This week, I believe we have seen three examples of how President Trump is fundamentally changing and improving his approach to governing. In three particular instances over the last ten days, we have seen President Trump listen to the wise counsel of those around him and come to a full understating of a situation, demonstrate the courage to adapt his positions based on that feedback and the conditions around him and take actions designed to align with, create and build consensus.
This is encouraging. It reflects the leadership capacity that President Trump possesses and that many Americans elected him to demonstrate. We see fresh examples of this consensus driven leadership style in three key arenas – domestically, internally and internationally.
Domestically, President Trump endured a firestorm with respect to his comments on the terrible, racially driven violence in Charlottesville. On Saturday, Trump denounced “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” seemingly condemning the conduct of both the Nazi, KKK and white supremacist groups who embarrassingly and disgustingly incited the mess, and those who came to protest it.
When he did not single out the white supremacist groups by name, many people accused Trump of creating a “moral equivalency” between hate groups and those who protest against them. While in a follow up statement Trump condemned Neo-Nazis, the KKK and white supremacist groups by name, he also openly expressed his frustration with the perception of his response at a Tuesday news conference where he made the now famous “very nice people” statement, among others.
President Trump could have stubbornly stopped there, but he did not. Rather than accept division, I believe he listened to his advisors and agreed that many Americans wanted and the country needed more clarity from his words. President Trump then made a course change designed to clarify that his views, his intentions and his heart were squarely within the American consensus on race. In perhaps the most played-back line from last night’s speech, President Trump said that “when we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry and no tolerance for hate.” Trump was shifting from a place of confrontation to a path of consensus. CNN analyst Chris Cilizza, who has been very critical of Trump, called his tone a “stunning turnaround.” In making these additional statements, I believe President Trump wanted to make it clear that his views on Charlottesville and race are within the consensus view of the American people. I will be surprised if the president does not continue to echo the theme of American unity against prejudice, bigotry and hate in the days and weeks ahead.
Second, Trump demonstrated he was also seeking internal consensus with the dismissal of Steve Bannon. As I said in this piece in USA Today, Bannon committed the cardinal sin that every political staffer should not commit – public disagreement with your principal. But the issue with Bannon ran deeper. It has been widely reported that the Trump White House has been beset with factionalism and infighting. With the appointment of General John Kelly as White House Chief of Staff, Trump has clearly and decisively moved to end the public and private staff conflict and build a unified team that can more clearly define and advocate on behalf of the goals and objectives of his presidency. The president and General Kelly, a brilliant no-nonsense strategist, have begun making staff changes designed to build the internal consensus necessary to drive message discipline and policy vision. The dismissal of Bannon was a seminal change in this area. Even though Bannon played an outsized role in helping Trump beat Clinton, and Trump is surely grateful to him, the need for staff consensus to drive vision and policy was judged more important and the move was made.
Finally, President Trump made a demonstrative act of consensus driven leadership in announcing his position on Afghanistan. President Trump is strengthening his commitment to resolving this conflict in a way that protects American interests. Here he made his clearest statement yet that he was capable of listening, learning, changing and leading:
“My original instinct was to pull out. And historically, I like following my instincts. But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office, in other words, when you’re President of the United States.”
In three distinct areas – domestically, internally, internationally – and in three distinct ways – creating clarity with a consensus view, building internal consensus within in the White House staff and providing consensus driven leadership on the international stage, President Trump has demonstrated the qualities of listening, learning, changing and leading that are hallmarks of good leadership. In the soils of what many may say was one of the worst weeks of his presidency, we may be seeing a renewal of purpose and vision capable of leading his presidency and the country to brighter days ahead.