While the press likes to portray President Trump as impetuous and impatient with details, when it comes to important decisions, he usually weighs options carefully.
Before making a decision, Mr. Trump routinely canvasses a wide range of people for their opinions. Besides his own aides, he will ask opinions of Secret Service agents, chambermaids or butlers. He values the opinions of working class people, believing they often have more common sense than the highly educated.
In addition, he regularly calls friends to bounce off ideas and ask for their input. The smarter they are, the more he likes them.
Most of them billionaires, they include New England Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm, developer Richard LeFrak, Vornado Realty Trust Chairman Steve Roth, private-equity real estate investor Tom Barrack, real estate brokerage executive Howard Lorber, former campaign chairman Corey Lewandowski, former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, former deputy campaign manager David Bossie, Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Fox News scion Rupert Murdoch and investor Carl Icahn.
At other times, Mr. Trump calls people spontaneously when he sees them on TV or when he reads an article quoting them.
When Mr. Trump tweeted that he was reversing an Obama-era policy allowing transgender soldiers to serve in the military and have their sex-reassignment surgeries paid for by the government, it appeared to be a spur-of-the-moment decision. In fact, the White House had carefully developed options that Mr. Trump could choose from to change the Obama policy.
After a succession of meetings, aides presented Mr. Trump with four options. They ranged from option one, which posed the least risk for legal challenges, to option four, which posed the greatest risk of litigation.
While tweeting a presidential decision is novel, the options had been vetted by the staff secretary and the Principals Committee, the National Security Council’s Cabinet-level senior interagency forum that considers national security policy issues. Mr. Trump considered each option and made his decision.
While 80 percent of the time Mr. Trump follows the process, 20 percent of the time he wakes up in the morning and makes a decision and tweets it, a White House aide says.
“People have this assumption that he shoots from the hip with Twitter and all that,” former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told me for my book “The Trump White House: Changing the Rules of the Game.”
“When it comes to using the military, it would give everyone a lot of comfort if they saw how he acts privately when it comes to the use of the military,” Mr. Priebus says. “He is actually slower and more deliberate than the generals around him. Everyone thinks that the generals are the big moderating force for the president. The truth is the president is methodical and slow to the trigger.”
The day before a meeting on increasing Afghanistan troop levels, Mr. Trump invited four soldiers who had served there to the White House for lunch. His exchanges with these enlisted men impressed upon him how deliberative he had to be about sending more soldiers into combat and confronting the prospects for turning around a war that had dragged on for some 16 years.
In soliciting advice in the White House, Mr. Trump employs the Socratic method, asking rapid-fire questions ping-ping-ping non-stop.
“There are some things that are fundamental to what he believes, and he is very clear about that,” former Press Secretary Sean Spicer says. “And then there are some issues where he may seek a lot of input from different folks, then kind of listen to all sides, and then kind of come to a very decisive final answer.”
Despite Mr. Trump’s occasional tirades, to a remarkable degree, he encourages open, candid debate among his staff. When choosing both staff and friends, Mr. Trump values two things: Intelligence and candor.
“Everyone openly argued and shared ideas about everything,” Mr. Priebus says. “We would get in a big semicircle around his desk all the time and discuss and argue. We discussed and argued over the events of the inauguration, who to call and who not to call, as well as real policy issues.”
“People are circumspect when speaking to the president,” says Bradley Blakeman, who was George W. Bush’s deputy assistant to the president for appointments and scheduling. “You’re respectful of the office, and you restrain criticism because it’s the president. So I was pleasantly surprised when I heard that people are so direct with President Trump and open in their criticism because it takes a special type of person to give it and to receive it. If they know that they can be blunt with the president and in some cases brutally honest and the president takes it in the spirit it’s given as being constructive, that’s hugely important.”
Mr. Trump’s sometimes outrageous tweets contribute to the media’s caricature of him as a loose cannon. The truth is quite the opposite.
• Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, is the author of “The Trump White House: Changing the Rules of the Game” (Crown Forum).