The Trump Whisperers

No one likes chaos. There’s always an explanation for any current mess. There’s always a hidden someone who’s really running things – Dick Cheney whispering in George W. Bush’s ear – Nancy Reagan telling Ronald Reagan what her astrologer told her to tell him what to do about this major issue or that – Steve Bannon, for a time, whispering in Donald Trump’s ear. Some of it may even be true. Everyone in the know knew that after Woodrow Wilson had that devastating stroke in 1919, his wife was in charge of things. Want something done? Go talk to Edith – which is one of many reasons that the 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967 – and there was Henry Kissinger in the final days of the Nixon administration, when Richard Nixon was really losing it, quietly assuring our allies around the world, and warning our foes, that no matter what, nothing was going to change. He had this. Trust him – and here at home there was Gerald Ford waiting in the wings – stable and honest and boring. There’s always a hidden someone waiting in the wings, someone who’s really in charge, or will be soon. Gerald Ford even smoked a pipe. Einstein smoked a pipe. Jean-Paul Sartre smoked a pipe. Kindly old college professors all smoked pipes, at least in the movies, where any man smoking a pipe is trustworthy and sensible. That was reassuring too. It’s sometimes good to know that there’s always a hidden someone who’s really running things, or will be soon.

Sometimes, however, that thought is horrifying. Who is whispering in this president’s ear? Steve Bannon is gone – probably a good thing – but so are H. R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson, and Trump’s personal Prozac, the fetching young Hope Hicks – and Donald Trump doesn’t seem to want to listen to anything his chief of staff, John Kelly, is whispering now. Donald Trump is in charge now, or no one’s really [n charge.

No, that’s not right. Donald Trump is fully in charge of things now. The problem is that he is, and no one takes him seriously now, which is the same as having no one in charge of things.

That’s an awkward way to put it, but things are awkward, as Ben White reports here:

Wall Street, corporate America and the diplomatic world are settling on a strategy to deal with President Donald Trump’s rapidly shifting statements on critical issues like trade deals and Russia sanctions: Just ignore him.

That’s the plan, and a sensible plan:

Trump last week shocked the world by suggesting he might rejoin the giant Trans-Pacific Partnership, an 11-nation pact among nations representing 13 percent of the global economy. He reversed himself days later.

Beyond TPP, Trump in recent weeks has declared war on Amazon then not done very much about it. He settled on Russia sanctions only to ditch them, leaving American allies and members of his own administration completely befuddled.

In ordinary times, a declaration like the one Trump made about TPP would have sent stocks soaring, thrilled exporters and sent corporate strategists scrambling to assess the impact. But none of that really happened.

Financial markets and America’s trading partners largely ignored the comments as a throwaway line, and the market wisdom proved to be correct when Trump tweeted that he did not “like the deal for the US,” deflating the TPP trial balloon before it left the ground.

All of this has led investors, executives and diplomats to the conclusion that trying to act on any single thing Trump says or tweets is a fool’s game. The more effective strategy, these people say, is to look for trends in the broad sweep of Trump’s approach to governance and ignore all the noise.

It may be that there’s always a hidden someone who’s really running things, but that’s certainly not Donald Trump:

“He’s clearly proven that he tends to shoot first and ask questions later and that is very, very difficult for anyone on Wall Street or really anywhere to navigate,” said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Cresset Wealth Advisors. “You can get free traders in the administration pushing stuff like rejoining TPP then he wipes it all out with a single tweet. So what we’ve tended to do is just look at the trends from 30,000 feet and shrug off the random tweets.”

A shrug is now always appropriate:

In the case of Amazon, Trump roasted the company for days on Twitter at the end of March, crushing its stock price. Since then he’s only asked for a review of Post Office contracts, including the one it has with Amazon. Investors consider the review unlikely to amount to anything. Fears of a full-bore assault on the online retail giant have evaporated and its shares are climbing again.

One of the wealthiest hedge fund managers in the world, who is a Trump supporter and did not want to be identified by name criticizing the president, said trading on any single Trump comment – whether Amazon or anything else – was ill advised given how quickly he can change positions or simply move on to another subject.

In short, even if he’s president, ignore this guy:

Some of the United States’ closest trading partners were deeply skeptical that Trump meant what he said on TPP last week, even as they emphasized that they would welcome a U.S. change of heart if Trump did decide to follow through.

Taro Aso, Japan’s finance minister, told reporters that he “would welcome” the United States’ return, “If it’s true.” But he added that Trump “is a person who could change temperamentally, so he may say something different the next day,” Aso said, according to a Reuters report.

In Australia, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull echoed the sentiment and said it would be “great” to have Washington rejoin the pact. But, he added, “We’re certainly not counting on it.”

In fact, count on other things:

The back-and-forth nature of Trump’s policy pronouncements means that reaction to what he says is usually blunted unless it’s repeated by another official or put out through a more official channel, said Clayton Allen, vice president of special situations at Height Capital Markets.

Allen said markets increasingly look to external factors to determine how seriously to take a particular announcement – examining whether the president is “trying to use a policy pronouncement to leverage pressure or mollify some specific group with no intention to follow through.”

While markets will never completely discount his tweets and off-the-cuff pronouncements, “people are coming to realize that these statements often signify nothing, and are learning to live with the sound and fury,” Allen said.

In fact, give up on the guy:

The whipsaw nature of the Trump presidency, in which obsessions come and go and positions change by the day, has flipped the old Wall Street maxim “buy on the rumor, sell on the news” on its head. The only way to handle Trump, investors say, is to wait for actions to become official.

“He has a tendency to fire off in all directions,” Ablin said. “It’s hard to ever know what’s real.”

It may be hard to ever know what’s real now, but there’s always a hidden someone who’s really running things, and in this case, the Washington Post’s Robert Costa, Sarah Ellison and Josh Dawsey identify the real Trump whisperer:

The phone calls between President Trump and Sean Hannity come early in the morning or late at night, after the Fox News host goes off the air. They discuss ideas for Hannity’s show, Trump’s frustration with the ongoing special counsel probe and even, at times, what the president should tweet, according to people familiar with the conversations. When he’s off the phone, Trump is known to cite Hannity when he talks with White House advisers.

The revelation this week that the two men share an attorney is just the latest sign of how Hannity is intertwined with Trump’s world – an increasingly powerful confidant who offers the media-driven president a sympathetic ear and shared grievances. The conservative commentator is so close to Trump that some White House aides have dubbed him the unofficial chief of staff.

So that’s who’s running things, the man who whispers in Trump’s ear, feeding his ego and egging him on:

For a president who feels, intensely, that he is under siege, Hannity offers what he prizes: loyalty and a mass audience. And Trump, in turn, has directed his supporters to Hannity’s show – urging people on Twitter last week to watch the commentator attack special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who heads the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.

Their bond intensified during the 2016 campaign and has grown stronger during Trump’s time in office.

“The bottom line is, during the heat of the campaign when relationships are forged, he was always there, offering good advice, in person and on television,” former deputy Trump campaign manager David Bossie said of Hannity. “The president sees him as an incredibly smart and articulate spokesman for the agenda.”

Bossie may have it backwards. Hannity may be grooming Trump as an articulate spokesman for his own agenda:

Trump and Hannity usually speak several times a week, according to people familiar with their relationship. The Fox News host, whose show averages more than 3 million viewers daily, is one of the few people who get patched immediately to Trump. The two men review news stories and aspects of Hannity’s show, and occasionally debate specifics about whatever the president is considering typing out on Twitter. There have also been times when Trump has assessed the merits of various White House aides with Hannity.

Hannity may be in charge, or at least writing Trump’s tweets for him, and those in the know should know that:

Several West Wing aides and friends of the president pointed to their running conversations – whether they take place over the phone or on the golf course in Florida, as they did in late March – as crucial to understanding this moment in the Trump presidency, when the president is eager to return to the combative and television-infused style of his business career and more isolated than ever from the traditional Republicans who have struggled to guide him.

“There is a small group of people who Trump speaks with who truly don’t have to be obsequious,” a veteran Trump ally said. “Sean is one of them,” the ally added, and said that Blackstone chief executive Stephen Schwarzman, veteran investor Carl Icahn and first lady Melania Trump “may be the only others on that list.”

That’s the inner circle. Want something done? Donald Trump isn’t Woodrow Wilson. Forget Melania. Go talk to Sean, who is the one who sets policy:

Hannity’s counsel hews to a core theme – distance yourself from Washington elites and trust the instincts that he argues won Trump the White House – the advisers said, and Hannity has emphasized that keeping conservatives happy on immigration and health-care issues is critical.

Another regular topic: venting about the Russia probe and senior Justice Department figures such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who oversees the investigation, the advisers said.

On air, Hannity has accused Rosenstein of launching a “war” on Trump and called Mueller part of a “deep state crime” family.

“Sometimes, Hannity gets him fired up,” the adviser said. “But Hannity also reminds him of what his base thinks.”

But it’s not just Hannity. There’s this report in the Daily Beast about the role of another Fox News “personality” – and that would be Lou Dobbs:

It is difficult to fully understand the Trump presidency without first understanding Lou Dobbs, the Fox Business powerhouse host and one of the main precursors to Trumpism.

It’s not just that President Donald Trump loves Dobbs’ show and his on-air style. It’s not just that the president asks West Wing aides and confidants if they’ve seen specific, recent segments of Dobbs’ program, or that Trump calls the cable-news personality semi-regularly to gossip or solicit counsel, or that he’s boosted Dobbs on his Twitter account. It’s not just that the president has sat for a friendly interview with Dobbs or that he is on a first-name basis with “Lou.”

Indeed, much of this can describe Trump’s relationships with various other television personalities. What sets Dobbs apart is the degree to which the president views him as a political and populism godfather, the #MAGA Socrates to Trump’s Plato.

And that makes Dobbs another one who is really in charge here:

Dobbs doesn’t get to just interview and socialize with the president; he is involved in some of the administration’s more sensitive discussions. During the first year of the Trump era, the president has patched in Dobbs via speakerphone to multiple meetings in the Oval Office so that he could offer his two cents, according to three sources familiar with these conversations. Trump will ask Dobbs for his opinion before and after his senior aides or Cabinet members have spoken. Occasionally, he will cut off an official so the Fox Business host can jump in.

Dobbs, these sources all independently recounted, has been patched in to senior-level meetings on issues such as trade and tax policy – meetings that featured officials such as senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, former top economic adviser Gary Cohn, former chief strategist Steve Bannon, trade adviser Peter Navarro, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

But wait, there’s more:

During the more intense days of the tax-bill push, Trump made sure to have his White House personal secretary get Dobbs on the line. And toward the conclusion of one memorable meeting, when the line was disconnected and Dobbs said farewell, Trump looked up, smiled, and simply told the room, “Love Lou.”

“He cherishes Lou,” a senior White House official told The Daily Beast. And the feeling is, evidently, quite mutual.

Woodrow Wilson loved Edith. Donald Trump loves Lou. And of course Fox News loves Trump:

A former colleague told The Daily Beast that before he departed CNN, Dobbs had staffers pull reels of then Fox News star Bill O’Reilly’s show. Dobbs studied the tapes and began to borrow some of the Fox anchor’s on-screen mannerisms – becoming more confrontational with guests with whom he disagreed. Another former colleague said when Dobbs began hosting a radio show in 2007 he studiously listened to successful conservative hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck for pointers and ideas.

In the intervening years, Dobbs became one of the most prominent figures in the Fox family as it has embraced Trump’s economic and immigration agenda. And he has been given the green light to pump out as much pro-Trump agitprop as possible in large part because he’s so successful. One former higher-up who still occasionally talks to Dobbs said the veteran anchor gets little direction from executives at Fox Business – who aren’t inclined to mess with his format because of the show’s strong ratings. Dobbs has been the top-rated business network host for almost two years.

“Nobody with leverage is left at Fox,” another former exec told The Daily Beast, when asked why Dobbs is allowed to serve as a booster for Trump so openly. “And if they are, they’re either looking to leave or lazy. Or they believe in the cause.”

The feeling is mutual, as Jonathan Swan reported in January:

President Trump is starting his official day much later than he did in the early days of his presidency, often around 11 am, and holding far fewer meetings, according to copies of his private schedule shown to Axios. This is largely to meet Trump’s demands for more “Executive Time,” which almost always means TV and Twitter time alone in the residence, officials tell us.

Nancy LeTourneau adds this:

Over the course of Trump’s presidency, it is the morning show Fox and Friends that shows up the most in what he chooses to tweet about. The whole charade about a “caravan of migrants” traveling through Mexico was simply the most recent example. We also know that the president rarely misses Justice with Judge Jeanine and tweets about it often.

There’s only one thing to do now:

The president has to set aside time to watch Fox News and talk on the phone with Fox News personalities. Contrary to previous administrations, it is not the people working in the White House or running federal agencies that the president turns to for advice and counsel. That is precisely why the ongoing turnover in this administration doesn’t pose much of a problem. Instead, Trump needs to hear from Sean Hannity, Lou Hobbs, Jeanine Pirro and the hosts of Fox and Friends to set his agenda and craft his response to the issues of the day.

In the interests of time management, it might be best to simply do away with the pretense of assuming that the White House and Fox News are two separate entities. Trump should just make Sean Hannity his chief of staff, Lou Dobbs his secretary of homeland security, Jeanine Pirro his attorney general and the Fox and Friends hosts his council of economic advisers. He has already made Fox News contributor John Bolton his national security adviser. Tucker Carlson has done yeoman’s work in pretending like there is some kind of thoughtful grounding to this presidency. So I’m sure he’d feel left out if there wasn’t a spot for him. Perhaps he could just cover everything else.

Of course I’m kidding… sort of.

And meanwhile, there is this:

Lawmakers from both parties expressed alarm Wednesday over President Trump’s plans to forge ahead with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, particularly in the absence of what they see as a viable strategy to secure American objectives there.

In a House hearing, members repeatedly challenged the State Department’s top officials on the Middle East and Russia to explain how the administration planned to reach its stated goals of defeating the Islamic State, building a stable Syria without President Bashar al-Assad, and keeping his Russian and Iranian backers from taking over.

“As tempting as it is to say ‘enough’ and retreat to our shores, smart, focused and determined engagement in the Middle East must be our approach,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) said. “We need to talk strategy with the administration.”

No, talk with Sean, or if he’s not available, talk with Lou, but don’t expect this:

“After the president personally overrode his own administration’s plan to sanction Russia for its support of Assad,” Congress needs to press for legislation that would impose new sanctions both on Russia and Iran, Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said at Wednesday’s committee hearing.

“The incoherence is plain to see,” Engel said. “I’m not holding my breath, but I continue to hope that the administration will bring us a plan that will push for an end of violence, that will ease political transition and that will help lay the groundwork for a future for Syria in which Bashar al-Assad has no role whatsoever.”

They may be working on that at Fox News. When they come up with a plan they’ll announce on air and then Trump will tweet about it. No one seems to take him seriously anymore. Everyone seems to have agreed to ignore him – but there will be a plan for Syria, one day. That’s how things get done now. No one likes chaos, but there’s always a hidden someone who’s really running things.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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