Who is Trump’s restraint officer?

U.S. President Donald Trump walks through the Colonnade to the Oval Office after returning to the White House in Washington, U.S., January 26, 2017. 

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts - RTSXJOF

Sometimes your morning reading can collide. Yesterday, as I was reading an interview with retired General Stanley McChrystal I was interrupted by a report about one of President Trump’s Tweets:

“Ungrateful TRAITOR Chelsea Manning, who should never have been released from prison, is now calling President Obama a weak leader. Terrible!”

Mr. Trump’s comment ran very soon after a Fox News story about Manning and repeated that report’s language, suggesting the President was-- like many on Twitter-- watching television and reacting in real time.

I went back to the McChrystal interview. In it, the former commander of American forces in Afghanistan and former leader of Joint Special Operations Command was asked about the military response after the attacks of 9/11:

In the case of Afghanistan, immediately after 9/11, in terms of military action we should have done nothing initially. I now believe we should have taken the first year after 9/11 and sent 10,000 young Americans—military, civilians, diplomats—to language school; Pashtu, Dari, Arabic. We should have started to build up the capacity we didn’t have. I would have spent that year with diplomats traveling the world as the aggrieved party. We had just been struck by al-Qaeda. I would have made our case around the world that this is a global problem and that the whole world has to deal with it. I would have spent the full year in preparation. I would not have been worried about striking al-Qaeda that year; they weren’t going anywhere. We could have organized, we could have built the right coalitions, we could have done things with a much greater level of understanding than we did in our spasmodic response.

McChrystal was arguing that despite what George W. Bush once called “blood lust,” in the country, the commander-in-chief should have resisted the impulse to act quickly and played the longer game.  

The juxtaposition between Trump’s Tweet and the McChrystal interview inadvertently highlighted the two ends of the spectrum of presidential action: impulse and restraint.

Obviously there is a vast qualitative difference. Donald Trump’s Tweet was irrelevant in terms of policy and had nothing to do with his administration’s busy first week, but it was fresh evidence of his twitch muscles. He thinks, therefore he Tweets. When the president wants to get evidence that his crowd at the inauguration was bigger than the media says, he gets on the line to the Park Service. “He’s not somebody who sits around and waits. He takes action and gets things done,” deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. (Lyndon Johnson rushed on the phone to order pants, and here’s John Kennedy getting angry about Air Force furniture).

President Trump’s impulses have served the president well so far. You can draw a straight line between his impulsive responses and his popularity. ISIS is chopping off heads, he says, therefore, the U.S. should bring back waterboarding as a method of interrogating enemies. He knows that torture works and no one is going to convince him otherwise.” And I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” said candidate Trump. Trump’s audiences admire this impulsive bluntness.

McChrystal, on the other hand, was arguing for strategic patience. The interview was printed in Prism: A Journal of the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University. Complex operations sometimes require something more than the impulsive response. That’s why as a general, McChrystal was praised for implementing the tenets of counterinsurgency warfare when he commanded troops in Afghanistan (the co-author of the manual McChrystal followed is current Secretary of Defense Mattis who has restrained Trump for the moment from reinstating waterboarding as U.S. policy).

Restraint is “a presidential virtue,” said Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway during the campaign, but it’s too early to have gotten a real reading of where the president falls on the impulse-restraint spectrum. In the case Conway was referring to, the president’s counselor was highlighting that Donald Trump had resisted going into detail about Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs during the first debate. That restraint was short-lived, since he decided to not only bring it up during the second debate but actually bring Clinton’s accusers to the debate itself, but Conway’s claim still highlighted a central question of the Trump presidency. How does a man of impulses who trusts his gut and who has won so much by listening to it, constrain himself when the stakes are something more than a simple Tweet?

President Harry Truman was famously impulsive. Once, when he was irritated by union bosses who threatened to strike and shut down U.S. commerce and travel, he dashed off a dozen-page screed against them that he prepared to deliver to a joint session of Congress. It concluded with this call to arms for the nation. “Let’s put transportation and production back to work, hang a few traitors, and make our own country safe for democracy,” wrote Truman. The president was suggesting that labor leaders be hanged. His advisers were aghast. “The president would do himself immense damage,” wrote Truman’s close aide Clark Clifford, “creating the impression he was losing control of himself and the government.”

Clifford uses the episode to explain the necessity of having a member of presidential staff who can help stay a president’s impulses. “We all have moments when we allow the deeper recesses of our minds to entertain delicious but private thoughts about the vicious things we would like to do to our adversaries. Harry Truman had the habit of writing some of these private thoughts down...If he had not been president, they would have little importance. He expected his trusted inner staff to prevent him from going public with his fury.”

Who serves the impulse control-function in a White House? This is not just a question for Donald Trump. It is a question for all presidents-- though Donald Trump is more impulsive than most. In Truman’s case it was his press secretary Charlie Ross who played this role. Faced with what Clifford called “one of the most intemperate documents ever written by a President,” Ross, who had known Truman since high school, intervened and told him it was a bad idea. Truman backed down and delivered a softer (though plenty bracing) replacement. (In a dramatic moment, the union bosses backed down while Truman was speaking to Congress and Truman delivered the news in the middle of the speech).

Ross was not able to get to the president when Truman wrote his famous letter to Washington Post Music Critic Paul Hume who had written an unfavorable review of his daughter’s singing ability. Calling Hume “a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful,” Truman wrote: “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”

Twitter is new, but impulsive presidents are not. Thomas Jefferson described George Washington as a man who mostly kept a lid on his anger but when he “broke his bonds, he was most tremendous in his wrath,” falling “into one of those passions when he cannot command himself.”

The presidency encourages impulsivity if for no other reason than there is a constant call for swift, successful presidential action. There is a lot of pressure. A White House staff usually has enablers who don’t ruffle the president out of personal loyalty, ideological fervor, the macho of election success or sycophancy which encourages a president’s impulsiveness. But sometimes not acting is the best way to act. A president can’t always know which is best. A staffer who short-circuits a president’s will is a necessity. Who will be the Charlie Ross of the Trump administration?