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.
Two weeks ago, Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, declared that the trade war with China was “on hold” and that the United States would temporarily holster its tariffs. The reassuring comments calmed markets and raised hopes that Mr. Mnuchin, one of President Trump’s most enduring and trusted advisers, was winning the internal trade battle that has gripped the White House.
Then Mr. Trump weighed in. In a one-two punch last week, the president doubled down on the trade war with China and threw in ones with Canada, Mexico and Europe for good measure.
.. The scolding laid bare the uncomfortably familiar spot that Mr. Mnuchin finds himself in: trying to be a voice of moderation and a statesman in an administration that sees diplomatic norms and protocols as signs of weakness.
He has so far managed to stay in Mr. Trump’s good graces while advocating a more free-trade approach, but that balancing act is showing signs of strain.
.. Mr. Mnuchin, unflappable in public, is privately making his case with a president
.. The internal tensions boiled over in May during a trade mission Mr. Mnuchin led to China, when he dressed down Peter Navarro, Mr. Trump’s hawkish trade adviser, by reminding him where he stood in the administration’s pecking order after Mr. Navarro confronted him about being sidelined from the talks.
.. Current and former White House and Treasury officials say Mr. Mnuchin has managed to thrive by employing a mix of assertiveness and obsequiousness, staking out his position to the president but quickly changing course to carry out Mr. Trump’s marching orders, even if his message did not win the day.
.. Mr. Trump tweeted that he was going to find a way to help put back in business a Chinese telecommunications company that had been punished for violating American sanctions on Iran and North Korea. The decision blindsided administration officials and lawmakers
.. Mr. Mnuchin, along with the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, was dispatched to Capitol Hill to try to calm angry Republican lawmakers and explain the rationale behind allowing the company, ZTE, to remain in business.
.. those close to the secretary say he has learned to appreciate Mr. Trump’s use of the threat of tariffs as a negotiating tool.
.. focused on the president’s desire to see the bilateral trade deficit reduced, rather than emphasizing some of the other trade barriers
.. Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former top strategist, has said that Mr. Mnuchin is in over his head in the negotiations and that he is letting Mr. Trump’s leverage slip away by failing to force China to make major changes to its industrial policy.
.. it was apparent that the Chinese government was trying to elevate Mr. Mnuchin’s role in the negotiations because they see him as the American official most likely to cut a deal.
.. “Among the possible choices, they see Mnuchin as being less hawkish than some of the other counterparts,”
.. populist voices outside the administration have already been heckling Mr. Mnuchin as inept amid reports that the United States was on the verge of making an agreement with China that was viewed as merely symbolic.
.. Mr. Mnuchin has at times found himself the subject of derision, characterized as a fawning banker who cannot tell the president “no.”
.. Last year, the Treasury secretary was scoffed at by economic policymakers from across the political spectrum for insisting that the $1.5 trillion Trump tax cuts would pay for themselves.
.. Mr. Mnuchin told members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus to “vote for the debt ceiling for me.” His plea was met with groans and hisses.
.. Last August, fellow alumni of Yale, where Mr. Mnuchin earned a bachelor’s degree, called on the secretary to resign when he defended Mr. Trump’s handling of racially inspired violence in Charlottesville, Va. A month later, Lawrence Summers, a Clinton administration Treasury secretary, called Mr. Mnuchin the “greatest sycophant in cabinet history” for supporting Mr. Trump’s criticism of football players who knelt during the national anthem.
.. points to his role in successfully steering the Republican tax cut package, which many said would never pass, through Congress.
.. Within the Treasury Department, Mr. Mnuchin has developed a reputation as a micromanager. He resisted choosing a full-time deputy for more than a year, preferring to oversee everything from carrying out the new tax law to overseeing financial sanctions.
.. When the Internal Revenue Service systems failed on Tax Day, the response to the crash was slowed because Mr. Mnuchin was in New Hampshire
.. He had required that any big decisions be cleared by him
.. Mr. Mnuchin’s closest aides describe him as a collegial and mentoring figure.
.. Despite his earnest persona on television, he is known to possess a wry sense of humor
The president’s unpredictability once worked to his advantage—but now, it is producing a mounting list of foreign-policy failures.
.. Trump’s election jolted almost every government into a frantic effort to understand what to expect. Other countries’ uncertainty enhanced Trump’s relative power—and so, perversely, did Trump’s policy ignorance and obnoxious behavior.
.. presidents are surrounded by elaborate staff systems to help them—and oblige them—to think through their words and actions.
If we impose tariffs on Chinese products, how might they retaliate? What’s our next move after that?
If we want to pressure Iran more tightly than our predecessors, what buy-in will we need from other countries? What will they want in return?
What do we want from North Korea that we can realistically get?
Team Trump does not engage in exercises like this.
.. Team Trump does not do it because the president does not do it. His idea of foreign policy is to bark orders like an emperor, without thinking very hard about how to enforce compliance or what to do if compliance is not forthcoming.
The administration canceled the Iran deal without first gaining European, Chinese, Japanese, or Indian cooperation for new sanctions.
Trump started a trade war with China without any plan for response to the inevitable Chinese counter-moves... The U.S. has abjured its right to inspect Iranian nuclear facilities without any workable plan to impose global sanctions instead. India and China each trade more with Iran than with the entirety of the European Union—and neither is very vulnerable to U.S. pressure... First, because he talked so much and tweeted so much, he revealed much more of himself much earlier than other presidents. His ego, his neediness, his impulsiveness, and the strange irregular cycles of his working day—those were all noted and analyzed before any formal action of his presidency... for example, Australia, his offensive words had limited the ability of Australia’s democratically accountable leaders to cooperate with him... Second, foreign leaders have concluded that the shortest path to Trump’s heart runs through his wallet. Oil states such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have rushed to be helpful to the business interests of Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, seeking an advantage over regional rivals like Qatar. Authoritarian leaders who could hamper Trump-licensed businesses—like Turkey’s Recep Erdogan and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines—have exploited their perceived leverage, acting with apparent impunity... Third, Trump’s highly suspicious dealings with Russia before the election potentially put him at the mercy of countries in a position to embarrass him... Only 17 percent of South Koreans trust Trump to do the right thing.. At a time of relatively low military casualties and strong job growth, the president’s popularity at home roughly matches that of George W. Bush’s during the worst months of the Iraq war, 2005–2006, and Barack Obama’sduring the most disappointing months of the weak recovery from the recession of 2009.
Trump is damaged most, not by sabotage, but by self-revelation.
.. The president has recently taunted FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe for “racing the clock to retire with full benefits,”
- attacked the “Deep State Justice Department,” taken credit for the lack of commercial airline crashes,
- urged“Jail!” for former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, called for the sacking of two journalists,
- claimed the news media will eventually “let me win” reelection to keep up their ratings,
- displayed a sputtering inability to describe his own health-care reform plan,
- claimed that a cold snap disproves global warming,
- boasted of having “a much bigger & more powerful” nuclear button than Kim Jong Un,
- tried to prevent the publication of Wolff’s book,
- and insisted he is “like, really smart” and “a very stable genius.”
.. More likely, Trump is exhibiting a set of compulsions and delusions that have characterized his entire adult life. You can’t have declining judgment that never existed. You can’t lose a grasp on reality you never possessed. What is most striking is not Trump’s disintegration but his utter consistency.
.. If the secret tape of a president threatening a private citizen with jail were leaked, it would be a scandal. With Trump, it is just part of his shtick.
.. The president’s defenders, in perpetual pursuit of the bright side, argue for the value of unpredictability in political leadership — which is true enough. But Trump is not unpredictable. He is predictable in ways that make him vulnerable to exploitation.
He is easy to flatter, easy to provoke and thus easy to manipulate.
.. The Chinese have made an art of this
.. “I like very much President Xi,” Trump has said. “He treated me better than anybody’s ever been treated in the history of China.” Contrast this with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has treated Trump like an adult with arguments and criticism. Big mistake.
.. Trump has revealed a thick streak of authoritarianism. “I have [an] absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department,” he insists.
- .. “Libel laws are very weak in this country,”
- Rivals are not only to be defeated; they should be imprisoned.
- Critics are not to be refuted; they should be fired.
- Investigations are not to be answered; they should be shut down.
.. we are depending on the strength of those institutions, not the self-restraint of the president, to safeguard democracy.
.. At the beginning, they could engage in wishful thinking about Trump’s fitness. Now they must know he is not emotionally equipped to be president. Yet, they also know this can’t be admitted, lest they be accused of letting down their partisan team.
.. GOP leaders are engaged in an intentional deception, pretending the president is a normal and capable leader.
.. they will, eventually, be exposed. And by then, the country may not be in a forgiving mood.
The Right needs an unsentimental, realistic view of this presidency.
But the book’s most damning and consequential revelation lies in its depiction of a president who barely understands the office he occupies and isn’t interested in learning: “He didn’t process information in any conventional sense. He didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semi-literate. He trusted his own expertise — no matter how paltry or irrelevant — more than anyone else’s.”
.. If Trump is an ignorant, egomaniacal buffoon, he’s not enough of one to stop good policy from passing or the country’s condition from improving.
.. The riot and death in Charlottesville demonstrated that Trump can take the easiest layup in American politics — denounce those marching under the Nazi banner! — and botch it completely.
.. Perhaps the stakes of the Trump presidency require conservatives to confront the coming months and years with an unsentimental cost-benefit analysis. Applaud President Trump when he’s right, criticize him when he’s wrong, and ride the horse as far as he can take you — and the moment he can carry you no further, leave him behind. If Trump proves incapable of resisting temptation and irreparably sabotages his own presidency, conservatives shouldn’t strain any muscles to defend him.
.. Don’t buy into the ex post facto justifications that his angry tweets are some irreplaceable communications tool, that his mercurial nature is strategic unpredictability, that his ignorance is feigned, and that he’s playing some secret seven-level chess, with plans within plans, all building up to some ultimate victory that’s just around the corner.
.. There is no secret master plan, no elaborate grand scheme with pieces slowly falling into place.
.. It’s not like what Trump has to do is a mystery. He has to calm down and stop worrying about what’s said about him on television. He has to pay attention in his briefings. He needs to tweet less — a lot less. He needs to think deeply about what his top legislative priority before the midterm elections ought to be, and once he’s decided on that, he needs to work tirelessly to build a majority of votes to pass it. One of Trump’s most popular moments of 2017 was his address to Congress, where he sounded downright normal for a Republican president. Perhaps what Americans want is just to wake up each morning and not have to worry, “What is the federal government going to try to do to me today?”
If Trump can just calm down, focus on governing, and stop acting like he’s hosting a twist-filled reality show, he will be a successful two-term president. But if he keeps indulging his worst impulses and living down to the frightening portrait presented in Wolff’s book, conservatives don’t need to stick with him.