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Why is Donald Trump losing his way in Washington?

The U.S. President still has not learnt to sway with the Washington playbook.

May 27, 2017 09:13 pm | Updated 09:13 pm IST

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses U.S. military personnel and families at Naval Air Station Sigonella near Taormina in Sicily on May 27, 2017.

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses U.S. military personnel and families at Naval Air Station Sigonella near Taormina in Sicily on May 27, 2017.

Why is he not playing by the book?

U.S. President Donald Trump’s politics is built on his chest-thumping confrontation with the ‘Washington establishment.’ There is a ‘Washington playbook’ that the Presidents are expected to stick to, former President Barack Obama once said. When Presidents question that playbook, they are drawn into controversies. “Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power… That is the source of the controversy,” Mr. Obama said, explaining his decision not to bomb Syria. Till today, Mr. Obama’s decision is cited as a major failure of his presidency by security czars and the mainstream media.

Why is he undiplomatic?

Mr. Obama was a tactful politician, unlike Mr. Trump. Early on in his campaign, Mr. Trump named and challenged two key players in the equation: the intelligence agencies and the media. The American media’s courage to take on the political executive is often exemplary but it is unquestioning in its propagation of the security apparatus’s worldview. Mr. Trump continuously questioned their wisdom and ability. He said everything that America did in the last three decades had been disastrous. American policies built up China into a challenge, he argued. Russia is not an enemy but a potential friend, he declared, horrifying the military establishment.

Who is he attacking?

He touched some raw nerves while making the point that American policies had been foolish, for instance, reminding everyone that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was based on fake intelligence produced by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. In power, Mr. Trump has refused to back down, which many think is tactless egotism, but some believe is an essential component of his politics.

Mr. Trump bruised the ego of many in the security and media world, who are used to being sought and feted by the rest of the establishment, primarily senior leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties. The media-intelligence compact is running a ring around Mr. Trump, who aggravates his own misery with one wrong step after another. The President’s perception of his own persuasive power is far removed from reality, often leading him on to landmines cleverly laid for him by adversaries.

Intelligence officials are leaking with impunity — some stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times quote dozens of anonymous sources. But the selective nature of this information exchange between agencies and the media is unmistakable. For instance, the allegations of Russian links maintained by the President’s aides and associates is the fountainhead of all controversies in the American capital.

What is the Russian angle?

Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had to resign after leaks that he discussed with the Russian Ambassador to Washington the question of American sanctions against Kremlin. Though dozens of intelligence officials appear to be willing to talk to reporters, nobody has thought it worthwhile to ask what actually they discussed in the telephone conversation taped by the intelligence. In a little-noticed report by the National Public Radio, an official who read the transcript said: “Flynn talked about sanctions, but no specific promises were made. Flynn was speaking more in general ‘maybe we'll take a look at this going forward’ terms.”

Mr. Trump’s decision to sack FBI chief James Comey has been a trigger for another round of media-intelligence tango against the White House. To cite one episode from this controversy, on May 11, The New York Times led with a story that Mr. Comey was sacked after he requested additional staff to investigate Russian interference. A few days later, acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, who defended his former boss unfailingly, denied the premise and facts cited in the report. “We don’t typically request resources for an individual case. ...I strongly believe that the Russian investigation is adequately resourced,” he told the Senate committee. But the media largely ignored his statement.

The one and only time that Mr. Trump got approving nods in Washington in the last four months was when he bombed Syria and Afghanistan. He still has not learnt to sway with the Washington playbook.

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