Here's one of the most intriguing — and consequential — theories circulating inside the White House:
- The generals, the New Yorkers and Republican congressional leaders see themselves as an unofficial committee to protect Trump and the nation from disaster.
- This loose alliance is informal.
- But as one top official told us: "If you see a guy about to stab someone with a knife, you don't need to huddle to decide to grab the knife."
The theory was described to us in a series of private chats with high-ranking officials:
- The generals — White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — speak frequently, see the world similarly and privately express a sense of duty to help steer Trump. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, is an ally.
- The New Yorkers, including economic adviser Gary Cohn and Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell (with 25 years of foreign-policy experience), have subsumed some of their personal views to blunt Trump's worst ideas. This crowd is highly skilled at communicating with the president (using visuals and grand positioning) to refine or moderate "America first" provocations. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is also very involved, helping demand a process where POTUS has all the information to make domestic and international economic decisions.
- Republican congressional leaders won't win any profiles in courage for standing up to Trump. But almost all could move against the president if special counsel Bob Mueller finds crimes, or the president succumbs to radical instincts.
- They view their main function as getting real facts to the president, and injecting their belief in the importance of alliances and military relationships around the world.
- As an example, if Trump had plunged ahead with his thirst for a trade war, the U.S. might not have won China's backing in the U.N. vote last weekend for sanctions against North Korea.
- These officials pick their battles, knowing that Trump is going to go ahead with some decisions — like renouncing the Paris climate agreement — no matter what.
- And much of what they do is silent. AP reported that Mattis and Kelly, when he was still Secretary of Homeland Security, "agreed in the earliest weeks of Trump's presidency that one of them should remain in the United States at all times to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House."
- These officials think Trump deserves a functioning staff, West Wing and process. They say they believe in him, but want the processes in place to give him accurate information and the right options.
- Outside critics contend that these aides are rationalizing their role as enablers.
Be smart: One of the biggest dangers to Trump's reign is that if Mueller acts or public support plummets, he suddenly could be lonely in his own White House.