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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

Report: Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to retire

Justice Stephen Breyer. Photo: MANDEL NGAN / AFP via Getty Images

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer will retire, NBC news first reported on Wednesday, giving President Biden his first — and maybe only — chance to put a stamp on the high court.

What’s next: Appointing a new Supreme Court justice will be one of the longest-lasting pieces of Biden’s legacy — and could give Democrats a jolt of energy ahead of next year's midterms.

Schools desperate for substitute teachers

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

School districts and officials nationwide are begging parents to step in, loosening requirements for substitute teachers and, in one case, asking the National Guard for help as last-ditch efforts to stay open amid the latest COVID-19 surge.

Why it matters: Substitute teachers have emerged as a vital part of schools' reopening efforts, but they are in short supply after years of being overlooked and undervalued.

The future of retail: more self-service

Zliide makes a tag that attaches to clothing for self-checkout in retail stores. Photo: Jennifer A. Kingson/Axios.

Self-checkout, self-service, autonomous stores, DIY: The retail world is prepping for a future with fewer human workers and more technology involved in selling us stuff.

Why it matters: While 72% of retail sales are still expected to take place in brick-and-mortar stores in 2024, merchants are busy installing interactive signage, smart price tags, and remote checkout systems that point to a very different customer experience.