What if, and hear me out on this, but what if Trump isn’t being manipulated by a nefarious cabal of “globalists” led by Jared Kushner? What if … he’s a blank slate on domestic and foreign policy apart from “the wall” and one or two other subjects and his views on everything else are evolving organically as he gets better information from the experts he talks to? Like, say, the president of China.
Reading this, I felt a mixture of terror and admiration that his approach to the most important job in the world is basically the same as a kid who doesn’t study for the big test and then tries to BS his way through it. (Remember when he was allegedly surprised to learn from Obama that he’d have to staff the entire West Wing, not just a few positions?) Except that the kid doesn’t usually admit that he didn’t study. And he certainly doesn’t admit it to a group of reporters.
Trump told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that he was previously convinced China had “tremendous power” over North Korea. But after meeting with Xi last week, Trump said he “realized it’s not so easy.”
“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump said. “I felt pretty strongly that [China] had a tremendous power over North Korea. But it’s not what you would think.”
There are probably some specialists on China and North Korea in the bowels of the State Department who could have caught him up on that before the summit with Xi. Or, if he doesn’t want to talk to them for whatever reason, he could have dialed up literally any expert in the world and they would have taken his call and filled him in. Now I’m worried that other foreign leaders are going to see that quote and come prepared to give him their own skewed lessons on what they are and aren’t capable of, replete with historical backfill. Wait until Putin explains to him that the Russian people began in Ukraine and Ukraine was a part of Russia for a long time, and therefore…
This isn’t the first time he’s seemed surprised lately about the complexities of policy, notes David Graham:
In other cases, however, Trump’s changed views appear to be more of a reflection of the president’s ignorance. The president was widely mocked for his claim that “nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated.” It is true that many people recognized that, but equally apparent that Trump did not…
It’s a striking admission that just 10 minutes of lecturing from a foreign leader could reverse Trump’s view of a major challenge facing his administration. And yet that is in line with his other reversals.He seems only now to be learning about the scope of Syrian atrocities and the extent of Russia’s backing for President Bashar al-Assad. By his own admission, he has decided that the Ex-Im Bank is more useful than he realized. He’s come around on low interest rates, and is getting up to speed on what China is actually doing with its currency.
That seems hard to believe but not quite impossible in light of his conversation with Xi. Could it be that Trump didn’t realize the full extent of Russian support for Assad until recently, or that Assad has been using chemical weapons sporadically (and barrel bombs frequently) for years? I’m pretty sure Fox News covered it!
He tweeted this morning that he’s confident China will be able to rein North Korea in, and if they can’t, we will. That’s a solid answer for the test, whether he studied or not. In lieu of an exit question, read this piece by Matt Bai that (sort of) connects the staffing issue I mentioned above to the policy drift we’re seeing lately on China, NATO, etc. Bai says you can’t compare Trump’s first hundred days to those of other presidents because Trump ran a longshot upstart campaign with few establishment regulars; when he shocked the world and won, he had little choice but to insert the people around him into top positions, whether they were well suited for those jobs or not. Now, as he’s hitting potholes in governing, he’s starting to replace them with people from outside his orbit — and his policies may be changing accordingly. (See, e.g., Mike Flynn being swapped out for H.R. McMaster.) It may not be that Trump is a “blank slate” on policy as much as that he’s open to persuasion, and as populists and nationalists are replaced by more establishment voices, that persuasion is going to mostly be from the same direction. Nikki Haley famously said at her confirmation hearing, when asked how she plans to reconcile her hawkishness towards Russia with Trump’s dovishness, that she hoped his new national security team would “educate” him on what they know. Maybe that’s exactly what’s happening as the team continues to be built out.