Feb 20, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The new not-normal: The Trump state

Photo Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photos: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Donald Trump changed how to run for president. Next, he changed the Republican Party. Now, he’s changing the presidency and the boundaries of executive power. 

In the past week, Trump has purged internal dissenters, imported loyalists, pardoned political and financial criminals and continued a running commentary on live Justice Department criminal cases — despite an unprecedented public brushback from his attorney general.

  • And in what could prove to be the week's most consequential move, Trump yesterday named Rick Grenell, ambassador to Germany and one of the most dependable Trump family allies, as acting director of national intelligence — a sensitive job overseeing 17 U.S. spy agencies. The DNI has access to all the nation's secrets, and helps shape what a president sees and knows.

Why it matters: Trump does everything bigger and bolder than any predecessor dared — and all nakedly in the open, fearing no consequences from a Republican Party he fully commands.

  • Other presidents lamented disloyal servants, but rarely purged them en masse and in public. Trump told staff after his impeachment acquittal that he felt surrounded by "snakes" and "bad people" he wanted ousted.
  • Other presidents plugged loyalists into key jobs — but rarely made that the prerequisite. To run the powerful presidential personnel office, Trump last week tapped John McEntee, 29, who has no experience in staffing governments, and was fired by his former chief of staff John Kelly — but is a favorite of the family.
  • Other presidents pardoned criminals — but never in a big batch in the middle of a re-election race, after getting lobbied on TV. Trump's 11 pardons and commutations this week included Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat and former Illinois governor whose wife, Patti, had appealed to Trump on Fox News. Blagojevich told cameras that he's now a "Trumpocrat."
  • Other presidents pressured their Justice Department, but never so nakedly and publicly. Trump, asked this week if he agreed with Attorney General Bill Barr that White House tweets made it impossible to do the job, said: "I do agree with that. I think that’s true. ... I'm allowed to be totally involved. I'm actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country."

Between the lines: Rush Limbaugh said Trump called this week with a bit of advice after the radio host mocked the idea of Pete Buttigieg at fall debates — "gay guy kissing his husband on stage, next to Mr. Man, Donald Trump":

  • "Rush, I just got to tell you something. Never apologize."

The bottom line ... One sign of how extraordinary this is: Trump has pushed Barr — who has a maximalist view of presidential power, and is sympathetic to Trump's view that career prosecutors have overreached — to publicly plead with him to stop, and even make it known he's considering resigning.

Go deeper

Scoop: New White House personnel chief tells Cabinet liaisons to target Never Trumpers

McEntee, shown with White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, walks on the South Lawn of the White House Jan. 9. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Johnny McEntee called in White House liaisons from cabinet agencies for an introductory meeting Thursday, in which he asked them to identify political appointees across the U.S. government who are believed to be anti-Trump, three sources familiar with the meeting tell Axios.

Behind the scenes: McEntee, a 29-year-old former body man to Trump who was fired in 2018 by then-Chief of Staff John Kelly but recently rehired — and promoted to head the presidential personnel office — foreshadowed sweeping personnel changes across government.

Trump to install loyalist Ric Grenell as acting intelligence chief

Photo: Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

President Trump confirmed in a tweet Wednesday night that he will install Richard Grenell, the current U.S. ambassador to Germany and a staunch defender of the president, as the acting director of national intelligence.

Why it matters: The role, which was originally vacated by Dan Coats in August 2019, is one of grave responsibility. As acting DNI, Grenell will be charged with overseeing and integrating the U.S. intelligence community and will advise the president and the National Security Council on intelligence matters that concern national security.

Go deeperArrowUpdated Feb 20, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Trump misrepresents 2020 Russia briefing as Democratic "misinformation"

Photo: Mazza/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

President Trump said in a Friday tweet that a briefing by a top election-security official before the House Intelligence Committee last week on Russia's attempts to interfere in the 2020 election was a "misinformation campaign ... launched by Democrats in Congress."

Why it matters: Trump, who was reportedly infuriated by the event, has made moves in recent days to ensure that administration jobs are held by those loyal to him — notably at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which led the briefing despite Trump's assertion that it was headed by congressional Democrats.