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Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

To White House insiders, this is the most dangerous phase of Donald Trump's presidency so far, from the brewing trade war with China that he denies is a trade war, to the perilously spontaneous summit with North Korea.

The big picture: Checks are being ignored or have been eliminated, and critics purged as the president is filling time by watching Fox, and by eating dinner with people who feed his ego and conspiracy theories, and who drink in his rants. Both sides are getting more polarized and dug in — making the daily reality more absurd, and the potential consequences less urgent and able to grab people’s serious attention. 

Be smart: Trump’s closest confidants speak with an unusual level of concern, even alarm, and admit to being confused about what the president will do next —  and why.

  • This is different than a few months ago, when they were more bemused and supportive.

Ian Bremmer, president founder of the Eurasia Group, tells me that a key point in his forthcoming book — "Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism," out April 24 — is that variations on these worries extend across the globe:

  • In places that include China and Russia, chief rival powers to the U.S., technology is "empowering top-down authoritarianism as liberal democracy weakens."

Bremmer, in a letter to clients, also makes a smart counter-case about Trump, who has had three foreign policy wins:

  1. His first big trade deal, with South Korea.
  2. His success in applying pressure to North Korea, and getting China to join.
  3. His strikes on Syria in response to chemical weapons use by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In all three cases, Bremmer points out, Trump "managed to accomplish something that previous administrations had not":

  • The formula: a combination of spontaneity and unpredictability, and Trump's willingness to accept risk "in challenging a previous status quo in policy; and his acceptance of advice on actual policy implementation from experts."
  • Bremmer says that's a more powerful combination than Trump opponents are generally willing to admit."

But, but, but: Bremmer, after making those points, notes the greater dangers of this approach — a fear shared by many inside the White House.

Get more stories like this by signing up for our daily morning newsletter, Axios AM. 

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Go deeper

Alabama trying to use COVID relief funds to expand prisons

Inside the Julia Tutwiler Correctional Facility in Wetumpka, Alabama in 2018. Photo: Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images

Alabama state lawmakers are trying to funnel up to $400 million of the state's American Rescue Plan funds to pay for a $1.3 billion plan to build and renovate prisons across the state, the Associated Press reports.

Why it matters: Diverting dollars from the COVID-relief package, passed in March, is prompting criticism over misuse.

52 mins ago - World

Jake Sullivan discussed human rights and Yemen with Saudi crown prince

MBS in 2018. Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed efforts to end the war in Yemen, the de-escalation of regional tensions with Iran, and Saudi Arabia's human rights record in their meeting on Monday, a senior U.S. official told Axios.

Why it matters: This was Sullivan's first trip to the Middle East since taking up his post in January, and he was the most senior visitor to the kingdom so far from the Biden administration, which has kept the crown prince at arm's length over his roles in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Top Pentagon officials contradict Biden on Afghanistan advice

Photo: Carolone Brehman/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Top military leaders confirmed in a Senate hearing Tuesday they recommended earlier this year that the U.S. keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, and that they believed withdrawing those forces would lead to the collapse of the Afghan military.

Why it matters: Biden denied last month that his top military advisers wanted troops to remain in Afghanistan, telling ABC's George Stephanopoulos: "No one said that to me that I can recall."