In perhaps the most purely Trumpy week of Trump-era politics that we’ve seen in some time, Washington was dominated this week by essentially self-induced political crises emanating from the Oval Office.
On both a staff level and a personnel level the situation was confused. President Donald Trump unexpectedly tacked to the center on gun control, leaving most with the impression that his staff would walk his new commitments back. But Trump also rolled out a new trade policy that the vast majority of his staff vehemently opposed. Meanwhile, the staff itself was shrinking with a key aide quitting and an even more key one marginalized.
Here’s what you need to know.
Tariffs of steel
Amidst a chaotic internal policy process and seemingly over the objections of most of his key advisers, Trump on Thursday announced plans to impose 25 sweeping tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum. This is very much in line with Trump’s campaign rhetoric but at odds with what we’ve seen so far from his governance, which has been much more conventional than his campaign.
- The plan: A 25 percent tariff on all steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports imposed under rarely used legal authority to protect metal production as vital to national security.
- Advisers divided: The bulk of Trump’s economic policy team, including Gary Cohn and Steve Mnuchin, along with his main foreign policy advisers, have been trying to block the move. But Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, trade guru Peter Navarro, and Trump himself have all long favored more protection.
- Mixed reaction on the Hill: This is the first Trump-era policy move to be mostly denounced by key congressional Republicans (including Paul Ryan) while winning praise from some Democrats like Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH). It once looked like such strange bedfellows coalitions would be common, but in practice, Trump has governed like a fairly conventional Republican.
Trump went rogue on guns
Speaking of unconventional, at a wide-ranging unstructured White House roundtable with a bipartisan group of legislators, Trump went way off-script and endorsed a number of gun control measures that Republicans normally oppose.
- Trump called for comprehensive gun control: Over the course of the afternoon, Trump called for a “comprehensive” bill that was “powerful” on background checks, raised the minimum age for buying a gun, and restricted gun availability to people with mental illness while rejecting GOP calls for federal preemption of state restrictions on carrying concealed weapons.
- Trump blamed Obama for not passing gun control: Oddly, Trump repeatedly seemed confused as to why gun control hadn’t passed in the past — seeming to blame a lack of leadership from President Barack Obama (who strongly advocating for gun control) rather than opposition from congressional Republicans.
- What’s next? Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer spent Thursday calling on Trump to deliver legislation that backs up his commitments, but after watching Trump backtrack on moderate immigration promises in February few observers really believe he’ll abandon his base on guns.
Hope Hicks is quitting
White House communications director Hope Hicks is, at age 29, both one of the youngest and one of the longest-tenured senior members of the Trump administration. She worked for his campaign from its earliest days, and for the Trump Organization before there even was a campaign. She also announced this week that she’s stepping down.
- Suspicious timing: The announcement of her departure came just one day after she testified to a congressional intelligence committee and among increasing reports that Robert Mueller is interested in the false statement she helped craft for Donald Trump about Don Jr.’s Trump tower meeting about “direct” on Hillary Clinton. Sources close to Hicks tell the New York Times, however, that her departure was longer planned.
- Staff chaos: Until recently, Hicks was dating White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, who was ousted from his job after revelations that he’d physically abused two ex-wives. Porter’s departure seems to have initiated a new round of staff turmoil, including Hicks’s departure, a downgrading of Jared Kushner’s status, and the confused process around the tariff announcement.
- What’s next? Rumors of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster’s departure swirled Thursday afternoon but nothing yet has come of it. Ideally, the administration would fill some key vacancies (Hicks’s job, Porter’s job, the still-vacant deputy chief of staff position) before anyone else leaves.
Jared Kushner is under fire
The first son-in-law, Jared Kushner, finally found himself in a boatload of trouble that seems to fundamentally arise from Kelly feeling emboldened to take him on — starting by downgrading his security clearance. Then came a sudden rush of damaging leaks.
- Many conflicts of interest: This week alone, the New York Times reported that Kushner’s family business got big loans from two US financial institutions shortly after he met with their executives in the White House, and the Washington Post reported that foreign officials have discussed using his business entanglements to manipulate him. Meanwhile, and separately from Mueller’s probe, federal prosecutors and state regulators have both recently sought documents on Kushner Companies’ finances
- But also Russia problems: Kushner has long seemed to be the most vulnerable member of Trump’s inner circle to charges from the special counsel’s investigation since he was presented at the infamous Trump Tower meeting and oversaw the campaign’s digital operation and is mentioned in Michael Flynn’s plea agreement related to conduct during the transition. He’s long seemed untouchable as a member of the family, but if he’s under threat from the chief of staff that’s an ominous sign.
- What’s next? Trumpland power struggles often ebb and flow in mysterious ways. A few weeks ago, it appeared that Kelly’s power was in jeopardy thanks to the Porter scandal. Now Kelly seems to be purging the West Wing of rival centers of power.