Jules Witcover: Take charge Trump? He's still impulsive and mercurial.

In Donald Trump's continuing attempt to look more presidential, his assertions of military and staff control may be having limited success. But his long record of impulsive and impetuous behavior based on impressions rather than established fact beclouds the effort.

His swift dispatch of lethal cruise missiles to wipe out Syrian chemical weapons in response to their deployment to kill and maim innocent victims has had the immediate political impact of casting him as tough and decisive.


The initial absence of any Russian reply in kind has enabled President Trump to demonstrate a willingness and ability to risk a breach in his alleged courtship of President Vladimir Putin. The measured military action was obviously designed as one of limited scope to minimize any direct confrontation with the Russians on the ground in Syria.

It smacked of the influence of Mr. Trump's principal military aide, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, repeatedly called by his nickname of "Mad Dog" by the president. But in this instance, General Mattis endorsed a firm but relatively restrained solution to the lethal Syrian provocation by the Bashar Assad regime.

The attack was in line with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's pre-launch downgrading of former President Barack Obama's goal of deposing Mr. Assad, leaving it to the will of the Syrians and focusing on eradication of the Islamic State there and in Iraq.

In a sense, these circumstances almost made the Trump-ordered air assault seem only a tidy police action. Indeed, it did not materially imperil the workmanlike joint operation of bizarre U.S.-Russian efforts to bring down the ISIS threat in the Middle East, even as the Kremlin concurrently has Mr. Assad's back. Mr. Tillerson, in remarks on the CBS Sunday news show "Face the Nation," seemed to be putting the deposing of Mr. Assad on a back burner.

"Once the ISIS threat has been reduced or eliminated," Mr. Tillerson said, "I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilizing the situation in Syria. We're hopeful that we can prevent a continuation of the civil war and that we can bring the parties to be able to begin the process of political discussions."

But U.S. strategy on the heels of the missiles is unclear, as was the objective of Mr. Tillerson's visit to Moscow, where he with counterpart Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and President Putin, an old acquaintance, to urge Russian disengagement from Mr. Assad.

President Trump, meanwhile, demonstrated again his ability to dominate the news and divert attention from the early string of domestic failures, this time by his removal of chief White House strategist Steve Bannon from the National Security Council. It served to calm feelings both inside and outside the Trump political circle that an excessively ideological tail was beginning to wag this once personally motivated president.

Other unsettling developments within the Trump camp welcomed a growing impression that the new president was beginning to take firmer control. Reports of his irritation at personal squabbling between Mr. Bannon and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner hinted that the new president's willingness to let other lights shine was diminishing.

Perhaps most unsettling in Mr. Bannon's strong economic nationalism pitch, shorthanded by President Trump as "America First," has been a turning inward from the nation's long-held post-Cold War embrace of internationalism and collective action to restore and preserve peace in the Western sphere, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.

Originally undertaken to thwart the Communist western intrusion of the Soviet Union at the close of World War II, it endured as the centerpiece of democratic policy in the West through the devolution of the giant Russian empire. But it then became the central restoration project of Mr. Putin after the political demise of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.

Donald Trump has now announced his eagerness to substitute bilateral trade dealing with the major Western European nations for the collective arrangements that held sway during the successes of the European Union, now facing disintegration in the United Kingdom gamble called Brexit.

It all seems a perilous American course as Mr. Trump strives to show a more take-charge presidential face to the world.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.