Market News

 March 15, 2018
Donald Trump is silencing those who might restrain him

 Is the world about to see Trump Unchained?

In the space of a week, Donald Trump has rid himself of two men who served as checks on his worst instincts. He's forced out his top advisers on economics and foreign affairs and promoted men who will egg him on as he pushes his nationalist "America First" agenda.

If you didn't like the first year of the Trump presidency, in other words, get ready to hate the second year even more.

On Tuesday, it was the turn of the hapless Rex Tillerson to go for the high jump as the president tweeted out his firing as secretary of state. In retrospect, the only surprise was that Tillerson lasted as long as he did after last summer's reports that he had called Trump a "moron" in a private meeting.

Tillerson was a relatively moderate voice on issues like climate change, Iran and North Korea. He'll be replaced by the hard-line CIA director Mike Pompeo, who is likely to reinforce Trump's most aggressive attitudes toward the rest of the world.

As a bonus, Trump's nominee to be the new CIA chief is Gina Haspel, best known for heading a secret agency torture program in Thailand after 9-11. Quite a pair.

And that's just this week. Remember all the way back to last week, when the former Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn quit as Trump's chief economic adviser after losing the argument on trade and tariffs that had been raging inside the White House?

The winner in that bureaucratic knife-fight was a previously obscure economist named Peter Navarro, who is closely aligned with Trump's views on economic nationalism and a fierce critic of so-called globalist policies.

It was Navarro who was the most vocal advocate of slapping tariffs on steel and aluminum imports into the United States, a measure ostensibly designed to hit back at Chinese protectionism but whose actual effect would be to fall most heavily on Canada and other U.S. allies.

In both economic and foreign policy, then, Trump has managed in just a few days to purge his administration of top advisers who have been generally regarded as moderating influences on him.

Cohn represented more conventional free-trade thinking. Tillerson was a lousy steward of the State Department, but he at least spoke for those who believe the U.S. is better advised to work with its allies around the world rather than going its own way.

Now they're out, and there will be even fewer people around Trump prepared to restrain him, or even give him an alternative way of approaching an issue.

That wouldn't be good even if the president was well-informed, calm and far-seeing. Given that Trump is none of these things, it can only be worrisome in the extreme.

That's especially true when the top item on the White House foreign policy to-do list is trying to defuse the ticking time bomb that is North Korea.

Trump's impulsive decision to accept an invitation to meet Kim Jong Un by May raises the stakes there dramatically. It's undeniably a bold move, and holds the potential of a historic deal to end the nuclear threat from North Korea.

But if it all falls apart, tensions could rise even higher. And given there has been almost no ground-work lain for such a summit, that's a genuine risk. Pompeo will now be Trump's chief diplomat and no one in his administration has been more skeptical of North Korea's willingness to give up its nuclear weapons.

So there it is: at the very moment that Trump prepares to tackle the most delicate security issue facing the world, he has chosen to empower his most aggressive advisers and silence the voices of caution.

What could possibly go wrong?