The commander-in-chief has taken a turn toward the rational, but don’t get too attached to it.
- By Max BootMax Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”
Approaching his 100-day mark with little to show for it but a new Supreme Court justice, Donald Trump is shedding his past positions faster than a stock trader getting rid of underperforming stocks.
Syria? “Do NOT attack Syria,fix U.S.A.,” he tweeted in 2013. On April 6, Trump, of course, attacked Syria while criticizing former President Barack Obama for not having done so in 2013 — i.e., for not having acted in contravention of Trump’s advice at the time.
NATO? As recently as March 22, he said it was “obsolete, because it doesn’t cover terrorism.” On April 12, he declared, “They made a change, and now they do fight terrorism. I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.” So NATO suddenly embraced counterterrorism in those three weeks? Hardly. It has been doing so since at least 2001.
China? As recently as April 2, Trump said, “When you talk about currency manipulation, when you talk about devaluations, they are world champions.” On April 12, however, he told the Wall Street Journal, “They’re not currency manipulators.”
In that same interview, he delivered an endorsement of Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen after having said last year that he would “most likely” not appoint her to another term. And an endorsement of the Export-Import Bank after having said in 2015, “I don’t like it because I don’t think it’s necessary.”
The trade deficit? As recently as March 31, Trump identified this as the top problem facing America: “The jobs and wealth have been stripped from our country year after year, decade after decade, trade deficit upon trade deficit,” he said. But now he is offering Xi Jinping, leader of the country with the biggest trade surplus with America, better trade terms in exchange for help with North Korea. So I guess the trade deficit isn’t a priority anymore?
Russia? After having nothing but praise for Vladimir Putin last year, Trump is now denouncing the Russian strongman for supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “Putin is backing a person that’s truly an evil person, and I think it’s very bad for Russia,” he said in an April 12 interview with Fox News. “I think it’s very bad for mankind. It’s very bad for this world.”
Tax reform? Trump has scrapped the tax plan he campaigned on and is starting to work on a new one from scratch.
Steve Bannon? He has gone from indispensable White House ideologue to a “guy who works for me” and someone whom Trump falsely claims he didn’t even meet until last year. News reports indicate that Bannon is losing influence in the White House to those whom Trump’s followers once derided as “RINOs,” “globalists,” and “cucks,” e.g., former Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn and first son-in-law Jared Kushner.
That’s nine major flip-flops just since April began — and the month is far from over. About the only views that Trump isn’t shedding are the conspiratorial ones. On April 11, for example, he insisted in an interview with the New York Post that he “was surveilled and so was my campaign,” claims that have been debunked by his own FBI and National Security Agency directors.
Trump’s most ardent supporters are, of course, remolding their own views to keep pace with their leader. Newt Gingrich is Exhibit A. Last year, after Trump trashed NATO, the former House speaker repented of his previous support for NATO expansion. “Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg,” he explained gravely. “I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg.” But now that Trump has attacked Russia’s Syrian allies, Gingrich professes himself unperturbed by the possibility of a clash with Moscow. If Assad uses chemical weapons again, Gingrich has blustered, “I think we’re going to hit him again, and if the Russians get in the way, they’re just going to get hit as part of the process.” So we should risk World War III over Syria but not over NATO member Estonia? Got it.
In his willingness to follow Trump wherever he may go, Gingrich reflects the vast majority of the Republican faithful. In 2013, only 22 percent of Republicans supported military action against Syria over the chemical weapons “red line.” Now, 86 percent support it. Wonder what changed?
This shows the extent to which Trump’s rise was not based on any particular positions or views. It was and remains a cult of personality. Trump’s followers worship him — and he worships himself, too. They are bound by a conviction, rooted in basically nothing but quasi-religious faith, that he is a singularly tough and savvy deal-maker who will protect American interests in a way that no previous president has done.
Not even Trump’s failure to actually pull off any successful deals dents his aura among the faithful. In fact, the failure of the Republican health care plan showed that Trump could not even convince legislators of his own party to go along with him. And Trump briefly flirted with abandoning the “One China” policy before endorsing it in return for nothing more than a phone call with Xi. If Trump cannot eventually show more success as a deal-maker, at least some of his more rational followers will likely grow disenchanted. But we are not there yet.
What are the rest of us, who were never enamored of Trump to begin with, to make of Trump 2.0? My own view is cautious optimism tempered by befuddlement and trepidation. The optimism comes from the fact that Trump is shedding his loonier positions — e.g., the claim that China is a currency manipulator, which hasn’t been true for years — in favor of more mainstream, factually based views. This shows the growing influence of the Axis of Adults, led by H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, and the waning power of the Cabal of Crazies, led by Bannon. A positive development, that. It also shows that Trump is capable of learning.
Yet I remain confused by why Trump is suddenly reversing himself, because he seldom if ever offers any explanation and often does not even acknowledge his flip-flops. On those rare occasions when he admits that his views have changed, his explanations are usually disingenuous, e.g., his claim that NATO has suddenly embraced counterterrorism. More often, as in the case of Syria, he won’t deign to explain why he now favors a course of action he once violently opposed or what his policy will be in the future.
This leads to my trepidation: Will Trump maintain his latest positions for the length of his presidency, or will he discover a new set of positions next month if his latest positions are not immediately rewarded with higher poll numbers? As CNN reports, “Hazarding a guess at the mercurial President’s plans is roughly as fruitful as predicting an earthquake, a person in close touch with the White House said: ‘Equal parts science and art.’ ‘Who the hell knows?’ another senior Republican source in frequent contact with the White House said. ‘It’s Donald Trump.’”
Considering that Trump is the most important person in the most important country on Earth, the very fact that his future path is so unpredictable — “Who the hell knows?” — should be a cause for concern. A certain amount of leverage comes from being a president who is thought to be capable of anything — a “madman,” to borrow Richard Nixon’s term. But in the end the world needs a significant degree of predictability from the leader of the free world so that allies and enemies alike know that certain red lines can’t be crossed and certain commitments won’t be abandoned. With Trump, it’s impossible to have any such confidence.
The only thing we know for sure is that he will continue to surprise. Let’s hope it will be in a good way.
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