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Jonathan Bernstein

Donald Trump has become so weak that even when the formal powers of the presidency favor him the most — in his role of commander-in-chief — he can be easily rolled. And this feebleness costs him everywhere, including in his impotent bargaining position on his border wall and the shutdown.

Last month, Trump declared that U.S. troops would be leaving Syria within 30 days. That’s no longer operative. National Security Adviser John Bolton suggested the withdrawal would only occur under certain conditions and could be months or even years away. Staffers aren’t supposed to be able to put conditions on a president’s decisions about troop deployments; the Pentagon isn’t supposed to be able to, either. Even if you believe, as Richard Neustadt taught, that presidential power is very limited, everyone agrees that a president’s position is strongest with regard to commander-in-chief functions, one of the very few constitutional powers they have that aren’t easily checked by others.

And yet the Syria episode is a good demonstration of just how much Trump’s influence has eroded through inept presidenting. Slate’s Fred Kaplan has a good overview of the chaos that reportedly began when Trump simply acted impulsively on Syria after a conversation with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. It’s not so much that leaving Syria is a terrible option; experts seem to differ on that. It’s that Trump ignored the policy process before announcing his decision, and therefore failed to get any buy-in from potential allies within or outside of the administration. Nor did he learn the weak points of his plan, things he might have modified to appease opponents of the policy shift. The result: Widespread condemnation, especially from Republicans, and the resignations of the secretary of defense and the special envoy to the coalition against Islamic State.

That December blow-up (and all that preceded it) leave Trump even more vulnerable to Bolton’s maneuverings against his policy. Sure, Trump could obviously stand up for his plan by firing his national security adviser. But since Bolton is already Trump’s third NSA in under two years, and since a third or so of Trump’s cabinet is already filled with temporary “actings,” canning yet another key player would be very costly. It’s worth noting, too, that Trump hired Bolton just a few months ago, and it’s not exactly a secret that Bolton is a hawk when it comes to the Middle East. If Trump wanted to withdraw troops and disengage, hiring Bolton made no sense at all, even given that the White House chaos probably meant that the list of qualified experts willing to take the job was extremely limited.

The result: as the political scientist Dave Hopkins put it, “More evidence that Trump the ‘authoritarian’ is actually the weakest president in modern history.”

While his reputation mattered in Trump's previous careers, he had never been subjected to the kind of attention he is getting as president. There are no political players who are unaware of Trump’s dismal professional track record and remain available for him to work the presidential equivalent of Trump University on. And absent the extremely unlikely possibility that he’ll actually change how he operates and then manage to convince the world of it, it’s only going to get worse.

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