President Trump's decision on how to approach the conflict in Afghanistan spawned internal feuds that contributed to a recent sense of chaos in the White House, but his announcement of the end result could present him with an opportunity to project strength and stabilize his presidency.
Trump will unveil the U.S. strategy for South Asia and discuss North Korea in a formal address Monday evening, during which he is expected to announce an increase in American troops heading to Afghanistan. The prime-time speech will cap off months of debate over whether a deeper commitment to the 16-year conflict would contradict Trump's promise to disentangle the U.S. from foreign quagmires.
And the formal address could offer Trump a chance to move on from a week of controversy over his response to racial violence in Charlottesville, Va. on August 12.
Grant Reeher, a political science professor at Syracuse University, said the timing of Trump's plan to speak on Afghanistan "feels a little like a ‘wag the dog' type of effort at distraction."
"The speech presents him with some limited opportunity for assuming a more ‘presidential' role, drawing on a president's greater powers in foreign policy and a tendency for citizens to rally around the flag and the president in international conflicts," Reeher said. "But I think, after Charlottesville, that the president has poisoned the political water on both sides of the aisle in a way that can't be walked back or walked over, for a while — if ever."
Trump drew intense fire from both sides of the aisle last week when he argued "very fine people" had participated in a white supremacist rally that turned violent and ultimately claimed the life of a counter-protester. He doubled down on his argument by later advocating for the preservation of Confederate monuments, refusing to apologize for what quickly became a major controversy.
The president ended the dramatic week by dismissing a top aide whose internal crusade against sending more U.S. forces to Afghanistan had contributed to weeks of headlines about White House infighting.
"I would love to see him give a good speech and then go dark. Not because that is always the best strategy for him, but because we haven't seen him really do it," said Doug Wead, a presidential historian. "I don't begrudge the tweets and I recognize he needs to go directly to his base. I would just like him to try it once."
Wead noted that while the internet and the "proliferation of channels" on television have "diluted" the power of a presidential address over the years, Trump's predecessors have still managed to use the format to control the conversation.
"This was a Reagan tactic. Silence. And Trump has used it too," Wead said. "As you know, Reagan would give his stump speech and the media would roll their eyes, and then he would add a new paragraph or sometimes only a new sentence. And that became the news, because that was the only new thing he was saying. And in that way he controlled the story."
"So it is in that spirit I would love to see Trump give a great speech, and then let his opponents rage on and let his carefully crafted words of his speech do their own talking for 24 hours," Wead added.
Trump has long expressed doubt about the need for a U.S. presence in Afghanistan specifically and has called for Americans to stop intervening in foreign conflicts generally.
In 2013, for example, he complained that the continued military efforts "waste billions" in Afghanistan and argued the Obama administration should "rebuild the USA" instead.
Lets get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2013
Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist, had advocated against a major commitment of U.S. forces to Afghanistan and had reportedly pushed a plan to privatize the U.S. presence there by sending defense contractors to the Middle East instead of American soldiers.
Trump had delegated a great deal of authority on specific Afghanistan troop levels to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, but took longer to arrive at a decision on an overarching strategy for the region, a White House official told the Washington Examiner.
Trump has allowed military brass in his administration more autonomy when it comes to making tactical decisions than did former President Obama, who kept his Pentagon on a shorter leash.
But Trump's non-interventionist instincts cut against the advice of his more hawkish advisers, creating tension in talks about how to handle requests for more troops in Afghanistan without an exit strategy for a war that has already dragged on more than a decade.
The current and retired military officers surrounding Trump — including Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and chief of staff John Kelly — may have pushed Trump toward the modest troop surge he is expected to announce on Monday despite the risk that prolonging U.S. involvement in Afghanistan may hurt the president politically.
"We know this is a tough decision for the president. We know, in his heart, he is skeptical of more military intervention," said John Feehery, a Republican strategist. "So I think he gets some additional credit from his base for thinking it through and coming up with a solution that he and his generals can mutually support."
Trump, Mattis, McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Vice President Mike Pence and 15 others met Friday at Camp David, the president's country estate, to discuss options for the administration's South Asia strategy. The meeting came amid escalating tensions with North Korea over its pursuit of nuclear weapons capable of striking the continental U.S. and its increasingly aggressive rhetoric.
Trump is expected to discuss North Korea in his televised address Monday evening. Although much of the focus will remain on what he says about Afghanistan — and the historic significance of his becoming the third president to send resource to the war there — his comments on North Korea will likely be his most extensive since he warned Pyongyang would invite "fire and fury" if its leader, Kim Jong Un, continued to threaten Americans.