An administration in limbo

President Donald Trump’s shocking defence of white supremacists, following the tragic clashes at Charlottesville, has divided the Republican establishment as much as it has split the nation. This cannot augur well for America’s economic policy, specifically in areas such as infrastructure investment, proposed tax cuts and trade. All of these require approvals from Congress. As Mr Trump strayed from scripted remarks, in the condemnation of supremacists and claimed that there was ‘blame on both sides,’ a dejected General John Kelly, the highly regarded White House Chief of Staff, looked on helplessly. The President is known not to be guided by advisers, is impulsive and hard to control thus making it awkward for the administration to function, especially in hawking reform agendas to Congress. Subsequent to Mr Trump’s unfortunate outburst, the White House Panel of Business Leaders resigned one after the other leading to its dissolution.

More recently Steve Bannon, the President’s chief strategist, and a strong proponent of the Christian right, left office. His departure, in what can arguably be described as a summer of turmoil, affects the ideological balance in the White House and therefore its policy formulation process. Mr Bannon personified the populist strain of nationalists, cynical of big business, free trade and immigration. Analysts believe that Garry Cohn, the President’s Chief Economic Adviser, will now more effectively influence policy. As a former investment bankerMr Cohn backs big business, free trade, deregulation, tax cuts and clearly Wall Street interests. It is even possible he might replace Janet Yellen as Head of the Federal Reserve.

Be that is it may, the chain of resignations over the past few months have left the administration in a limbo. Starting with Sally Yates, the acting Attorney General, who was fired in January following her refusal to defend Mr Trump’s travel ban on Muslims, came the resignation of General Michael Flynn, the National Security Adviser, who was mired in controversy after he allegedly misled officials about his communications with the Russians. Then came James Comey, the Director of the FBI who was sacked over his handling of the Clinton email probe. Other resignations included Walter Schaub, the Director of the Office of Government Ethics after repeated clashes with the White House, Sean Spicer, the President’s Press Secretary, Mike Dubke, Mr Trump’s Communication Director and Angella Reid, Chief Usher. Despite arguments that these officials served at the President’s pleasure, such departures cannot be construed as good news either for stability, policy formulation or communication.

Still the administration, at least for now, remains somewhat functional due to the presence of the four props that include John Mattis in Defence; Rex Tillerson in State, HR McMaster in the National Security Council and John Kelly, the President’s Chief of Staff. Going forward, should one or more of these props crack, the administration would be in very serious trouble. Mr Mattis is working to ensure that things in North East Asia do not spin out of control; Mr Tillerson has prevented the complete estrangement of the nuclear deal with Iran; Mr McMaster is shaping a comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and Mr Kelly is trying to bring order to a dysfunctional White House and prevent a frenzied crisis. In the final count, though, there is only so much that they can do. Policies require approvals from Congress and given Mr Trump’s hysterical impulses these are likely to be hard to come by. Despite his earlier claims of being the ultimate dealmaker, Mr Trump is finding it tough to work even with a Republican establishment. Democrats in Congress are another story. For now things will remain in a limbo.

Source: Adit Jain, IMA India August 2017