The consistent inconsistency left both allies and enemies puzzled about his intentions. If geopolitics were as relatively simple as a Manhattan real estate deal, a whiplash strategy might have been effective. Instead, over time, America’s enemies such as the Iranians, North Koreans and Russians pegged Trump as an inconsistent bully whose bark was far worse than his bite, and adjusted their policies accordingly. North Korea started testing ballistic missiles again and continued nuclear-weapons production, while Iran started enriching uranium beyond the limits of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and Russia persisted in its large-scale information operations against the U.S.
With the departures of the generals, the world got to see Trump increasingly unplugged. Meetings between Trump and Kim Jong Un in Vietnam and at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea yielded no tangible results. Newly imposed sanctions on the Iranians certainly had begun to bite, but Iran also restarted its uranium-enrichment program. The Trump Administration announced a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and conducted peace talks with the Taliban with no input from the Afghan government. But then, on Sept. 7, 2019, Trump surprised even his close advisers with a tweet that “the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday.” Trump wrote that he had “cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations,” because the Taliban had “admitted to an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great soldiers.” The Afghan war grinds on with the Taliban more empowered and the Afghan government weaker.
Trump was now surrounded with yes-men and was running his Cabinet as he had run his real estate company, as a one-man show. The danger of having Trump surrounded by a team of acolytes was underscored by what became potentially the greatest threat to his presidency–the call he made on July 25, 2019, to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, when Trump asked the Ukrainians to investigate Joe Biden as well as his son Hunter.