From TPP to Syria, Trump and His Administration Change Positions From Day to Day
Just when we’re ready to give forehead-banging criticism a day off, Trump and his merry band keep pulling us back in.
“The president’s backflips on foreign policy have left officials more bewildered than usual,” read a pithy promo on The New York Times homepage that seemed to capture the spirit of head-whipping incredulity that comes with turning on the morning news report. “Trump Chooses Impulse Over Strategy” read the top Washington Post headline.
From issues of war to issues of personal truth-telling, there was a notable amount of flip-flopping going on.
Almost simultaneously yesterday:
- The president told farmworkers and rural governors gathered to show concern about his trade policies that he was asking staff to explore rejoining the same Trans-Pacific Partnership that he spent more than two years trashing publicly. It was meant as a sop to farmers who will be hurt most directly by Trump’s one-man trade tussle with China. The proposal, like so many others, may mean absolutely nothing, but it was remarkable—stunning even—to see such a direct reversal of Trump’s own policy within days of moving to implement tariffs that many had warned would bring on elements of a trade war. Just moments later, for example, the president was leading a public celebration of the effects of his Tax Cuts, which will be more than erased by the effects of his trade policies. It’s not just that the words increasingly are without meaning, it’s that these pronouncements are the exact opposite of what passed as truth the day before. Without taking sides about the TPP—it doesn’t carry enough human rights and labor protections, while it does align more than a dozen economies in a unified way against China—one can only conclude that these are efforts aimed at poking the Chinese in the nose, not about real problem-solving.
- Then, at the Capitol, Mike Pompeo, the nominee for secretary of state, seen above, was insisting that he and the president will put Diplomacy First when the reality is that the president detests everything about diplomacy and embracing expectations of others. You know—Bluster First. So, again, we are presented with a rebuilding effort at the State Department that is precisely the opposite of what happened since Trump took office. Pompeo, a former very conservative congressman and the current director of the CIA, was on a charm campaign to win just enough votes in the Senate to gain confirmation for the job, and he found his way littered with lots of questions that basically came down to whether he would stand up to the president or be a yes-man. Pompeo managed never to quite give a direct answer, preferring a, well, diplomatic response that he would try to persuade the president in the event of a difference of opinion. At another point, Pompeo evaded answering a question about whether he was asked by Trump to try to stop the special counsel investigation. By contrast, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Corker of Tennessee, just blurted out that Trump sometimes speaks “impulsively” and that a secretary of state is expected to stand up to the president. Meanwhile, Pompeo was having to respond to his slurs over time about gays, his support for the use of torture and his insistence that there is no such thing as Climate Change. He did acknowledge that he knew of no particular violation by Iran of the nuclear weapons treaty that Trump threatens to explode next month. My favorite line was that once Pompeo hears what Trump wants, State will develop a strategy to execute it. Good luck with that.
- On Syria, Defense Secretary James Mattis went out of his way yesterday afternoon—mind you just at the same time as these others—to calm talk of an immediate missile strike on air bases in response to the reported chemical attacks on civilians by the Syrian government. Despite actions by the tweeter-in-chief, Mattis was urging caution about military actions that could easily escalate into a wider conflict with Russia, Syria and neighbors in addition to Syria, and indicated that more work was needed to harden a committed force with European allies for involvement in any strike and after the strike. Meanwhile, there were more confirmations that the chemical attacks actually took place, but less public information about exactly how we know that the Assad regime was responsible. Actually, among the strongest proponents claiming proof was France President Emmanuel Macron, who said his government has it but did not share it. There were more scattered voices for skepticism about the claims, the same kind of claims, they said, that had pinned weapons of mass destruction on the Iraqis. In any case, the available information from blood and urine tests was that there were at least two kinds of chemicals used and that it had been delivered in an organized and widespread manner, suggesting military distribution.
- Trump apparently flip-flopped on talking with Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III as well, as NBC reported. Angered by the raids on his attorney Michael Cohen’s offices and homes, negotiations toward a voluntary interview with the president failed. A flip-flop, yes, but that interview was never the goal.
- Cohen flip-flopped as well, making clear he would plead the Fifth Amendment to avoid questioning in the Stormy Daniels lawsuit. That topped both the daily Michael Cohen story and the story about the FBI seeking his communications with the owners of The National Inquirer tabloid and the would-be important announcements from former Trump adviser Steve Bannon that he would be leading a private campaign to denounce Mueller.
By contrast, there was no head-spinning about the emergence of another round of he said-he said between Trump and former FBI director James Comey Jr., whose book is just coming out amid a Republican denunciation campaign.
It says something that we have to reach to total outrageousness now to block out the relatively moderate bad things that go by.