An emboldened President Trump is discovering that the policies he once described as easy fixes for the nation are a lot more complicated in reality — creating backlash among allies, frustrating supporters and threatening the pocketbooks of many farming communities that helped get him elected.
Freed from the caution of former advisers, Trump has spent recent weeks returning to the gut-level basics that got him elected: tough talk on China, a promise of an immigration crackdown and an isolationist approach to national security.
Several people who have spoken to the president say he is telling advisers that he is finally expediting the policies that got him elected and is more comfortable without a number of aides around him who were tempering his instincts. And he often cites rising poll numbers in recent weeks as a reason he should do it his own way, these people said.
But at every front he has faced resistance from within his own coalition. Immigration hawks have been infuriated by his inability to build the border wall with funding from either Mexico or U.S. taxpayers. Many military leaders and foreign policy strategists have been alarmed by his promise to remove troops from Syria. And Republicans on Capitol Hill have protested the rising signs of a trade war with China.
The Dow Jones industrial average — once used by Trump as a symbol of his success in office — has fallen nearly 5 percent since he announced new tariffs on March 1. Commodities markets, which are more closely watched in rural communities, have also been under pressure as China has threatened to impose retaliatory taxes on U.S. products from pork to soybeans.
Trump has closely watched the stock market gyrations, according to people close to him, and has grown frustrated that stocks have fallen. The president has told several people that he has been surprised by the backlash over tariffs but remains pleased he made the moves. He has routinely argued with White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly over trade, and also clashed on the issue with Gary Cohn, his former National Economic Council director.
“Nothing is easy,” Trump said Monday at the White House, while discussing his efforts to close the trade deficit with China.
It was a notable admission given that Trump had claimed the opposite in June 2016, during a major campaign speech on trade. “This is very easy. This is so easy,” he said then about tariffs on Chinese products.
But there is little evidence that any of the resistance has caused Trump to rethink his decision to refocus his administration on the nationalist policies and priorities that electrified crowds during the campaign.
“This is consistent with Trump’s populist movement that he was able to capture and lead in the last election,” said Ed Brookover, a former Trump campaign adviser. “What his base wanted him to do most of all is to fight for them, and the more Trump demonstrates he’s on their side, the more popular he is with them.”
Aides say Trump is more confident in his job than at any other point in his 14 months as president and feels empowered to act upon things he has long wanted to do. He has been frustrated by the slow pace of governing, they said, and is seizing opportunities now to take action and see immediate results, as he did when he ran his real estate and branding empire in New York.
“None of it comes as a surprise to anybody,” said one senior White House official. “He’s used to making a decision and it happens, it moves. Government doesn’t quite work that way. Some of this is his frustration of wanting to see things happen. Now he’s taking bold action to see things happen.”
Trump has told several advisers that he wants to talk about immigration more and that the issue was the reason he won the election — along with trade. He has been incensed by stories noting that he has not gotten enough funding to build a border wall. He has told aides to prepare more executive orders, and on Wednesday the White House announced he would sign a proclamation aimed at sending National Guard troops to the southern border to work with Border Patrol agents.
One longtime adviser said recent weeks have been reminiscent of Trump’s time as a businessman working out of Trump Tower and a departure from the more formal structure imposed by Kelly. This person said Trump has often reminded aides about what he said on the campaign trail — and the crowds that came to hear it.
Trump has cut senior advisers, including Kelly, out of some personnel and policy moves, such as the recent hirings of top economic adviser Larry Kudlow and national security adviser John Bolton. A senior White House official said neither of the men had been vetted before their selections were announced.
In recent weeks, Trump has also promised to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, vowed to confidants he would rip up the Iran deal, floated an Oval Office meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and announced the removal of troops from Syria. Around the same time, he fired his secretary of state via Twitter.
According to those around him, Trump has increasingly struck a self-confident tone on foreign policy and has begun boasting about what he plans to accomplish. He brags about how he understands North Korea’s Kim and how his previous advisers and previous presidents were wrong, particularly mocking George W. Bush.
“He sees all these opportunities on the horizon on national security,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who met with Trump at the White House last week. “I told him the way he’s handling himself has put him in a position to really change things, and he certainly agreed.”
One person who has spoken to Trump said the president is frustrated at the foreign policy apparatus that is pushing back on his Syria move and thinks that rich Middle Eastern countries are ripping off the United States. Trump has reluctantly agreed to listen, this person said, “at least for now.”
The political backlash to the escalating trade fight with China has been particularly intense. More than 100 Republican members of Congress and multiple GOP senators have written public letters to the White House asking him to pull back from the tariff brinkmanship, as China prepares retaliation squarely aimed at punishing American farmers and manufacturers. Business groups that are key parts of the Republican coalition have also condemned the moves.
“I’m not a fan of tariffs, and I am nervous about what appears to be a growing trend in the administration to levy tariffs,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday. “This is a slippery slope, so my hope is that this will stop before it gets into a broader tit-for-tat that can’t be good for our country.”
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has been one of the most vocal critics of the escalating trade war, said that farmers in his heavily Republican district had not yet abandoned their support of Trump.
“They are going to have some faith that he actually knows what he is doing until it hits their pocketbooks,” King said. “But they would like to see this emerging trade war ended. They are not as concerned about trade deficits as they are by this emerging trade war.”
Other White House officials, if not Trump, have grown concerned with the backlash. Officials rushed to announce a trade deal with South Korea after being stung by criticism that Trump’s moves were ineffective, administration officials said. Other aides have privately suggested to allies on Capitol Hill that the tariffs may just be a negotiating position.
The challenge for Trump of trying to deliver on rosy promises is not a new one. Until winning the White House, Trump’s greatest successes have come in arenas such as marketing, entertainment and the presidential campaign, where image is the primary product and big boasts can make the sale. Billy Bush, the former “Access Hollywood” host, who spent years interviewing Trump about his reality show, “The Apprentice,” recently recalled confronting Trump over his serial misrepresentations of that show’s ratings.
“He said, ‘Billy, look, you just tell them and they believe it. That’s it,’ ” Bush recalled on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.”
The unilateral power of bold assertion, regardless of facts or nuance, has been a central theme of Trump’s presidency. While politicians typically overpromise during the campaign, Trump distinguished himself with the scale and scope of his vows. “I will give you everything,” he said at a campaign event in North Dakota in May 2016. “I’m the only one.”
By this standard, the first year of his presidency was full of frustration. The promise of repealing President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act ran into the reality of a divided Republican Party. Trump’s initial team of advisers warned him against dramatic acts on trade, and he largely followed the advice of his military leaders, who called for intensifying American involvement in Syria.
That era is now clearly over.
“During the first year-plus of the Trump administration, the advisers dominated the process and succeeded in steering the president away from his most unfettered instincts,” said William A. Galston, a policy adviser in the Clinton White House and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The president is returning to a mind-set that’s closer to his campaign personality, one that he views as more likely to fulfill his promises and to resonate with the people who supported those promises most strongly.”