On the Friday before Labor Day, President Trump gathered top advisers in the Situation Room to consider what could be among the profound decisions of his presidency — a peace plan with the Taliban after 18 years of grinding, bloody war in Afghanistan.
The meeting brought to a head a bristling conflict dividing his foreign policy team for months, pitting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo against John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, in a battle for the competing instincts of a president who relishes tough talk but promised to wind down America’s endless wars.
As they discussed terms of the agreement, Mr. Pompeo and his negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, made the case that it would enable Mr. Trump to begin withdrawing troops while securing a commitment from the Taliban not to shelter terrorists. Mr. Bolton, beaming in by video from Warsaw, where he was visiting, argued that Mr. Trump could keep his campaign pledge to draw down forces without getting in bed with killers swathed in American blood.
Mr. Trump made no decision on the spot, but at some point during the meeting the idea was floated to finalize the negotiations in Washington, a prospect that appealed to the president’s penchant for dramatic spectacle. Mr. Trump suggested that he would even invite President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, whose government has not been party to the talks, and get him to sign on.
In the days that followed, Mr. Trump came up with an even more remarkable idea — he would not only bring the Taliban to Washington, but to Camp David, the crown jewel of the American presidency. The leaders of a rugged militant organization deemed terrorists by the United States would be hosted in the mountain getaway used for presidents, prime ministers and kings just three days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that led to the Afghan war.
Thus began an extraordinary few days of ad hoc diplomatic wrangling that upended the talks in a weekend Twitter storm. On display were all of the characteristic traits of the Trump presidency — the yearning ambition for the grand prize, the endless quest to achieve what no other president has achieved, the willingness to defy convention, the volatile mood swings and the tribal infighting.
What would have been one of the biggest headline-grabbing moments of his tenure was put together on the spur of the moment and then canceled on the spur of the moment. The usual National Security Council process was dispensed with; only a small circle of advisers was even clued in.