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Sam Jayne / Axios

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.

These officials see their successes mostly in terms of bad decisions prevented, rather than accomplishments chalked up:

  • 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.

Editor's Note: Get more stories like this by signing up for our daily morning newsletter, Axios AM.

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Go deeper

Former D.C. Guard alleges Army Generals lied about Jan. 6 response

Members of the National Guard and Capitol police keep a small group of pro-Trump demonstrators away from the Capitol following the insurrection on Jan. 6. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A former D.C. National Guard official has alleged that top Army generals "lied" to Congress in their testimony on the U.S. Capitol riot, Politico first reported Monday.

The big picture: Col. Earl Matthews, who was serving on Jan. 6, alleges in a memo that the official version on the military response is "worthy of the best Stalinist or North Korea propagandist" and that the Pentagon inspector general's November report on it features "myriad inaccuracies, false or misleading statements, or examples of faulty analysis."

Toyota to build $1.3 billion U.S. battery plant in North Carolina

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Why it matters: Toyota's Prius hybrid won environmental plaudits when it launched in 1997, but it has since lost ground to electric vehicle world leader Tesla, per Axios' Joann Muller. This battery plant will be the first to produce automotive batteries for Toyota in North America.

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The scramble in Congress to pass the National Defense Authorization Act is being complicated by an effort to tie it to a needed hike in the federal debt limit.

Why it matters: The House and Senate are rapidly coming up against a series of deadlines they must address before the end of the year — or risk disrupting crucial military funding and upending the economy. Congressional leaders are now hoping they can knock out both "must-pass" priorities in one, complex swoop.