WASHINGTON (AP) – His staff hollowing out and his agenda languishing, President Donald Trump is increasingly flying solo.
Always improvisational, the president exercised his penchant for going it alone in a big way this week: first, by ordering sweeping tariffs opposed by foreign allies and by many in his own party, then hours later delivering the stunning news that he’ll meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
An on-the-spot decision with global ramifications, Trump’s agreement to sit down with Kim came after a meeting with a South Korean delegation and took some of his top aides by surprise.
The president has long considered himself his own best consultant, saying during the presidential campaign: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”
Trump told confidants recently that he wants to be less reliant on his staff, believing they often give bad advice, and that he plans to follow his own instincts, which he credits with his stunning election, according to two people who requested anonymity because they were not authorised to speak about private conversations.
Trump’s latest unilateral moves come at a moment of vulnerability for the president.
Top staffers are heading for the exits, the Russia investigation continues to loom and Trump is facing growing questions about a lawsuit filed by an actress who claims her affair with the president was hushed up.
The White House pushed back against the notion that Trump’s decision to meet with Kim was made in haste, with spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying, “This has been part of an ongoing campaign that’s been going for over a year.”
White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway said Trump takes input from a “diverse set of viewpoints,” but added that “he knows it was his name on the ballot and he controls timing, content and tone.”
Advisers argue that tales of Trump’s freelancing are exaggerated and that in many cases — as with tariffs — he is following through on long-stated promises. Still, the president’s decisions, as well as his proclivity for off-the-cuff announcements, frequently leave aides and allies guessing.
News that the president would accept a meeting never taken by a sitting US president came from an unlikely source Thursday evening: a last-minute press statement by a South Korean official standing in the dark on the White House driveway.
With reality-show flair, Trump built suspense for the announcement by making an impromptu visit to the White House briefing room.
The South Korean official, Chung Eui-yong, spoke with Trump on Thursday after meeting with national security adviser HR McMaster and others. Trump asked Chung about a recent meeting with the North Korean dictator. The South Korean official relayed that Kim wanted to meet with Trump — and the president immediately accepted, according to a White House official, who was not authorised to discuss the meeting and was speaking on condition of anonymity.