Feb 2, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Trump's sense of invincibility

An illustration of Trump with a lightning bolt
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios.

President Trump often says he's the smartest person in the room on virtually every topic. Now, after taking several risks on what he privately calls "big shit" and avoiding catastrophe, Trump and his entire inner circle convey supreme self-confidence, bordering on a sense of invincibility.

The state of play: Three years into Trump's presidency, their view is the naysayers are always wrong. They point to Iran, impeachment, Middle East peace. Every day, Trump grows more confident in his gut and less deterrable. Over the last month, 10 senior administration officials have described this sentiment to me. Most of them share it.

Behind the scenes: Trump and his senior aides often cite two decisions as evidence their more experienced colleagues were alarmists.

  • Withdrawal from the Paris Accord: At the time, many on Trump's foreign policy team said the move would damage relations with allies. In Trump’s view, it made no difference and thrilled his base.
  • Moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem: Senior members of Trump's team, including then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis, argued against the policy, saying it would further destabilize the Middle East. Trump's aides often reminisce about how wrong Mattis was.

Between the lines: Over the past month, Trumpworld's sense of being unbeatable has only grown. This is partly because the president sometimes defines victory in narrow terms, like pleasing the base and juicing the markets.

  • Trump stunned allies and even many in his own government when he greenlighted the killing of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's Quds Force. Trump has claimed victory and his aides have said the Iranian response — missile attacks that have yet to kill any Americans — show the warnings of war were baseless. The jury will be out for a while on that, but Team Trump claims vindication.
  • And last week, Jared Kushner released the long-awaited Middle East peace plan, which the Israelis loved and the Palestinians promptly rejected. But the encouraging statements from some key Arab neighbors bolstered the White House’s confidence.

Team Trump's confidence snowballed into the weekend as the Senate voted against witnesses in Trump's impeachment trial and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell set up a Wednesday vote that's expected to acquit the president.

  • Throughout the impeachment process, Trump ignored the advice of some moderate Republican senators who wanted him to acknowledge the call was inappropriate but not impeachable.
  • Instead, Trump repeatedly insisted that his call with the Ukrainian president — in which he asked Zelensky to investigate the Bidens — was "perfect."
  • Trump's attorney Alan Dershowitz channeled his chutzpah when he argued, "If a president did something that he believes will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment."

The big picture: Everything we've heard from Trump's aides over the last month suggests he will give less and less credence to voices urging caution.

  • Per a senior White House official, Trump feels every major gamble he’s taken has succeeded despite advisers who were Chicken Littles.
  • The "Whoa, there" types — including Mattis, Rex Tillerson, Dan Coats and Gary Cohn — are gone. And their replacements tend to trust Trump's gut.

The bottom line: This sense of invulnerability is why the White House thought it could get away with hosting a gathering of world leaders at Trump's private club in Doral.

  • Trump's choice of Doral for the G7 was one of the few times in recent memory when Republicans got the president to change his mind.
  • Trump retracted the decision, but an aide told me he was reluctant as he thought his Doral decision was "perfect."

"I swear to God, this guy is the luckiest SOB that's ever lived," said a former White House official who stays in close touch with current officials. "That's not to say he hasn't done right things. But the flip side is, he's one of these away from a massive F-up."

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