Sunday, April 16, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, Screeching U-Turn Edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He very abruptly changed his mind about a great many things.

Whether or not he knows Steve Bannon very well. Much was made this week of the falling star of Steve Bannon, the former editor of a white nationalist web magazine who is currently Trump's chief political advisor. Trump appears to have settled on Bannon as the scapegoat for his low approval ratings. On Tuesday Trump began the process of erasing Bannon from his personal history, telling the New York Post: "I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late. I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve."

In fact, Trump had known Bannon "for many years" before Bannon finally joined the campaign, as his own press release announcing the event made clear. Incidentally, that same press release features praise for Bannon from Paul Manafort, who is currently undergoing his own erasure from the Trump mythology.

Whether NATO is worth having. Trump's position during the campaign and transition was that NATO was "obsolete." In remarks on Wednesday that almost sounded like he was admitting an error, Trump acknowledged that previous belief before adding, "It's no longer obsolete." The following day, Sean Spicer was dispatched to clarify Trump's remarks: NATO was no longer obsolete because the 28-nation military alliance had "evolved" in some unspecified way during Trump's first 12 weeks as president.

Whether China is a currency manipulator or in control of North Korea. As noted on this site, Wednesday was also the day that Trump publicly abandoned his years-long stance that China was artificially deflating its currency to the detriment of the US, and recanted his pledge to punish them for it. The issue is complicated--all countries "manipulate" their currency to some extent, and China's recent manipulation has been to strengthen the yuan, which helps American manufacturers--but Trump's new stance is roughly in line with the expert consensus on the matter.

However, the timing of Trump's change of heart is suspicious. It appears to have coincided with the visit of China's president Xi Jinping, whom Trump credits with explaining "in ten minutes" not only the basic facts of the North Korean situation, but also--to Trump's great surprise--that China did not have absolute control over North Korea and should not be expected to unilaterally handle any problems arising from it. Given the sudden swing towards a generally pro-China stance from a man who frequently used the word "rape" to describe US-China relations, it seems fairly likely that Xi also "explained" the basics of currency valuation.

The tutorial Trump received from Xi highlights a recurring theme in the Trump presidency: that his policies are largely dictated by whoever talks to him last. It seems Trump's own staff agrees: by all accounts, it is nearly impossible to assemble meetings of his senior staff for fear that someone will use the opportunity to talk with Trump alone.

Whether Wikileaks is a good thing. During the campaign, when Wikileaks was one of the avenues for Russian-sourced anti-Clinton propaganda, Trump shouted "I love Wikileaks!" at campaign rallies, and tweeted that its "incredible" work was being misrepresented by the "rigged system." He wasn't the only one: then-Rep. Mike Pompeo, in since-deleted tweets, crowed that Wikileaks' publication of e-mails stolen from the Democratic National Committee proved that "the fix was in from President Obama." (The DNC e-mails show a preference for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, but no evidence of illegal activity, unless you interpret them as secret code for a pedophilia ring run out of a pizza restaurant's basement.)

On Thursday, Pompeo--now speaking for the Trump administration as its CIA Director--called Wikileaks a "hostile intelligence service" in the thrall of "antidemocratic countries." He then explicitly admitted that Wikileaks--with the overt support of himself and then-candidate Trump--had acted as an agent of the Russian intelligence service's campaign to disrupt the 2016 election.

Whether relations with Russia are good or bad. Pompeo's remarks were part of a much larger campaign this week by the Trump administration to give the impression that Trump has not been corrupted or compromised by Russia--and to distract from the growing consensus that at least some members of his campaign, if not Trump himself, were actively colluding with Russia during its attack on the election. Trump personally declared that US-Russia relations were "at an all-time low," although he stopped short of recanting any of his previous declarations of praise for Vladimir Putin, saying only that the Assad regime was an unworthy ally for Russia.

Trump's son Eric--who sometimes asserts that, as the day-to-day manager of his father's businesses, he does not discuss government matters with his father--touted the Syria missile strike as proof that Donald Trump was not taking orders directly from Russia. (Instead, Eric suggested that his sister Ivanka, barely a week into her official but unspecified role in the White House, was the real authority behind the spray of Tomahawk missiles that briefly disrupted one of the Assad regime's airbases.) But US-Russia military coordination in Syria continues unaffected, and the day after Trump's "all-time low" remarks he changed his tack again, tweeting that "things will work out fine between the U.S.A. and Russia. At the right time everyone will come to their senses & there will be lasting peace!"

Trump did not elaborate on when he felt the right time for people to come to their senses would be.

Various other things. Trump's position changed suddenly on a number of other issues, too. They include: whether there should be a ban on lobbying after working for the White House (previously yes; now no), whose job it is to replace the Affordable Care Act (previously himself; now Democrats), and how he feels about the Export-Import Bank of the United States (previously opposed to it, and then more recently in favor of it, and then still more recently appointing as its head someone who called for its abolition).


  • Disappearing problematic allies from one's own history is what authoritarians do.
  • It's bad if a president is routinely surprised by fairly basic facts about the world.
  • It's worse if "ten minutes" with the leader of a foreign power is enough to convince a president that he now understands things.
  • A president who simply does what others tell him to do at the right moment is not fit to do the job.
  • It's bad if presidents even give the faintest impression that they ordered military action to divert attention away from political problems.
  • Indirectly acknowledging a massive national security crisis is the first step in fixing it, not the last.
  • Refusing to enforce the showcase "drain the swamp" policy suggests a president doesn't really care about draining the swamp.
  • Policy changes tend to work better when a president can articulate why they are happening.