President Trump is moving in a more conventional direction, winning plaudits from former critics in the process. But his shifts, in both policy and personnel, are disconcerting those who were once among his loudest boosters.
The Trump diehards are queasy at the notion that a president who ran as a proud outsider might be co-opted by a Washington establishment they loathe.
“Trump won by bringing out millions of people who hadn’t voted in decades, maybe ever,” the conservative commentator Ann Coulter told The Hill in an email. “They’re not on ABC’s ‘powerhouse roundtable,’ working on Wall Street or for the Koch brothers — where everyone is delighted with how Trump has ‘grown’ in office.
“The base is terrified that Trump is being led down the primrose path with flattery from all the people who didn’t vote for him and never will.”
The charge that Trump is going to disappoint — or even sell out — the insurgent legions who supported him last November is not new.
When the GOP’s internal fight over the attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act was at its height at the start of April, conservative Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) lamented on Twitter that “Trump admin & Establishment have merged into #Trumpstablishment. Same old agenda.”
Even earlier, conservative media icon Matt Drudge of The Drudge Report tweeted, “The swamp drains you,” a clear jab at Trump, who promised during the campaign to "drain the swamp" in Washington.
But those worries have intensified this week.
The president backed away from several of his campaign positions in short order. He no longer views NATO as “obsolete”; he no longer views China to be a currency manipulator; and his opposition to the Export-Import Bank and to Janet Yellen’s reappointment as the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve have gone by the wayside.
Meanwhile, reverberations are being felt from the airstrike he launched on Syria.
During President Obama's White House tenure, Trump had warned about the dangers of getting involved in the war-torn nation.
The White House has vigorously pushed back against suggestions that the president has made u-turns on those policy issues.
Aides put a particular emphasis on the NATO question, insisting that the organization has proven receptive to Trump’s key demands: that member nations aside from the United States should pay their fair share and that the fight against terrorism should be a higher priority. NATO's moves in response, they say, are what have caused Trump to take a more favorable view of the alliance.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Thursday said that “when you look at these issues and you recognize the direction in which they’re moving, they’re moving in a direction that the president stated very clearly.”
Spicer was, however, much keener to emphasize NATO over issues such as the Export-Import Bank, where there has been little, if any, germane changes to an institution that candidate Trump railed against.
“I was very much opposed to Ex-Im Bank,” the president told the Wall Street Journal this week, before explaining that he had realized “lots of small companies” as well as corporate behemoths gain from it.
"Instinctively you would say, ‘Isn't that a ridiculous thing?’ — but actually it’s a very good thing,” he said of the bank.
Such statements have convinced some conservatives who have long been skeptical of Trump that they were right all along.
“If Donald Trump had ran on, ‘I’m essentially Chris Christie — you might not agree with me on everything but I’m better than Hillary Clinton,’ I would still have disagreed with him, but I wouldn’t have felt I’d been misled,” said Iowa radio talk-show host Steve Deace, a Trump critic who supported rival Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) during last year’s GOP primary.
“But he ran on, ‘I’m to the right of Ted Cruz,’ and he misled people.”
Still, Trump did on Friday announce he is nominating former New Jersey Rep. Scott Garrett (R) to lead the Ex-Im Bank. Garrett was a staunch critic of the bank in Congress, saying it “embodies the corruption of the free enterprise system.”
Deace cautioned that Trump supporters were not monolithic, encompassing everyone from true believers to those who backed the president without real enthusiasm, only because they thought he was a better choice than Clinton, his Democratic opponent.
The president’s latest shifts would play differently to different strands among Trump’s supporters, Deace said. Still, he asserted, the overall effect amounted to “abandoning his own base and relying on people who don’t like him or his way of communicating. … In politics, it never works to abandon your own base.”
Policy is only one part of that picture. The shifting fortunes of individuals within the White House are also causing discontent on the right.
Many have speculated that chief strategist Stephen Bannon — seen as the keeper of the Trumpian flame by the president’s most conservative supporters — is losing ground after being removed from the National Security Council. The president also minimized Bannon’s contribution in interviews with the Journal and the New York Post.
Figures in the White House who are perceived to be ascendant — notably Gary Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs president who now serves as the head of the National Economic Council — favor a less nationalist and more establishment-friendly stance than Bannon.
“If Trump fired Bannon and kept Cohn, I don’t think the White House understands that s---storm they would face,” one Trump associate told The Hill earlier this week.
Defenders of the president argue that most voters are uninterested in the latest palace intrigue and have faith in Trump as an agent of change.
“Every time the press reports that everything is in turmoil, a lot of voters understand that is not necessarily true,” said Republican strategist Hogan Gidley. “Instead what they are seeing is business as usual being shaken up.”
Gidley added that Trump is such an inherently unorthodox figure that there was never a danger of him succumbing to Beltway norms.
“I don’t think there is a real fear that he will ‘go Washington.’ People don’t know what he is going to do. He doesn’t follow any of the conventional political norms. To try to ascribe to him a traditional political motive is complete folly.”
But others are far from convinced.
“It was a magical moment to finally have a president who is not owned by Wall Street,” Coulter said. “You’ll never see that again. There’s no reason for Trump to voluntarily turn his [administration] over to all the people who hysterically opposed him, but if there’s one more Goldman Sachs hire, they might as well fly the Goldman flag over the White House.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.