Donald Trump’s Iran Show

He has a nose for power, and he thinks Tehran is weaker than Obama understood.

President Trump’s Iran policy over the weekend was both erratic and masterful. Doves and isolationists, panicked by what they see as the administration’s inexorable drift toward war, rejoiced when Mr. Trump announced that a military strike had been called back. Hawks criticized him for an Obama-like climb-down, but the announcement of cyberattacks and tightening sanctions helped smooth ruffled feathers.

The result? Mr. Trump more than ever dominates U.S. Iran policy; contending political factions within the administration and outside it must jockey for his support. And the more he talks and tweets about Iran, the less clear anyone is about his ultimate intentions.

None of this should be surprising. Consistently inconsistent on issues from trade with China and immigration from Mexico to Venezuela and North Korea and now Iran, Mr. Trump has been by turns more hawkish than any of his predecessors and dovish enough to thrill Sen. Rand Paul.

This president is first and foremost a showman. From his early real-estate days in 1970s New York through his time in reality television and into his third career in politics, Mr. Trump has understood and shrewdly deployed the power of fame. He has turned American politics into the Donald Trump Show, with the country and the world fixated on his every move, speculating feverishly about what will come next. Whether threatening on Twitter to rain down destruction from the sky, reining in the dogs of war at the last minute, or stage-managing high-stakes summit meetings, he is producing episodes of the most compelling reality show the world has ever seen.

Whether this helps or hurts American foreign policy is another question, but to turn intractable foreign-policy problems like North Korea’s nuclear program into fodder for the Trump publicity machine represents a triumph of marketing ingenuity if not of national strategy. Unresolved foreign-policy crises normally weigh on a president’s popularity; in Mr. Trump’s case, they become plotlines that provide drama and suspense. When Kim Jong Un gives him lemons, Mr. Trump sets up a lemonade stand.

The president’s critics continue to dismiss him as a cable-TV-obsessed, narcissistic know-nothing even as he dominates American and world politics. What they miss is that Mr. Trump not only possesses an instinctive ability to dominate media coverage; he is also a keen judge of power. The fashionable neighborhoods of Los Angeles are filled with world-famous celebrities who yearn for political power; Hollywood hates him so virulently in part because, like Ronald Reagan, Mr. Trump has transcended show business and transformed celebrity power into the real thing.

The key to the president’s Iran policy is that his nose for power tells him Iran is weaker and the U.S. stronger than the foreign-policy establishment believes. President Obama’s nuclear deal, from Mr. Trump’s perspective, was the result of a successful Iranian con game executed by clever Islamic Republic negotiators who ran circles around John Kerry. What Mr. Trump wants is a deal with Iran that matches his sense of the relative power of the two countries.

In pursuit of this goal he is combining two sets of strategies. At the level of public diplomacy he is engaging in his standard mix of dazzle and spin, shifting from bloodcurdling threats to gentle billing and cooing as need be. And at the level of power politics he is steadily and consistently tightening the screws on Iran: arming its neighbors and assuring them of his support, tightening sanctions, and raising the psychological pressure on the regime.

Mr. Trump well understands the constraints under which his Iran policy is working. Launching a new Middle East war could wreck his presidency. But if Iran starts the war, that’s another matter. A clear Iranian attack on American or even Israeli targets could unite Mr. Trump’s Jacksonian base like the attack on Pearl Harbor united America’s Jacksonians to fight Imperial Japan.

Americans did not want war in 1941. By levying crippling economic sanctions on Japan, President Roosevelt gave Tokyo the choice between retreating in Asia and launching a war against the U.S. Mr. Trump believes he can drive Iran into a similar corner—and that a weakened Iran will choose retreat over war.

Mr. Trump’s approach to American diplomacy horrifies an establishment that believes restraint, predictability and responsibility are the hallmarks of a global hegemon. Lesser powers can indulge in histrionic grandstanding, clownish antics, outrageous claims and public tantrums. The hegemon exhibits power by rising above such tawdry tricks.

Elizabeth Warren’s Sad Sick Joke

It was no wonder the public tuned out the CFPB narrative that Democrats have repeated since they controlled Congress and the White House and passed the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, which created the bureau. The plot never changes — before Cordray’s resignation, Republicans opposed the bureau because it kept the financial industry honest; now they restrain the CFPB so businesses can cheat consumers.

.. The Dodd-Frank Act forbids the Federal Trade Commission and the CFPB from conducting independent inquiries into the same matter. Cordray may have authorized an investigation of the Equifax data breach, but the FTC ended up conducting the full-scale probe.

.. Cordray and Warren, who helped draft the law, surely recognized Rucker’s sleight-of-hand. Nevertheless, the senator tweeted, “Another middle finger from @MickMulvaneyOMB to consumers: he’s killed the @CFPB’s probe into the #EquifaxBreach.”

.. Since 2010, Republicans have objected to the lack of legislative and executive checks on a regulator with so much impact on the economy.

.. Democrats, confident there would never be a Republican director, characterized the near-absolute power as independence from political influence.

.. Ironically, the once-secretive CFPB has been more transparent since Mulvaney throttled its External Affairs Division, the propaganda machine Warren created in 2010 while leading the agency’s yearlong start-up process as a presidential adviser.

.. The division’s copious press releases have been replaced by more-informative leaks from the bureau’s overwhelmingly Democratic employees. Contrary to the stale narrative that liberals craft from the leaks, the acting director does not hate consumer protection; he just hates the CFPB’s structure, which he once described as “a joke . . . in a sad, sick way.” Warren’s obstinacy has only allowed him to validate the now-famous comment and delight in the bully’s comeuppance.

.. Mulvaney invited a Daily Caller reporter to the CFPB headquarters Warren had procured in 2011. Cordray’s $124 million renovation of the Brutalist eyesore came to symbolize the bureau’s elitist liberal entitlement. The reporter was escorted through a 2,660-square-foot athletic facility with two huge locker rooms, offices with electric height-adjustable workstations, a library with a sofa and lounge chairs but few books, a roof deck with spectacular views and motorized cantilevered umbrellas, and a courtyard with lavish fountains. The images recalled the familiar spectacle of triumphant soldiers touring a deposed dictator’s opulent palace.

.. But exposing his predecessor’s sins is only Mulvaney’s jab. His knockout punch is demonstrating that the CFPB’s structure allows its director to behave like the Republican stereotype.

.. Unlike other Trump nominees who renounced previous calls to eliminate the agencies they were tapped to lead, Mulvaney told reporters he was not shutting the CFPB down because the law did not permit him to do so. In his introduction to the agency’s five-year strategic plan he declared that “we have committed to fulfill the Bureau’s statutory responsibilities, but go no further.”

.. He requested no funding from the Fed for the first three months of 2018 and instead financed the CFPB’s operations by draining its stockpiled reserves, a likely prelude to agency layoffs.

.. Rather than defend his policies, Mulvaney reminded his critics: “I am the judge, I am the jury, and I am the executioner in some of these investigations, and that is completely wrong. . . . If you don’t like it, talk to the person who wrote the statute.”

.. Her attempt to shame Republicans is laughable — Democrats remained silent for five years while Cordray proved that Congress is powerless to rein in the director.
.. Mulvaney is not, as Warren writes, “turning the CFPB into a politicized rogue agency.” He is showing Democrats that it will continue to be one unless they help restructure it.

Chris Christie’s Tutorial in Hubris

We can scoff and sneer at those images of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on his beachfront imperium, or we can learn from them. As he took in the sun, he doled out a lesson, the same one that Donald Trump is delivering on a daily basis and in a grander fashion:

Beware the politician who doesn’t give a damn for decorum. What he markets as irreverence can be something coarser and more perverse.

.. Christie was “Trump before Trump,” Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, told The Washington Post’s Robert Costa in an articlepublished late Monday. “He does what he wants to do, and his success can be traced to that. But there are consequences, of course, when you work that way.”

.. The twins of tantrum, Christie and Trump had almost identical political appeals. They mocked propriety. They broke rules. They assertively peddled the impression that as happy as they were to make friends, they were even happier to make enemies, because that meant that they were fully in the fight.

.. In an era of resentment and anger, many voters thrilled to the spectacle. The problem with other politicians, these voters legitimately reasoned, was too much indulgence of vested interests and too cowardly an obeisance to convention.

You can learn a lot about Steve Bannon by watching the films he made

I was familiar with Bannon’s work as a filmmaker, having reviewed his 2011 documentary, “The Undefeated,” about Sarah Palin.

.. Although Bannon has produced the occasional fiction feature, most of his creative energy has gone into making nonfiction agitprop designed to whip viewers into a froth of either adulation or rage, but always into passionate political action

.. His most recent film, “Torchbearer,” features “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson delivering an hour-long sermon about the existential necessity of a Judeo-Christian republic, his long gray beard and booming voice lending Old Testament gravitas to the oratory. In the 2012 film “Occupy Unmasked,” the late Andrew Breitbart — whose website, Breitbart News, Bannon took over that year — debunks the Occupy Wall Street movement as the cynical product of an organized Left “hellbent on the nihilistic destruction of everything the American people care for.”

.. Distinct Manichaean themes emerge within Bannon’s collected works, echoing the same urgent, apocalyptic anti-globalism he’s espoused in speeches and on Breitbart News. Contemptuous of the “permanent political class,” crony capitalism, hippies and community organizers (who “hate this country . . . hate the Constitution [and] hate freedom”), Bannon doesn’t see the world in terms of partisan politics as much as a cage-match clash of civilizations

.. it seems that Trump is clearly a fan of the Bannon canon: His recent policy actions, particularly the travel ban on refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries, can be traced, directly or at least philosophically, to the views espoused in Bannon’s films.

.. There’s “a major war brewing, a war that’s already global,” he said during a Skype call from his Los Angeles office. “Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is — and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it — will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.”

.. In other words, Bannon is as reflexively attuned to the spectacle as the substance of the “major war” that he and his boss are girding themselves to wage. The paradigm shift he craves is less about constitutional norms and democratic institutions — which have a tendency to bog down the second act — than the kind of propulsive provocations he has specialized in as a consummate showman.