communiqué, which stressed that, despite the six nations’ commitment to the Paris Agreement, the “United States of America is in the process of reviewing its policies on climate change and on the Paris Agreement and thus is not in a position to join the consensus on these topics” (European Council).
Therefore, without great surprise, on June 1, Trump officially announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. In a statement issued in the Rose Garden, the president rehashed many of the arguments of his “America First” campaign to justify his decision. According to Trump, the agreement exemplified the ruinous international accords that exploited the United States by “leaving American workers … and taxpayers to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production” (The White House). He reiterated his willingness to renegotiate the accord or negotiate a new agreement that would be fairer to the United States. However, according to Trump, no agreement could hamper the United States’ domestic sovereignty.
The reactions to the administration’s policy were immediate. Political and business leaders across the globe criticized the decision and openly expressed their disappointment. Several informal advisors to the president also distanced themselves from the administration. For instance, corporate CEOs Kenneth Frazier (Merck), Bob Iger (Disney), Travis Kalanick (Uber), Brian Krzanich (Intel), Elon Musk (Tesla), and Kevin Plank (Under Armour) all resigned from their presidential advisory councils. More significantly, however, the international community rebuked the administration’s decision by reiterating their commitment to the accord. For instance, the European Union and China issued an unprecedented joint statement in Brussels committing both sides to fully implement the Paris Agreement (Volcovici and Mason). Later that year, in November, at the United Nation’s climate conference in Bonn, Germany, the international community continued to move forward with its climate agenda, as multiple U.S. states formalized agreements with Canada and Mexico to meet their share of the U.S. commitment to the Paris accord (Siders, Holden, and Oroschakoff). Meanwhile, as the United States withdrew from the international agreement, China assumed a greater role in promoting multilateral cooperation by promising to take the “driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change” (Xi Jinping, cited in Sengupta).
Decertification of the Iran Nuclear Deal
In July 2015, the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia, the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Iran signed the JCPOA. The agreement established that Iran would curb its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of many of the sanctions imposed by the United Nations. More precisely, the JCPOA provides numerous stipulations on Iran’s future behavior: (1) Iran would decrease its stockpile of low‐enriched uranium by 98 percent for a period of 15 years; (2) Iran would place over two‐thirds of its centrifuges in storage and limit any uranium enrichment capacity to the Natanz plant; (3) Iran would refrain from building any new uranium enrichment facilities for a period of 15 years; (4) Iran would cease enriching uranium at the Fordow facility for a period of at least 15 years; (5) Iran agreed to an Additional Protocol agreement which would continue in perpetuity for as long as it remains a party to the Non‐Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty signed in 1968; and (6) Iran accepted a comprehensive regime of inspection and verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), namely providing access to its declared nuclear sites in Natanz and Fordow (Sterio). The JCPOA is believed to increase the break‐out time Iran needs to build a nuclear weapon from two or three months to an entire year and also provides the mechanisms for resolving any potential disputes regarding Iran’s compliance with the terms of the agreement (Sterio).
Though the JCPOA garnered significant international support, throughout the campaign, Trump disparaged the agreement and promised to dismantle it once in office (Parsi). Despite opposition to the agreement in Congress, particularly among Republicans, and the submission of several joint resolutions of disapproval in the Senate and the House, no congressional resolution on the JCPOA was enacted (Kerr and Katzman). Therefore, upon arriving in Washington, the administration promptly seized on the issue and the then APNSA, Michael Flynn, declared the United States was “officially putting Iran on notice” (DeYoung). A few days later, the administration imposed sanctions on Iran as a response to a ballistic missile test and alleged support of terrorism in the Middle East. However, despite the more aggressive rhetoric, in April the administration begrudgingly confirmed that Iran was complying with the obligations set out in the JCPOA.
In the meantime, the White House began conducting a review of its Iran policy, including an evaluation of the provisions of the JCPOA (Morello). While there was a broad consensus in the administration that Iran was involved in prohibited activities not covered by the agreement, officials split internally between supporters of the accord and detractors who advocated decertifying the JCPOA. However, during the initial months, Tillerson, Mattis, and McMaster successfully argued that while Iran should be castigated for its belligerent actions in the Middle East, the nuclear agreement should not be linked to these activities (DeYoung; Hayes and Warren). Therefore, on July 17, 2017, Trump again reluctantly certified to Congress that Iran continued to meet the conditions stipulated in the agreement.
By this time, however, Trump had grown increasingly frustrated with having to renege on one of his signature foreign policy campaign pledges. Reports attest to Trump’s exasperation with his national security team: [Trump] was incensed by the arguments of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and others that the landmark 2015 deal, while flawed, offered stability and other benefits. He did not want to certify to Congress that the agreement remained in the vital US national security interest and that Iran was meeting its obligations. He did not think either was true. (Gearan)
In a meeting on July 17, Trump demanded more options from his advisors and promised not to certify the agreement again in the future (Hayes and Warren; Johnson). Without formal decision‐making structures and processes in place and mindful of Trump’s dissatisfaction with the existing choices, advisors again vied to sway the president and define American policy toward Iran. His national security team scrambled to find a compromise plan that would satisfy the president’s abhorrence of the agreement without completely invalidating it. McMaster and his NSC team sought to find a compromise solution that would accommodate Trump’s visceral opposition to the JCPOA without abrogating it completely (Gearan).
The nationalist faction in the White House, for its part, sought to play to Trump’s personal convictions about the agreement. On July 17, Steve Bannon gave Trump an op‐ed titled “Trump Must Withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal—Now” written by the former UN ambassador John Bolton. Bolton’s article resonated with Trump because it articulated the reasons for the United States to withdraw from the JCPOA—that is, Iran was not complying with the terms of the agreement, the regime continued to advance its nuclear program, and therefore the agreement was not in the national security interest of the United States (Hayes and Warren). Facing the opposition from his national security team, Trump personally involved Senator Tom Cotton in the internal debate to make the case for decertification. Cotton had been one of the fiercest Republican opponents of the Iran deal in Congress and had long advocated that without congressional approval it could be reversed through executive action (Baker). He reiterated this argument in his first meeting with Trump in 2015. Therefore, when his national security team failed to provide him with an option to abandon the JCPOA during the July 17 meeting, Trump called Cotton and put him on speakerphone to make his case for decertification. According to reports, “Cotton took five minutes and walked Trump and his team through the case, emphasizing one point in particular: recertifying the deal would be declaring that it was in the national security interest of the United States, something Cotton understood that Trump didn’t believe” (Hayes and Warren).
UN ambassador Nikki Haley also actively endeavored to convince the president to decertify the agreement. Playing on Trump’s personal desire to reject the agreement, in August Haley received the president’s approval to visit the IAEA in Vienna and inquire about Iran’s compliance, despite Tillerson’s opposition. Haley quickly capitalized on her visit by publicly expressing her reservations regarding the agreement in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in early September. Within the administration, she was one of the most vocal sponsors of decertification of the JCPOA. She openly sought to provide Trump with options such as endorsing a policy that would refuse to certify the agreement and simultaneously involve Congress in the development of new conditions to try to constrain Iran’s behavior. As she reasoned at the American Enterprise Institute, “[i]f the president finds that he cannot certify Iranian compliance, it would be a message to Congress that the administration believes either that Iran is in violation of the deal, or that the lifting of sanctions against Iran is not appropriate and proportional to the regime’s behavior, or that the lifting of sanctions is not in the US national security interest, or any combination of the three” (cited in Hayes and Warren). Haley’s efforts were bolstered by others outside the administration. For instance, John Bolton personally continued to impress on Trump the need for a more assertive policy. Despite the new chief of staff’s attempts to limit Bolton’s access to the president, Trump’s proclivity for informal and unconventional sources of information allowed the former ambassador to exercise a disproportionate amount of influence in defining the administration’s Iran policy (Johnson).
Trump’s speech at the UN General Assembly in September hinted at his looming decision. In his scathing attack on the regime in Tehran, Trump disparaged the JCPOA as a ruinous agreement and warned that “[w]e cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilizing activities while building dangerous missiles, and we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program” (The White House). After his address, Trump told reporters that he had already decided on the administration’s course of action—catching his own secretary of state by surprise (Nakamura and Gearan).
As the deadline for certifying the agreement approached, members of his national security team continued to try to convince the president to maintain the Iran deal. Some advisors sought to compel the president by making their views public. For instance, in early October, both the secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that they believed that Iran was complying with the conditions stipulated in the agreement (Gibbons‐Neff and Sanger). Nevertheless, Trump had already received the information that supported his views and would not yield. Accordingly, the national security team, led by McMaster, developed a compromise solution—decertifying the agreement but avoiding the reimposition of congressional sanctions on Iran. McMaster and other officials planned to curtail new sanctions by assuring members of Congress that the administration would initiate a pressure campaign against Iran, particularly targeting Iranian‐backed militias and terrorist groups and their financial networks (Johnson). According to reports, the proposal sought to “allow the president to demonstrate contempt for the agreement and broadcast a new level of toughness toward the Iranian regime—without triggering the international chaos several of his advisors warn would follow from a total withdrawal from the 2015 deal” (Johnson). In other words, the president could fulfill his campaign pledge to decertify the agreement by foisting the decision to reimpose any punitive measures onto Congress. As a result, on October 13, 2017, Trump announced that he would not certify the agreement due to Iran’s violation of the spirit of the accord by allegedly continuing “to fuel conflict, terror, and turmoil throughout the Middle East and beyond” (The White House).
By snubbing his national security team’s initial recommendations and embracing his “America First” agenda, Trump again isolated the United States. China and Russia quickly cautioned the administration of the potential implications of the decision (Cockburn; Zheng). European leaders also issued similar concerns, calling for the United States to maintain the agreement (Calamur). The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, was adamant in refuting Trump’s accusations against Iran and claiming that “renegotiation is not an option.” Furthermore, the decision has also limited America’s capability to address the problem directly. As reports indicate, the Iranian regime rejected American overtures for direct contact between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in September (DeYoung). According to the French sources that brokered the contact between U.S. administration officials and Tehran, the Iranians snubbed the offer due to their distrust of America’s intentions.
Since the decision to decertify the deal, all sides have become entrenched and little progress has been made to resolve the impasse. The Trump administration delayed the reimposition of sanctions again on January 12, 2018. Once more, Trump threatened to unilaterally withdraw from the JCPOA unless the terms of the agreement were changed. In particular, the administration wanted to impose restrictions on Iranian missile tests, expand international inspectors access to Iranian military bases, and remove the “sunset clause” and extend the agreement’s expiration date (Landler, Sanger, and Harris). However, European allies are still disinclined to significantly alter the agreement, particularly without support from Russia and China and the endorsement of the Iranians. Yet, as tensions increased and Trump’s rhetoric intensified, Iran formally informed the IAEA in January that it had decided to “construct naval nuclear propulsion in future” (Times of Israel).
For its part, the administration continued to show signs of disorder as Trump continued to threaten the Iranian regime throughout the spring of 2018 and then unexpectedly announcing in late July that he was willing to meet with Iran’s leaders without any preconditions. The administration’s surprise was illustrated by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement the following day claiming that, while he supported the president’s disposition to engage with Teheran, the Iranian regime would first need to meet certain conditions (Toosi). However, just a few days later, in early August, the Trump administration reimposed economic sanctions on Iran, further straining America’s relationship with its European allies and China. In particular, the European Union responded by implementing a blocking statute to try to protect European companies that continue to do business with Iran and allow the companies affected by the sanctions to sue the U.S. government (Khan).
Recognizing Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel
During the presidential campaign Trump considered the prospect of brokering peace in the Middle East to be the “ultimate deal.” Trump, however, provided few details as to what he envisioned to be the main contours of a potential negotiated settlement. In fact, when questioned about the status of Jerusalem at the Republican Jewish Coalition in late 2015, Trump was jeered as he wavered in his response and claimed he would wait to discuss the issue with regional leaders before making up his mind (Weigel). The question of Jerusalem has long been a delicate issue for U.S. presidents. U.S. policy on Jerusalem has evolved over the decades as conditions on the ground have changed (Slonim). However, since signing the Oslo Accords in 1995, U.S. presidents have avoided making any commitment regarding Jerusalem’s status. Even after Congress approved the “Jerusalem Embassy Act,” which formally recognized the city as Israel’s capital and called for the U.S. embassy in Israel to be moved there by 1999, every president since has resisted the move by using their waiver authority.
Despite his initial hesitation, in March 2016, Trump assured the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that “[w]e will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem” (cited in Landler). After the election, he shared his enthusiasm with several pro‐Israel supporters such as billionaire Sheldon Adelson and legal scholar Alan Dershowitz (Dawsey, Ryan, and DeYoung; Landler). However, even before the inauguration, senior officials in the Trump administration had already begun a heated debate on the policy regarding Jerusalem. On one side were Tillerson and Mattis, joined by McMaster after he became the APNSA, who argued that moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem would endanger U.S. troops and diplomats in the Middle East and potentially create international backlash. On the other side, aides such as Pence, Bannon, Kushner, Haley, David Friedman (U.S. ambassador to Israel), and Jason Greenblatt (special representative for international negotiations) endeavored to convince Trump to push forward with the move. The competition between these two factions to shape policy resulted in the “contradictory messages and media leaks emanating from the White House on the issue of moving the embassy” (Ravid and Tibon).
By the early summer, the national security team led by Tillerson and Mattis had persuaded Trump to hesitatingly sign a waiver delaying the relocation of the U.S. embassy. The departments of State and Defense highlighted the risks to U.S. regional security if the president approved the decision to relocate the embassy. Tillerson and Mattis requested more time to assess the situation and reinforce American outposts in the region. Moreover, while favoring the move, Kushner and Greenblatt also supported the delay at that moment on the basis that the move might jeopardize the Middle East peace plan that they had begun working on (Dawsey, Ryan, and DeYoung).
Bannon and Friedman recognized the strength of Tillerson’s and Mattis’ arguments. However, they were also keenly aware of the president’s frustration with recanting on his campaign promise. Accordingly, they began advocating for the recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital as an alternative (Ravid and Tibon). Throughout the summer both factions continued to try to influence Trump’s decision. As the new deadline for a decision loomed in the final months of the year, Trump became increasingly frustrated with the process and promised that he would not sign a waiver again. On November 27, Trump walked into a NSC Principals Committee meeting demanding alternative policy proposals. According to reports, at that meeting, Trump “repeated his earlier assertions that he had to follow through on his campaign pledge, seemingly irritated by objections over security and the break with previous policy” (Dawsey, Ryan, and DeYoung; see also Gearan). The officials at the meeting provided two alternatives: “sign the waiver again, or sign it but recognize Jerusalem as the capital and set in motion a plan to move the embassy” (Landler).
By this time, Kushner and Greenblatt were also pushing the president to acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital. Kushner was particularly enthusiastic because it gave him an opportunity to reassert some of the influence he had lost over the months in the foreign policy‐making process (Karni). However, Kushner’s support also attested to his lack of success in moving the peace process forward throughout the year. Moreover, those favoring this position argued that by removing the issue of Jerusalem from the equation they would eliminate a source of ambiguity in the peace process and also bolster Trump’s credibility as a negotiator “by showing he can be trusted to deliver on promises” (Halbfinger, Landler, and Kershner). The officials predicted pushback from the Palestinians and other international actors but assured the president that after the initial objection, the Palestinians would have no choice but to return to the negotiation process (Landler).
Thus, after consulting with foreign leaders and members of Congress, on December 6, Trump announced that the United States officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He declared that the decision was “in the best interests of the United States of America” and “a long‐overdue step to advance the peace process and to work towards a lasting agreement” (The White House). While claiming to support a two‐state solution if both parties agreed to it and assuring he was not taking a definitive position on the boundaries in Jerusalem, Trump did not, however, place any demands on Israel or address any of the Palestinian concerns.
While Trump’s decision was well received by his domestic constituency, it quickly drew international condemnation and placed the United States’ role as the primary mediator between Israelis and Palestinians in question (Cowell). Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas announced that the Palestinians would no longer accept U.S. mediation in the peace talks: “We do not accept any role of the United States in the political process from now on, because it is completely biased towards Israel” (cited in Beaumont). Since then, the Palestinian Authority has rejected several U.S. overtures. For instance, in March 2018, it turned down the White House’s invitation to attend a conference organized to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza (Landler). Moreover, in late December, the United States suffered a humiliating international rebuff when the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to reject the administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. While largely symbolic, the fact that 128 members voted in favor of the resolution, despite significant diplomatic efforts by U.S. officials, illustrated the United States’ increasing international isolation. More ominously, the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem in May 2018 was marked by widespread violence on the Israeli–Gaza border, resulting in over 50 Palestinian deaths and over 2,400 injured (Schwartz and Jones).
President Trump’s first year in office offered an opportunity to assess the self‐proclaimed “master negotiator’s” (see Trump management style. Many observers and political pundits have argued that Trump’s management style is similar to the competitive model idealized by both Johnson and George. However, despite some similarities in appearance and rhetoric, Trump’s management style has differed significantly from Roosevelt’s “competitive adhocracy” (Dickinson).
Trump is a political maverick with no clearly defined management strategy. Aloof to the details and complexities of the policy‐making process, Trump’s mercurial personality and instinctual behavior have hindered the development of a thoughtful and structured advisory process. As a result, and as this structured‐focus comparison of the three case studies illustrates, during his first year in office Trump’s advisory process displayed a pattern of competition, conflict, and conformity. As president, Trump continued his penchant for capriciously promoting competition among his advisors either by assigning overlapping authority to different individuals and agencies (e.g., Jared Kushner’s role in mediating the Middle East peace process or serving as a liaison to several countries) or fostering rivalries among advisors (e.g., authorizing Halley to meet with the IAEA despite Tillerson’s objections). Moreover, despite attempts by his chief of staff to limit unimpeded personnel access to the president and to establish procedures for vetting the information and proposals placed on his desk, Trump has routinely circumvented Kelly’s protocols by seeking and accepting information and advice from other sources, specifically outside the government (Haberman, Thrush, and Baker). Presidents have routinely used outside information, but these sources have traditionally been used as a supplement to the internal advisory process, not as a substitute (Porter).
By allowing advisors to compete for his attention, Trump has created an environment rife with internal conflicts. Since the initial days of the Trump administration, reports have flourished on the existence of multiple rivalries within the White House. Many of these conflicts derive from the fact that presidential advisors know Trump lacks a fixed ideology or well‐defined policy preferences and, hence, believe that if they can gain direct access to him they will have a high probability of influencing his positions. Among many administration officials the struggle to influence policy has been coupled with the fight for self‐preservation leading aides to try to discredit each other and undermine conflicting proposals. Leaking information has become a staple of the administration because “as the trash talk becomes ubiquitous, the confusion over who said what about whom has forced White House players to adopt reporters as allies” (Shafer). This environment has also created a significant level of uncertainty regarding who effectively speaks for the United States in international affairs.
Indeed, the president has always had the final word on policy. However, Trump has taken this claim further by abrogating the standard policy‐making structures. While Kelly and McMaster endeavored to implement more structured and comprehensive advisory processes, Trump’s reliance on his instinct and his proclivity for impulsive behavior have upended many policy deliberations and contributed to several policy reversals. As mentioned above, Trump tolerates competition and conflict to receive the advice that he wants to hear, regardless of the costs to his aides or the established procedures. In the three cases analyzed, Trump maintained his campaign promises regardless of the advice provided by his national security team.
After Trump has formally decided on a policy, advisors have consistently conformed to his policy choices. As the case studies reveal, despite their concerns regarding the consequences of Trump’s inclinations, the national security team has been reluctant to actively question the president’s decisions. Even Mattis, who has been praised for his frankness, has avoided overtly challenging Trump (Parker and Jaffe). Likewise, advisors have increasingly conformed to the president’s management style, abandoning attempts to curtail some of his more mercurial traits (Karni).
Being a seasoned politician, Roosevelt purposefully instigated rivalry among his advisors to foster different ideas (Johnson). Trump’s unconventional approach has so far deviated from this goal in the sense that, despite having access to divergent information and advice, he has consistently followed his initial instincts and disregarded the counsel of his national security team. The national security team endeavored to implement a comprehensive deliberation process and revealed a significant level of consensus in its recommendations as to how to proceed with the Paris Agreement, the JCPOA, and the question of Jerusalem. However, in each case examined and despite their expertise in international affairs, Mattis, McMaster, and Tillerson were never able to sway the president. On the contrary, Trump seized on the information and advice provided by other administration officials and external sources to legitimize his decisions. This behavior confirms reports that claim that Trump seeks out information that reinforces his existing beliefs and opinions (Sullivan and Costa; Haberman, Thrush, and Baker). This ad hoc and piecemeal form of decision‐making resulted in an incoherent foreign policy throughout the Trump administration’s first year in office.
Clearly, none of the presidential management models per se guarantee good decisions and policy outcomes. Decision‐making structures and processes should fit the management style of each individual president. However, there are many risks inherent to the way Trump manages his advisory process. To begin with, it is intrinsically dependent on the president’s direct intervention. The objective of having a good advisory system in place is for it to be able to perform without the direct involvement of the president: The decision‐making structures that a president puts in place must be able to operate in an atmosphere of divided presidential attention, and perhaps the lack of presidential attention, should this occur. Furthermore, part of the goal in constructing an advisory system is for presidents to be able to have confidence in the advice they receive without having constantly to supervise the advisors. (Haney, 954)
The failure to do so generates significant hazards. As Haney reminds us, the “lack of management, or the failure to use the structures of decision making, may have negative consequences for the quality of the decision‐making process that emerges in a crisis.” The improvised form of decision making employed by Trump creates significant challenges to the administration and to U.S. foreign policy in crisis situations.
In truth, Trump has on several occasions employed an orderly deliberation process, such as in the case of Afghanistan. The administration discussed the U.S. strategy for South Asia for months as opposing parties tried to sway the president toward their policy prescriptions. Ultimately, despite his campaign rhetoric, Trump sided with his military advisors and decided to raise the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by nearly 4,000. McMaster, Mattis, and Kelly were able to convince the president that a U.S. withdrawal would have negative consequences throughout the region. In this case, Trump sided with his national security team because this decision allowed him to “be seen as a strong and decisive leader” (Rucker and Costa). However, during the administration’s initial year in office, prolonged deliberation was not the norm in formulating U.S. foreign policy.
Despite the occasional claims of Trump’s “method to madness,” the president’s unique management style also presents risks for his own leadership. More precisely, in seeking to gain Trump’s approval and influence policy, aides are tempted to exceed their mandate and assume risky moves that can potentially create problems for the president. The examples of Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos illustrate the risks associated with giving advisors free range and promoting policy entrepreneurship without establishing definitive boundaries for their conduct (see Helderman and Hamburger; Mazzetti and Schmidt). More disturbing, because advisors have consistently conformed to Trump’s personality and avoided challenging his decisions directly and assertively, they have sought alternative forms of influencing policy. Numerous reports have revealed how advisors have employed a broad array of schemes to try to manipulate Trump: delay decisions, ask people outside the White House to intervene on their behalf, incentivize members of Congress to rebuke the president, use the media to preempt a decision, tailor information to the sensitivities of the president, tell allies to disregard the president’s statements, and simply ignore the president’s demands (Birnbaum and Witte; Dawsey; Priess; Sherman). This surreptitious behavior has alarmed many commentators who view these initiatives as a potential threat to the constitutional order (Frum).
Presidential scholars have shown that advisory systems evolve over time, as the relationship between president and his advisors change (Link; Newmann). Therefore, the possibility exists that Trump may eventually change the way he manages his foreign policy‐making process. However, throughout his second year in office the president has maintained his tendency to disregard formal decision‐making structures and processes and follow his own instincts. For example, in early March 2018, Trump decided to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports despite recommendations to the contrary from Cohn, Tillerson, Mattis, and McMaster (White and Restuccia). In fact, commerce secretary Wilbur Ross and White House aide Peter Navarro helped Trump develop the policy without consulting any of the other administration officials. As Paletta and Dawsey reported, “Ross and Navarro didn’t drive the decision to impose the tariffs, but they helped Trump craft it in secret … aware that lawmakers and other top advisors would try to torpedo any decision if they found out in advance.”
If anything, in his second year in office, Trump’s confidence in his political instincts has grown and he has increasingly sought to eschew the intricacies inherent in formal decision‐making processes (Parker; Haberman and Rogers; Miller and Colvin). Trump’s detached policy‐making approach, however, continues to embolden his aides’ entrepreneurial initiatives and fuel infighting. The “expletive‐packed shouting match” in Beijing between Steven Mnuchin (secretary of the Treasury) and Peter Navarro (White House advisor) over American trade policy with China epitomizes the conflict‐ridden environment that festers within the administration (Paletta).
In developing his management models over four decades ago, Johnson recognized that aides and advisors may magnify or decrease a president’s strengths or weaknesses. So far, Trump’s advisors have been unsuccessful in mitigating many of his most basic personality quirks. Only time will tell if the pattern of competition, conflict, and conformity will endure. But if the personnel changes verified in the early months of the second year are any indication, conformity may become the central feature of Trump’s foreign policy advisory system. During this period, several key administration officials such as Tillerson, McMaster, and Cohn were replaced by individuals more attuned to Trump’s “America First” agenda—that is, Mike Pompeo (secretary of state), John Bolton (APNSA), and Larry Kudlow (director of the National Economic Council). Bolton has further stifled foreign policy discussions by revamping the NSC staff and curtailing the number of high‐level NSC meetings in which the principals can hash out their different views and proposals (Landler; Toosi, Bender, and Johnson). Moreover, Mattis’ and Kelly’s influence have diminished significantly as the president increasingly looks to allies outside of his administration for advice and support for his policies (Cook; Johnson; Kube and Lee).
Accordingly, the “America First” foreign policy promised by the president during his campaign is increasingly becoming a “Trump First” foreign policy. In this sense, the president seeks, first and foremost, to impose his predetermined views and policies over the counsel of his experts. As he bluntly admitted at the end of his first year in office, “I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be” (cited in Chappell).