Tom Brenner / The New York Times
Saturday, March 3, 2018 | 2 a.m.
WASHINGTON — Looking around the table at the White House one day this week, President Donald Trump chided fellow Republicans for kowtowing to the National Rifle Association. “You’re afraid of the NRA, right?” he challenged one senator.
The next evening, Trump invited the leaders of the NRA to the White House. “Good (Great) meeting in the Oval Office tonight with the NRA!” he wrote afterward. By Friday morning, his aides seemed to soften the president’s support for gun control measures opposed by the association, then denied that they were doing so.
If Trump and his team have yet to reach perfect coherence in their public messaging, it may stem from the president’s own tendency to veer sharply across the policy landscape. One moment he sounds ready to take on the gun lobby or unfair trading partners, and the next he is shifting gears and heading the opposite direction.
For all of the attention to the process chaos in the White House, recent days have made clear that there is also a policy chaos at work. While Trump has governed from the hard right for most of his presidency, he has at times confused some of his aides with seemingly ad hoc, gut-driven proposals that conflict with Republican orthodoxy. Where other politicians strain for at least the appearance of consistency, Trump shows no reluctance to think out loud and change his mind.
The week of wild policymaking has left lawmakers on Capitol Hill, investors on Wall Street and leaders around the world trying to make sense of it all. Republicans in Congress are wondering if Trump really intends to defy one of the party’s most valued and powerful constituencies to push for gun restrictions that they say will never go anywhere in Congress. Corporate executives and foreign governments were guessing whether Trump would really follow through on his unscripted vow to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum and, if so, what that might mean.
“Many people voted for Trump in order to throw a hand grenade into national politics,” said former Rep. Timothy J. Roemer, D-Ind. “It seems he has done the same thing to Capitol Hill, and no one knows from a tweet to an exchange in an Oval Office meeting what’s next.”
Struggling to explain his evolving positions, Trump’s aides chose to emphasize his flexibility. “At least this president is holding forth for everyone to see in a listening session,” Kellyanne Conway, his counselor, said on Fox Business Network after conservatives expressed uncertainty about his publicly televised session on gun control. “This is what leaders do so everyone can see how the conversation is unfolding.”
Trump has always been something of an ideological shape-shifter, who once backed abortion rights, an assault rifle ban and universal health care but ran for president promising to put “pro-life justices on the court,” defend Second Amendment rights and repeal President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Since taking office, Trump has mostly hewed to conservative policies like repealing environmental regulations, cutting taxes and increasing military spending. Indeed, the Heritage Foundation, the venerable conservative research institution in Washington, concluded that Trump has carried out 64 percent of its recommendations. Even President Ronald Reagan, revered at Heritage, had completed only 49 percent of its policy proposals by this stage of his administration.
But as this week demonstrated, Trump has also tacked against his party’s traditional support for free trade and its genetic suspicion of all things Russian.
On Thursday, President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced the development of an “invincible” nuclear missile and even showed animation of a potential strike on Florida, where Trump spends many weekends, including this one. But the president had no response to the implicit threat, just as he has resisted condemning Moscow for its interference in the 2016 elections.
Trump has been consistently vocal on trade, pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and threatening to scrap NAFTA if it is not renegotiated to his liking. But he has been on a different page from some of his top aides, like Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, and Gary D. Cohn, the national economics adviser, both formerly at Goldman Sachs.
In January, Mnuchin sought to play down the possibility of a major rupture with trading partners even as he said the president would guard U.S. interests. Speaking in Davos, Switzerland, where international corporate chieftains and investors had gathered, Mnuchin reassured the world that “we’re not looking to get into trade wars.”
Five weeks later, after announcing the stiff new tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, Trump sounded like someone eagerly looking to do exactly that. “Trade wars are good,” he wrote on Twitter on Friday, “and easy to win.”
The tariff announcement came before his staff had even come up with a written policy and only then in answer to a reporter’s question. Republicans, including Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, were exasperated and even distraught. The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, owned by Rupert Murdoch, a friend of Trump’s, called it “the biggest policy blunder of his presidency.”
Daniel Price, a former international economics adviser to President George W. Bush, said Trump was “quixotically picking fights” with allies. “The president’s positions on trade and global engagement place him at right angles with core Republican views, U.S. business and agricultural interests and indeed the traditional Western alliance,” Price said.
Republican leaders are more upset about the president’s apostasy on trade than gun control because he has the authority to impose tariffs on his own, and they assume Congress will never impose significant limits on gun rights.
But the party leaders on Capitol Hill assumed that Trump’s vow to impose a 25 percent tariff on imported steel and a 10 percent tariff on imported aluminum was not really his final position and that he could still be steered off his current course before actually signing an order next week. Even White House officials imagined that could happen.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, seemed to acknowledge the possibility when asked by reporters Friday about the president’s commitment to following through. “Never say never, but I think he’s pretty committed to moving this forward,” she said. Asked specifically about the rates Trump threw out, she said, “I wouldn’t expect those to change, but some of the other details need to be finalized.”
Likewise, Trump’s support for gun control measures, like raising the minimum age for purchases of semi-automatic rifles, seemed fluid. During his session with lawmakers from both parties, the president seemed intent on defying the NRA and fashioning a bipartisan bill with Democrats. Since then, however, he and his staff have been more equivocal, much like he was after a similar televised meeting with lawmakers on immigration that seemed to open the door to a compromise only to lead to more partisan crossfire.
“Conceptually, he still supports raising the age to 21,” Sanders said. “But he also knows there’s not a lot of broad support for that. But that’s something he would support.”
And even as she downgraded his support to “conceptual,” she seemed ready to pass off responsibility for passing it outside Washington. “I think he thinks it would probably have more potential in the states than it would at the federal level,” she said.