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.
This is like someone on trial for bank robbery saying, “That bank wasn’t even robbed! Somebody else robbed it! And what we should really be asking is why the cops didn’t stop the bank from being robbed!”
.. This is worth discussing, however, because it’s part of a broader campaign on the part of the president and his allies to create a fog around the truth of what happened in 2016. It’s plain that he desperately wants us to forget those events, particularly his own actions and those of people around him.
We should say there’s a case to be made that President Barack Obama did not act aggressively enough to counter Russian meddling in our election. All the reports we have gotten suggest Obama was extremely reluctant to do anything that would suggest he was trying to use the resources of the federal government to help Hillary Clinton.
For instance, at one point, then-FBI Director James B. Comey suggested that he could write an op-ed explaining what Russia was doing, but Obama “replied that going public would play right into Russia’s hands by sowing doubts about the election’s legitimacy,” according to the New York Times.
.. But here’s what’s important now: Whatever you think of Obama’s decision-making, it changes nothing about what Trump and his campaign did.
And because the president is trying so hard to obscure the actual history of 2016, let’s review some facts about the Trump campaign and Russia that are not in dispute:
- Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is under indictment for a series of crimes, some of which are connected to his relationships with a Kremlin-allied Ukrainian leader and a Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin. His deputy, Rick Gates, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to the FBI, and is cooperating with the Mueller investigation.
- In June 2016, Donald Trump Jr. was approached by an acquaintance with an offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton from a group of Russians, which the acquaintance characterized as follows: “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Don Jr. replied “I love it” and gathered Manafort and Jared Kushner to meet with the Russians.
- When the story of that meeting broke about a year later, President Trump himself reportedly dictated a false story to be given to the press, claiming that the meeting took place to discuss adoption of Russian children.
- In July 2016, Trump publicly encouraged Russia to hack into Clinton’s email.
- In 2015, Michael Flynn, who would go on to become Trump’s national security adviser, was paid $45,000 plus travel expenses to deliver a speech in Moscow at an event honoring RT, a television network that acts as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin. He sat with Putin at the dinner.
- Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to FBI investigators about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and is cooperating with Mueller’s investigation.
- George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, got the FBI counterintelligence investigation rolling when he told an Australian diplomat that the campaign had been offered dirt on Clinton from Russia in the form of hacked emails. (The diplomat passed the information along to the U.S. government.) Papadopoulos also pleaded guilty to lying to investigators and is cooperating with Mueller.
- Carter Page, another Trump foreign policy adviser, had been on the FBI radar for years before the campaign because they suspected that Russian intelligence agents were attempting to recruit him. In 2016 the FBI became concerned enough about his contacts with people connected to the Russian government that it obtained a FISA warrant to monitor him.
- Both in his confirmation hearing and on a security clearance questionnaire in preparation for becoming attorney general, Jeff Sessions claimed that he had no contact with Russian officials during the campaign. He later admitted that this was false and that he did have multiple meetings with the Russian ambassador.
- During the presidential transition, the Russian ambassador was picked up on surveillance telling his superiors that Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, had suggested they set up a secret communications channel, perhaps within the Russian Embassy or consulate, so that Trump aides could speak to the Russians without U.S. intelligence agencies monitoring the communications. Even the Russians found this suggestion completely bonkers.
To repeat, none of that is in dispute.
As allegations of sexual exploitations pile up, the
industry has absorbed the critiques and converted them
into inspirational messaging and branding exercises.
Is it possible for Hollywood to truly reckon with its issues while it’s so busy celebrating itself? It’s remarkable how slickly the entertainment industry — and its annual showcase, the winter awards show circuit — has adapted to the accusations against it. Harvey Weinstein may have been cast out of Hollywood (exiled, for now, to a spa in Scottsdale, Ariz.), but his complicity machine stretched its tentacles into agencies, law firms, fashion deals and of course, awards shows. New allegations of exploitations and inequities are revealed every week. The details suggest systemic rot.
In response, Hollywood has nimbly absorbed its critiques and converted them into inspirational messaging and digestible branding exercises, just in time for the unfurling of the red carpets. Whatever talks may (or may not) be happening inside agencies or on film sets, the message that comes across is this: The industry has skirted a conversation about its culture of harassment in favor of one about what an amazing job it is doing combatting that harassment. It’s engaged in just enough introspection to recalibrate and move on.
.. But when an earnest effort is fed through the Hollywood machine, it is quickly repurposed for what Hollywood does best, which is to sell things — women included. The initiative has revealed as much about Hollywood’s still unexamined sexism as it has the abuses it intended to address. In short, that women are expected to clean up the industry’s mess, and look good doing it. And they don’t have much choice, either, because if they say nothing, they’ll be knocked for that, too.
.. In this commodified atmosphere, it was difficult to process the appearance of real activists on the red carpet: #MeToo founder, Tarana Burke, came as Michelle Williams’s date, while Meryl Streep brought along Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The tactic bucked expectation — namely, that actresses tie their public personas to their relationships with men — and gave these pioneering activists exposure that’s hard to come by, but it also revealed the impossibility of dismantling an event bent on promoting a certain kind of femininity and luxury at once.
.. The image of white actresses paired with activists of color suggested a kind of moral accessorizing. And the meeting of celebrities and “regular” people came tinged with a preset narrative, one where the celebrity’s perceived exceptionalism is only enhanced by her engagement with the real world. But when Ryan Seacrest interviewed Ms. Williams and Ms. Burke on the red carpet, E! made it clear which it valued most — women’s appearance, or what they have to say. The network shrank Ms. Burke’s image into a corner as soon as she began speaking and turned its gaze to the actress Dakota Johnson. She twirled.
.. Watching this sparkling protest unfold, it’s easy to forget what exactly is being protested. The ugliness of rape and abuse is polished into optimistic hashtags and spun into glamorous dresses. In glad-handing Hollywood, criticizing the industry is verboten, but using one’s platform to advocate for other people is so expected it’s a cliché. (Mr. Weinstein himself was a master of linking his films to social causes, cynically pitching the award show ballot as a kind of morality test.)
.. The most electrifying moments of this protest have come when Hollywood women choose instead to model what it looks like to interrogate their own industry’s destructive norms: When Debra Messing broke red carpet geniality to speak out against E!’s underpayment of women, straight into an E! microphone, or when Ms. Portman presented the Golden Globes’ best director nominees as “all-male.”
.. all of this is quite easier for men. Just as they’re not required to uphold the same standards of beauty as their female peers, men are generally excused from carrying the moral weight, too. At the Golden Globes, they got by silently wearing Time’s Up lapel pins.
.. Justin Timberlake captioned his pre-Globes Instagram snap: “Here we come! And DAMN, my wife is hot! #TIMESUP #whywewearblack.” The bar is so low for men that this was, according to Instagram, the most-liked post of the night.
.. One way to push Hollywood toward change is to heighten its contradictions, drawing out the gap between its shimmering idea of itself and its darker realities. The image Hollywood builds for itself at these self-congratulatory events can be used as a bargaining chip for behind-the-scenes activist wins. As the SAG Awards neared, pressure mounted for the guild to protect its workers by installing a real code of conduct to address harassment. And as “All the Money in the World” racked up award nominations, the revelation that Mark Wahlberg earned much more to participate in reshoots than his co-star Ms. Williams — reshoots necessary to scrub the film of Kevin Spacey, and make it palatable for post-#MeToo audiences — created such a PR nightmare that Mr. Wahlberg ended up donating his $1.5 million salary to Time’s Up.
.. When Mr. Franco attended the Golden Globes earlier this month, grinned down the red carpet and bounded onstage to claim a statuette for “The Disaster Artist,” he wore the Time’s Up logo pinned to his lapel. As the night unfolded, female acting students and collaborators began filing complaints on Twitter about Mr. Franco’s own behavior, noting the hypocrisy of the pin. When Mr. Franco appeared on Seth Meyers’s show days later, he was grilled over the allegations. A Los Angeles Times report came next. Mr. Franco skipped the Critic’s Choice Awards, and when he turned up at the SAG Awards last Sunday, his very appearance made news. This time, he didn’t wear the pin. Aziz Ansari, who himself weathered his own hypocrisy scandal after wearing the pin at the Golden Globes, didn’t even show up. All of a sudden, a Hollywood awards show is a perilous place for some men to be.
.. For a woman, getting old is as much of a career-ending affront as an assault allegation is for a man. When Mr. Meyers opened his Golden Globes monologue by greeting the “ladies and remaining gentlemen,” I thought of all the women who don’t “remain” in Hollywood, either, pushed out through abuse or just discarded. One of those women — until recently — was Rose McGowan.
.. She’s now emerged as the most prominent actress to take aim not just at Hollywood abusers but at Hollywood itself.
.. Ms. McGowan and other accusers of Mr. Weinstein were not invited to the campaign’s Golden Globes coming-out party.
.. On Twitter, she’s called out “fancy people wearing black to honor our rapes.” Of Ms. Streep, she wrote: “YOUR SILENCE is THE problem. You’ll accept a fake award breathlessly & affect no real change.”
.. its opening line — “I was in the middle of my second movie for his company, and I get assaulted” — is itself more real and more damning than anything that’s been said at these Hollywood events.
I often used to wonder if the physical dissonance between his personal grossness and his artistic sensibility — which was genuine — made him crazy
It was a common sight outside a Harvey opening party to see one of his publicists trapped in a car on the phone, spinning — spinning the dross of some new outrage into gold.
.. It was startling — and professionally mortifying — to discover how many hacks writing gossip columns or entertainment coverage were on the Miramax payroll with a “consultancy” or a “development deal” (one even at The New York Times).
.. Another of his co-opting tactics was to offer a juicy negative nugget about one of the movie stars in his films or people in his media circle (fairly often, me) in a trade to quash a dangerous piece about himself.
.. The real Harvey is fearful, paranoid, and hates being touched (at any rate, when fully dressed).
.. Winning, for him, was a blood sport. Deals never close. They are renegotiated down to the bone after the press release. A business meeting listening to him discuss Miramax deals in progress reminded me of the wire tap transcripts of John Gotti and his inner circle at the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club in Queens. “So just close it fast, then fuck him later with the subsidiary rights.”
.. Like all bullies, he folds when he’s faced down and becomes wheedling and sycophantic. His volcanic rage erupts from raw insecurity.
.. Harvey is an intimidating and ferocious man. Crossing him, even now, is scary. But it’s a different era now. Cosby. Ailes. O‘Reilly, Weinstein. It’s over, except for one — the serial sexual harasser in the White House.
Conway has a supernatural ability to derail tough interviews about Trump. How does she do it?
Few Trump surrogates have been as effective at defending their boss as Kellyanne Conway. As Donald Trump’s campaign manager turned senior adviser, she’s distinguished herself as a notoriously difficult interview, effortlessly dodging pointed questions and derailing segments that might hurt her boss.
.. Conway masterfully redirects key terms and concepts, preys on interviewers’ politeness, and displays an almost “postmodern” ability to recreate reality
.. “Once she has decided not to give meaningful answers to questions,” Gannon says, “there is no way to have successful interview by traditional measures. There’s only gradations of failure, only gradations of non-answers.”