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Who Knew Trump Would Be a Weak President?

He campaigned with a lot of swagger. But his first nine months in office have been defined by indecision, vacillation, and a reluctance to call shots.

Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

At his rallies, presidential candidate Donald Trump excited his most avid supporters through displays of toughness: his calls when a demonstrator acted up to “get him out of here”; his incantations of his reality show signature “You’re fired”; his promises of robust actions on “Day One.” He promised his ecstatic followers that he’d tear up trade treaties and the Iran nuclear deal. He’d force other countries to renegotiate and he’d be tough in his dealings with them, just as he’d been in business. And he’d show those so-called NATO allies that the U.S. wasn’t committed to defending them—no more of the wishy-washy deference to other nations that Barack Obama had displayed for eight years. Also, on that busy Day One, he’d have a replacement for Obamacare ready for Congress to enact immediately. He’d pick the very best people but wouldn’t hesitate to get rid of someone who wasn’t up to the job. Above all, he’d be decisive, no vacillating figurehead. He’d be a man of action, tough and strong.

And then ...

Trump not only didn’t have an alternative to Obamacare ready on his first day in office, he never offered one. Moreover, when House Republicans presented to him their own ideas about what should be in the health care bill, they found him to be an easy mark. This was in part because the president didn’t much care what was in the health care bill, he just wanted to sign one; he told aides that would make him look presidential. He’d said in the campaign that he’d produce a health care bill that was better and cheaper than Obamacare, but it turned out that Trump was unfamiliar with the substance of what was in the Affordable Care Act and didn’t grasp the import of proposed alternatives—and this crippled his ability to be a force on the subject. Or, as it’s turning out, most any subject. He keeps telling us what a fine mind he has, but if so he seems loath to exercise it much. His advisers on national security have been encouraged to put as much of their daily intelligence briefings in pictures and charts as they can. A president who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know isn’t in a very strong position to negotiate with others, or to lead.

A president without proposals of his own cannot set the nation’s agenda except in the broadest strokes (as in: next, the tax bill). Ignorant of how the legislative branch works, he let the Republican leaders set the priorities and was surprised that even though his party had the majority, Congress wasn’t more deferential to him. And then, when it came to major substantive questions—whether to stick with the Iran deal, how to resolve the status of undocumented immigrants who came into the country as children, and, most recently, how far to go in smashing Obamacare subsidies—he turned these matters over to Congress to resolve.

In addition, Trump has vacillated on several issues. He publicly reversed himself on whether he supported a compromise reached in mid-October between Republican Lamar Alexander and Democrat Patty Murray, which would stabilize the Obamacare markets and keep the program from being cut off from millions of low-income people by authorizing the payments (which the president had just ended by executive order) to health insurers for two years in exchange for granting states greater flexibility in implementing the ACA. (The Congressional Budget Office said this compromise would lower the budget deficit by $3.8 billion, making it the first health care proposal this year that got a positive rating.) First, Trump supported the compromise. Then, eleven minutes later, he opposed it. What had happened in between was clear enough, and by now familiar: The far right was against the compromise, both in “principle” and because its purpose was to shore up the despised Obamacare; conservative House Republicans (which is most of them) have zero interest in doing anything that would prop up the health care program passed in 2010, which they still passionately preferred to repeal and replace. The question of where Trump will ultimately come down on the compromise is still up in the air.

The president has also been back and forth over whether the U.S. will participate in the Paris climate accord. First, in a Rose Garden ceremony in early June, he announced that the U.S. would withdraw (leaving the false impression that the goals set in the agreement are mandatory). This put the U.S. in the same category as Syria and Nicaragua. But it reinforced the “America First” theme of Trump’s campaign. And it aligned him with the fossil fuel industry that had backed him and played a large role in staffing the relevant parts of his administration. Yet various states within the U.S. have decided to abide by the accord, while voices within the administration have counseled against the U.S. being an international pariah. Typically, Trump said he could stay in the Paris accord if he could negotiate “a far better deal.” (Trump used similar language in regards to NAFTA and the Iran agreement, as if U.S. negotiators had simply ignored the possibility of getting more from the other side.) Trump has given some of our allies the sense that he might be willing to reenter the Paris accord.

He’s also wobbled on whether to extend Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the program pushed by Obama that protects from deportation some 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally when they were very young; Trump has threatened to send them to the country of their parents’ origin, places many of them have never seen, or barely know. Trump in mid-September ostensibly made a deal with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to extend their stay in exchange for tighter border security (though no wall), but once again the far right roared—and Trump backed off. So now the fate of those 800,000 “Dreamers” hangs in the balance, as their permits to remain face an expiration date of March 5, 2018.

In yet another instance, Trump was unsure whether he’d affirm the U.S.’s commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, the all-important provision that commits each member to aid any other that comes under attack. After surprising even his own aides by making no reference to Article 5 in a speech he gave to other NATO leaders at a May summit in Brussels, Trump finally recommitted the U.S. to NATO in June.

So much vacillation on domestic and foreign policies confuses other nations’ leaders as well as U.S. citizens and politicians, and a president less imposing physically and rhetorically would be labeled as indecisive.

Trump has left a lot of the firing of people to others or used indirect methods. He rid himself of his checkered National Security Advisor Michael Flynn only after long hesitation, even after a warning by the Justice Department that Flynn had been compromised by the Russians and had lied to the vice president about it. And Trump had no sooner fired Flynn than he declared him to be “a wonderful man,” and began to lean on FBI Director James Comey to go easy on him in the FBI’s investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 election and possible collusion on the part of the Trump campaign. Later, he fired Comey via a letter carried to the FBI headquarters by his bodyguard, rather than face to face. (As it happened, Comey was out of town, which no one on the White House staff had bothered to find out.)

Trump and his ineffectual Chief of Staff Reince Priebus discussed Priebus’s departure for weeks, but Trump finally forced the issue in July by hiring as his new communications director the noisy and vulgar Anthony Scaramucci, whom Priebus had (rightly) opposed and who in short time drove Priebus to resign. Scaramucci’s appointment had another victim, one whose tenure was already uncertain: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who’d been a bad fit for the job from the outset, and who also had vehemently opposed Scaramucci’s appointment, resigned in protest when Scaramucci was named. Then, on his first day as the new chief of staff, retired four-star General John Kelly fired Scaramucci, who’d been on the job for ten days. Trump’s timorousness about firing people isn’t a sign of a confident person, certainly not the bully boy of the rallies.

Trump’s powers to intimidate have proved limited. He tried to bully Jeff Sessions out of his job as attorney general, but Sessions refused to take the forceful, repetitive hints and remained in his cabinet position. For a while, Trump tried to unnerve Chuck Schumer, but Schumer remained unperturbed and Trump backed off. The Twitter-bully remains comfortably ensconced in the White House, hurling his bolts, but if his intended victim pays him no mind he drops the matter and attacks someone else. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was once the target of Trump’s tweets, as Trump tried to shift the blame for his utter lack of legislative policy achievements, but more recently Trump invited McConnell to lunch at the White House and announced afterward that the two men were “closer than ever.”

This depiction of Donald Trump as a weak president would no doubt shock his ardent followers, especially since Trump usually covers his retreats with bluster. It might also be a surprise to those who have worried that he’s a would-be autocrat. It turns out that Trump has neither the wit nor the grit to seize power, and he may be too lazy and too uninterested in governing to make much of it if he did. (He can, however, empower by default cabinet officials who do know what to do with the power at their disposal—for example, Sessions.) But, except for his use of executive orders (often to countermand ones by Obama) and his cyber-bullying, Trump is essentially a passive participant in his own government. His campaign against the press is of concern, but thus far he’s not taken action to curb its independence, nor have his threats to do so had any discernible impact on the rigorous job the press is doing of holding his presidency to account. In fact, all things taken together, it begins to seem as if the strongman of the rallies was a convenient deception, a figure that Trump invented but couldn’t maintain when it came to making actual decisions in the Oval Office.

If this approach to governing keeps up, Trump may find himself once again on a newsweekly cover—the kind of prominence he craves—but this time with a sobriquet that once ordained one of his predecessors: “WIMP.”