President Donald Trump decamps to the Maryland woods Friday to discuss US strategy in Afghanistan as his aides seek to mitigate the self-made crisis over race that’s left the President isolated but defiant.
It’s the first time top members of Trump’s national security team will convene together with the President since he strode into the Trump Tower lobby on Tuesday to defend protesters who marched alongside neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Virginia last weekend.
Many inside Trump’s administration watched the remarks with dismay. His top military brass — including the chiefs of five branches of the armed services — posted messages online that denounced racism and the hate groups that Trump initially declined to condemn. The messages didn’t mention Trump by name, but were nonetheless viewed as a rare rebuke of the commander-in-chief.
Despite the internal strife, there have been no resignations from Trump’s aides or underlings. The White House said Thursday that Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economist who was enraged at having to stand alongside Trump as he delivered his remarks, would remain in his role.
Others inside the White House, including chief of staff John Kelly, have also worked to push forward with the President’s agenda, despite near universal condemnation of the President, including from members of his own party.
Trump, who returned to his New Jersey golf club a day after his news conference, will fly Friday morning to the presidential retreat Camp David, nestled in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains 60 miles northwest of Washington.
The White House said Trump would meet there with members of his national security team — including Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster — to discuss strategy in South Asia.
The talks come after months of disagreement within the administration over the best path forward in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan. Trump has resisted calls from military leaders to send additional US troops there, questioning the value of continued American presence after sixteen years of war.
But alternate options, including a full-scale withdrawal or a plan to send more private contractors to Afghanistan, have also been met with skepticism.
Speaking Thursday, Defense Secretary James Mattis said a decision about Afghanistan was imminent.
“We will move this toward a decision,” Mattis said at a meeting with his Japanese counterpart held at the State Department. “We were coming very close to a decision, and I anticipate it in the very near future.”
The Afghanistan debate has divided members of Trump’s team, leading to heated arguments during meetings in the White House Situation Room between McMaster and Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, a staunch nationalist who formerly worked as the chief executive of Breitbart.
The dispute spilled into the open when right-wing news outlets began questioning McMaster’s loyalties; McMaster’s allies blamed Bannon for the attacks. Kelly steered Trump toward issuing a public statement of support for McMaster, though the assault continued into the next week.
Complicating the twisted web of alliances and allegiances in Trump’s circle, Bannon was quoted in a liberal magazine this week contradicting Trump’s own claims about military action in North Korea — claims that members of Trump’s national security team spent days defending after the President vowed to rain “fire and fury” on the country if its threats against the US continue.
“There’s no military solution (to North Korea’s nuclear threats), forget it,” Bannon told The American Prospect. “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”
It wasn’t clear whether Bannon planned to attend Friday’s talks at Camp David. Originally a member of the National Security Council, Bannon was removed from the panel at McMaster’s urging in April.
Camp David, which Trump has visited once as President, offers a pristine setting for Friday’s discussions. It’s previously been the site of high-stakes national security sessions, including negotiations on Middle East peace under President Jimmy Carter and the annual Group of 8 summit (now the G-7) under President Barack Obama.
Trump has spent most of the past two weeks away from the West Wing, which is undergoing renovations. He’s expected back in Washington on Sunday, though he is planning a western trip at the beginning of next week, including a campaign rally in Phoenix.