Trump's boss act doesn't always work
Posted May 1, 2018 6:43 p.m. EDT
(CNN) — Back in the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump was asked who advised him on foreign policy and he answered: "My primary consultant is myself."
Fifteen months into his presidency, the consequences of that defining character trait of always needing to be boss are becoming clear -- and it doesn't always work out to Trump's advantage.
The latest sign of Trump's need for control is highlighted by the list of questions that special counsel Robert Mueller wants to pose in an interview. Many cover comments, tweets and actions by the President while acting as his own chief lawyer in the Russia probe and as he tries to assert his will on the Justice Department.
Trump is also following his own advice in high-stakes dealings with North Korea, in the Iran nuclear deal and with America's friends in Europe and Asia on a hardball trade policy.
Often, he's disregarding the advice of senior aides, allied leaders and his lawyers.
Sometimes his determination to have his way is leading America and the world along a risky and uncertain path. He also seems to be deepening his own legal exposure. In other areas, it's possible that governing on a whim could pay off.
No one can tell how any of it will end. But there is no doubt that Trump intends to dictate his own fate, whatever it is.
Mueller vs. Trump
Trump's adamant refusal to be managed by his own legal team was revealed as never before in questions drawn up by his lawyers after their conversations with Mueller.
Four dozen queries, published by The New York Times, cover his alleged efforts to shield his first national security adviser -- Michael Flynn -- from James Comey, his firing of the former FBI director, his tweets and criticism of senior FBI officials and alleged campaign coordination with Russia.
A more reticent client who is less determined to dictate the management of his legal case might have given Mueller less ground to cover.
"He is constantly shooting himself in the foot by sending tweets like this, by talking so much," Daniel Goldman, a former assistant US attorney, told CNN's Brooke Baldwin on Tuesday. "You can see it in the questions that Mueller wants to ask."
Many of Trump's supporters might wonder why the President doesn't just put down the phone and quit tweeting -- for his own self-preservation. But that's unlikely to happen.
"He is determined to control the narrative," Joseph Moreno, a former federal prosecutor, said Tuesday on CNN.
The President's reflexive need to shape his story was also on display Tuesday when he tweeted that Mueller had "no questions on collusion" even though the list of questions showed the special counsel was intimately interested in such alleged conduct.
It's hardly the first time Trump has threatened his own legal position with his statements. Last week, in an interview with "Fox and Friends" he said that the percentage of his legal work entrusted to his personal lawyer Michael Cohen was a "tiny, tiny, little fraction."
That statement undermined Cohen's lawyers, who had been claiming a broad definition of attorney-client privilege on material seized in an FBI raid -- some of which related to the Trump Organization.
Trump may be having more success indulging his idiosyncratic instincts before his looming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
While Kim's possible acquisition of a nuclear delivery system and the role of South Korean President Moon Jae-in are shaping the diplomacy, Trump is also getting credit for helping to fashion the breakthrough.
There was wide support in Washington for the reinforced strategy of maximum pressure sanctions shepherded through the UN Security Council by the Trump administration.
But Trump's threat to rain "fire and fury" on North Korea and his boast about the size of his nuclear button horrified many experts. In retrospect, however, that may have played a role in tilting the diplomatic chessboard on the Korean Peninsula.
The President's determination to get his way is also obvious in his public campaign to hold the summit in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, despite advice from aides that it could be risky.
CNN's Kevin Liptak reported that Trump watched the spectacular footage of Moon and Kim on the border last week and wanted a similar show himself.
Some senior officials have argued that it would be better to hold the summit in Singapore, a more neutral venue that would imply less of a concession to the North Korean leader.
But Trump is a showman, and it's beginning to look like he may get his way.
His determination to plot his own path recalls a comment he made on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" in 2016.
"I'm speaking with myself, No. 1, because I have a very good brain," Trump said. "I talk to a lot of people, but my primary consultant is myself."
Iran deal on life support
Trump's reluctance to accept advice he doesn't like is playing out in a more contentious manner as he moves toward trashing the Iran deal.
Previously, he reluctantly ceded to key lieutenants such as former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and preserved a deal backed by America's allies.
But facing a May 12 deadline, there are increasing signs that the President will follow his instincts and take a step that could ignite a new nuclear crisis with Iran.
Trump has blasted the agreement reached by his predecessor Barack Obama, branding it "insane" and "ridiculous." He has complained that it did not cover Iran's missile program, its efforts to project power in the Middle East or what the US describes as support for terrorism.
Trump on Monday refused to make a definitive announcement. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has signaled he will probably quit the deal. French President Emmanuel Macron agrees.
The White House also has backed Israel's claims this week that Iran lied about its past nuclear activity before the deal was signed.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders would not publicly say Tuesday that Iran was in compliance with the deal even though facts suggest it is -- apparently seeking to stay on the right side of her boss.
Still, the administration has offered no sign that it has thought much about what will come next if the US quits the deal, especially if Iran decides to resume uranium enrichment.
That lack of forethought is a symptom of Trump's tendency to live and lead in the moment without gaming how his actions will play out three or four moves down the track.
Trade power player
Trump's impulsive demand for tariffs on steel and aluminum imports earlier this year set off a panic in his administration among officials forced to hurriedly implement his wishes.
Yet the policy has proven to be more significant rhetorically than in practice. Under the cover of darkness Monday night, Trump granted Washington's allies in Europe, Canada and Mexico a new one-month extension to an exemption from the move.
The administration says it is negotiating with trade partners to impose quotas on steel and aluminum imports as it works to overhaul the NAFTA agreement in North America. Yet it remains to be seen just how much Trump's trade power play will really reshape global trade rules.