President Trump is suddenly winning positive reviews from a Washington establishment that has often feuded with the White House.
Trump has evolved — or flipped — on a series of economic and foreign policy issues, including relations with Russia, NATO’s relevance, Federal Reserve chief Janet Yellen’s future, whether China is a currency manipulator and the usefulness of the Export-Import Bank.
The changes have generally warmed the hearts of former critics, including MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Washington Post columnists David Ignatius and Charles Krauthammer.
Just as important as the policy reversals is the sense that White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon is losing influence in the West Wing at the expense of a more centrist group of advisers led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
“Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHouse Intel Dem visits Cyprus for Russia probeTrump picks critic of Ex-Im Bank to lead itTrump to speak at NRA leadership forumMORE is finally doing what we’ve been hoping and America has been hoping he would do,” Scarborough declared on his Thursday broadcast. “You can tell, the National Security Council is not Steve Bannon’s play yard.”
National security adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis have also seen their stock rise. Both men were involved in the decisionmaking over last week’s airstrikes in Syria, another departure for a president who previously had signaled a reluctance to get involved in that conflict.
Krauthammer proclaimed Thursday that “the traditionalists are in the saddle. U.S. policy has been normalized. The world is on notice: Eight years of sleepwalking is over. America is back.”
Establishment applause is a turnabout for Trump, who ran on a promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington.
But with a historically low approval rating and no major legislative accomplishments so far, Trump has begun to bend toward the middle.
Nearly all of his shifts on policy are toward the center, from declaring that NATO is no longer “obsolete” to arguing that the Export-Import Bank could be useful.
They are moves not only away from the far right but also from the populist wave Trump rode to the White House and the economic nationalism of Bannon.
Republicans say they reflect Trump’s flexibility.
“He’s not a rigid ideologue. He’s willing to change his views if he encounters new information or the circumstances warrant a correction,” said Ryan Williams, a veteran Washington operative and former spokesman for 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
“He can make a course correction when needed, and a lot of people are excited to see that.”
The changes are believed to be steered in part by the newly ascendant cadre of White House advisers, led by Kushner and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, a lifelong Democrat.
That’s brought some blowback from the right.
Tea Party leader Debbie Dooley, who has organized pro-Trump “Spirit of America” rallies, says she’s “deeply disturbed” by what she views as the growing influence of the “liberal wing” in the White House.
“I got behind Trump early and stuck my neck out for him because I thought we could trust him,” she said. “I knew a lot of things he promised would bump up against political reality and all of these moving parts, but I have a lot of concerns and I’m hearing from activists about the way things are going.”
But Tea Party leader Mark Meckler said the president has earned goodwill with grassroots conservatives for keeping his promises on the Keystone XL pipeline, rolling back Obama-era regulations, seating a conservative Supreme Court justice, and going after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“From the outside, it appears he is reordering the world, and putting ‘America First,’ as he promised he would do,” Meckler said.
“These developments are very important, generate headlines, and are not lost on his supporters,” he added. “They love it. The behind the scenes maneuvering are mostly reported breathlessly by what the grassroots consider a very biased media, that looks intent on turning Trump’s base and everyone else against him.”
Trump may find that he likes getting establishment praise, as the president has long sought the approval of elite opinion-makers.
He has repeatedly sought out New York Times reporters to give them interviews, even as he continued to criticize the newspaper as “failing.” Trump even visited the Times’ Manhattan newsroom two weeks after he was elected for a 75-minute discussion with reporters, editors and opinion columnists.
“Trump does not want to look bad and that might drive him more than anything else,” said Dov Zakheim, a top Pentagon official under former President George W. Bush. “He does not want to be a loser, he’s a New Yorker and New Yorkers crush losers.”
It remains unclear, however, whether Trump’s moves toward the center will bring a big boost to his approval ratings.
It could be tough given the country’s polarization, though Trump has seen small ticks in his direction.
His approval rating in Gallup’s daily tracking poll this week rose to 40 percent from a low of 35 percent in late March.
A Marist College poll released Friday showed Trump’s approval rating at 39 percent, virtually unchanged from one week before he launched a barrage of cruise missiles into Syria. It did show Trump’s disapproval number falling from 51 percent to 49 percent, within the survey’s margin of error.
Trump is still struggling to gain ground with people outside his core group of supporters. Eighty percent of Republicans approve of Trump’s job performance, compared with 12 percent of Democrats. Just over 3 in 10 independents approve of the job Trump has done.
Some of the same establishment figures praising Trump’s shifts are not convinced the famously mercurial commander in chief will not change his approach again.
Appearing with Scarborough on Thursday, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass warned Trump’s “seismic shifts” could cause even more confusion on the world stage.
“It is a little bit unnerving,” he said.