The Last Temptation of Trump

The president brandishes a Bible in front of a church, in search of a divine mandate that isn’t coming.

Late Monday afternoon, President Trump emerged from the White House and strode in the cool spring daylight to St. John’s Church in Lafayette Square. It was supposed to be an act of defiance: Mr. Trump has bristled at the observation that during the protests roiling the capital he has burrowed into a fortified bunker rather than addressing the nation.

Like most performances arranged by Mr. Trump and associates, it made only a disjointed sort of sense. Yes, the president’s decision to march through the heart of the city’s unrest caused police and National Guard units to blast a peaceful crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets, carving a punishing path to the steps of St. John’s. But the show of force seemed to emphasize only that his legitimacy has shrunk to the point that he feels moved to dominate his own people with military power.

As he took up his post before the church, which was partially boarded up after a minor fire that broke out during a recent protest, Mr. Trump set his face in a stony scowl and held up a black Bible, tightly closed. “Is it your Bible?” a reporter shouted. “It’s Bible,” Mr. Trump said neutrally. The entire routine was vulgar, blunt: There Mr. Trump was, holding aloft this mute book — neither opened, cited, nor read from — in the shadow of a vandalized church, claiming the mantle of righteousness.

After all, that was what he had come to do. A ruler maintaining order strictly by brute force has a problem. Such regimes are volatile and fragile, subject to eruptive dissolution. Mr. Trump may lack the experience or interest to even pantomime genuine Christian practice, but he has acute instincts when it comes to the symbolism of leadership. He seemed to know, as he positioned himself as the defender of the Christian faith, that he needed to imbue his presidency with some renewed moral purpose; Christianity was simply a convenient vein to tap.

“I think that’s a standard trope in American political frames of reference,” Luke Bretherton told me on a Monday night phone call. Mr. Bretherton, who is a professor of moral and political theology at Duke University’s Divinity School, cited Cold War efforts to demonize socialism as viciously atheistic and amoral. It was work undertaken with anxious eagerness precisely because socialist criticisms of American life were substantial and compelling.

So it goes with the protesters who have gathered to condemn the murder of George Floyd and the murders of others like him, black men and women slaughtered in America’s streets and in their homes by those entrusted with the force of its laws. Their moral case is clear, urgent, compelling. In Mr. Trump’s eyes, Mr. Bretherton said, “there’s only one way to combat that symbolically: “To claim divine sanction for what amounts to a declaration of martial law.”

Of course Mr. Trump is uninterested in the particularities of the Christian religion. St. John’s is a liberal Episcopal church, whose presiding bishop, Michael Curry, has vehemently condemned the stunt. (In a twist of bitter irony, the church’s sign posted behind Mr. Trump stated that “all are welcome.”) On Tuesday the president visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, a holy space maintained by the Knights of Columbus, in honor of the pope whose blood resides in the shrine as a relic for veneration by the faithful. Mr. Trump is, of course, not Catholic; like the macabre parade in front of St. John’s, this is just an attempt at recruiting a vague Christian pastiche as the moral core of his authoritarian efforts.

Christian leaders ought to condemn this blatant prostitution of the glory of God. Some, like Mr. Curry, will; others won’t, either because of their own political allegiances or fear of Mr. Trump’s wrath. But the most worrisome prospect is that it won’t matter at all what Christian leaders do; Mr. Trump doesn’t need them to stake his claim.

“It’s significant that Trump did this alone,” Mr. Bretherton observed. Unlike prior presidents who sometimes appeared on grave occasions with priests or pastors, Mr. Trump “doesn’t need a Billy Graham figure to give divine sanction. He doesn’t need a priestly figure. He himself can be the mediator.”

And yet it is still worth saying that the Christian faith does not condone the wanton destruction of human life or the presumption of God’s blessing by any earthly power. At the heart of the faith is servitude, not domination; Mr. Trump, hoisting the Bible aloft like a scepter, clearly has other plans.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ is tempted by Satan three times, and the final temptation is this: dominion over “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” Christ rejected the offer, scripture holds; “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him,” he rebuked the Devil. But it wouldn’t have been a temptation if it weren’t in some way enticing. One imagines that Lucifer didn’t retire the gambit because of the one defeat and that in his years of similar propositions, he must have had many takers.

Trump Doesn’t Think Strategically. He Thinks Theatrically

As Trump gears up for his big July 4th bash, critics are slamming the president for politicizing the national holiday with the event, which includes military tanks lined up on National Mall, flyover jets, fireworks and a speech from Trump on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes-Norton, Colonel Jack Jacobs and Bloomberg View Executive Editor Tim O’Brien join Yasmin Vossoughian to discuss.

Trump Says Tanks Will Be on Display in Washington for July 4

Pentagon officials have long been reluctant to parade tanks, missiles and other weapons through the nation’s capital like the authoritarian leaders of North Korea and China. They say the United States, which has the world’s most powerful military and spends more on defense than the seven next largest military spenders combined — China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia, Britain and Germany — does not need to broadcast its strength.

But Mr. Trump believes that the inclusion of tanks and other weapons in the July 4 celebration, which was first reported by The Washington Post, would help to transform the capital city’s annual event into the kind of military celebration he has long wanted.

After watching the Bastille Day parade in 2017 in Paris, Mr. Trump said that “we may do something like that on July 4 in Washington down Pennsylvania Avenue.” He later raised the idea of a military parade on Veterans Day, but abandoned it in the face of public opposition from city officials, private dissent from the Pentagon and a price tag of more than $90 million.

.. “You’ve got to be pretty careful with the tanks because the roads have a tendency not to like to carry heavy tanks,” Mr. Trump said, acknowledging the damage that such heavy vehicles could do to Washington’s transportation network. “So we have to put them in certain areas.”

The president did not say where those areas would be.

.. Pentagon officials declined to comment on Monday as they wrestled with how to accommodate the president’s tank request only a few days before the event. Among the logistical concerns was how to transport tanks that weigh more than 60 tons into the popular downtown area where tourists gather to see the monuments. Moving and guarding the tanks would require staffing at a time when many troops are at home for the holiday.

Another problem is that Arlington Memorial Bridge, which spans the Potomac River and connects Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial, might not be able to hold the weight.

It was also unclear on Monday where the tanks would come from.

The closest Abrams tanks appeared to be a 350-mile drive away at the 150th Cavalry Regiment, a unit of the West Virginia National Guard in Bluefield, W.Va. If the military wanted to use assets under federal control, it would most likely have to bring tanks from the Marines’ 2nd Tank Battalion at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

Either way, the tanks would have to be transported by rail or flatbed truck.

“We will be having one of the biggest gatherings in the history of Washington, D.C., on July 4,” he wrote. “It will be called ‘A Salute To America’ and will be held at the Lincoln Memorial. Major fireworks display, entertainment and an address by your favorite President, me!”

Critics of the president say his involvement amounts to a partisan hijacking of the Fourth of July event for his own political purposes.

He’s taking an American — a national — holiday and making it about himself. And that is fundamentally wrong,” said Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, whose constituents live a short drive from downtown Washington.

But supporters of the president scoffed at the idea that Mr. Trump’s involvement is a reason for concern. Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker and vocal Trump booster, said the president should have the right to celebrate the Fourth of July as he sees fit.

“What kind of idiot do you have to be to complain that the president wants to celebrate the founding of our country?” Mr. Gingrich said, adding that he supports the idea of having tanks and other military vehicles at the celebration to honor the country’s military.

“Other than the fact they have to pay to fix the streets, who cares?” Mr. Gingrich said.

Trump Almost Always Folds

From trade deals to gun control and immigration to military deployments, the president has a consistent pattern: Talk a big game, then back down.

President Trump’s May 8 announcement that he was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal should not have come as a surprise. He’d spent years railing against the plan—“the worst deal ever,” he dubbed it—and had promised to rip it up. And yet up to the moment when the president made the final call, there was still some suspense about what he would say.

A Single Scandal Sums Up All of Trump’s Failures

Many of the tales of controversy to emerge from the Trump administration have been abstract, or complicated, or murky. Whenever anyone warns about destruction of “norms,” the conversation quickly becomes speculative—the harms are theoretical, vague, and in the future.

This makes new Washington Post reporting about President Donald Trump’s border wall especially valuable. The Post writes about how Trump has repeatedly pressured the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security to award a contract for building a wall at the southern U.S. border to a North Dakota company headed by a leading Republican donor.

The story demonstrates the shortcomings of Trump’s attempt to bring private-sector techniques into government. It shows his tendency toward cronyism, his failures as a negotiator, and the ease with which a fairly primitive attention campaign can sway him. At heart, though, what it really exemplifies is Trump’s insistence on placing performative gestures over actual efficacy. And it is a concrete example—almost literally—of how the president’s violations of norms weaken the country and waste taxpayer money.

The Post reports:

In phone calls, White House meetings and conversations aboard Air Force One during the past several months, Trump has aggressively pushed Dickinson, N.D.-based Fisher Industries to Department of Homeland Security leaders and Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the commanding general of the Army Corps, according to the administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal discussions.

It may be a not-very-subtle sign of the frustration in the Army that the news leaked to the Post the same day that Semonite was called to the White House and Trump once again pressed him.*

The Art of the Flail

Whenever investors suspect that Donald Trump will really go through with his threats of big tariff increases, provoking retaliation abroad, stocks plunge. Every time they decide it’s just theater, stocks recover.

.. while trade is one of Trump’s two signature issues — animus toward dark-skinned people being the other — when it comes to making actual demands on other countries, the tweeter in chief and his aides either don’t know what they want or they want things that our trading partners can’t deliver. Not won’t — can’t.

.. In some ways, China really is a bad actor in the global economy. In particular, it has pretty much thumbed its nose at international rules on intellectual property rights, grabbing foreign technology without proper payment

But if getting China to pay what it owes for technology were the goal, you’d expect the U.S. both to make specific demands on that front and to adopt a strategy aimed at inducing China to meet those demands.

.. In fact, the U.S. has given little indication of what China should do about intellectual property. Meanwhile, if getting better protection of patent rights and so on were the goal, America should be trying to build a coalition with other advanced countries to pressure the Chinese; instead, we’ve been alienating everyone in sight.

.. Anyway, what seems to really bother Trump aren’t China’s genuine policy sins, but its trade surplus with the United States

.. Over all, the U.S. trade deficit is just the flip side of the fact that America attracts more inward investment from foreigners than the amount Americans invest abroad.

.. A decade ago, China’s current account surplus — a broad measure that includes trade in services and income from investments abroad — was more than 9 percent of G.D.P., a very big number. In 2017, however, its surplus was only 1.4 percent of G.D.P., which isn’t much.

.. But in that case, why is “bilateral” trade between the U.S. and China so unbalanced? The answer is that it’s largely a kind of statistical illusion. China is the Great Assembler: it’s where components from other countries, like Japan and South Korea, are put together into consumer products for the U.S. market. So a lot of what we import from China is really produced elsewhere.

.. It’s not clear why we should demand that China stop playing that role.

.. it’s not clear that China could even do much to reduce its bilateral surplus with the U.S.: To do so, it would basically have to have a completely different economy. And this just isn’t going to happen unless we have a full-blown trade war that shuts down much of the global economy as we know it.

.. Oh, and a trade war would also devastate much of pro-Trump rural America, since a large share of our agricultural production — including almost two-thirds of food grains — is exported.