Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

President Trump’s choice of John Bolton as his new national security adviser — and his ongoing escalation of trade hostilities and reshuffling of his legal team — have all been widely interpreted as evidence that Trump is finally governing and conducting himself as he wanted to all along. He’s tired of advisers who are steering him away from his true agenda and persona, goes this narrative; instead, he’s finally getting back to the basics that make Trump who he really is.

But this framing is built on a distortion that underplays just how dangerous Trump’s evolution really threatens to become. What’s really happening is that Trump is increasingly surrounding himself with advisers who are better than the “adults in the room” at manipulating his erratic and shifting impulses and whims, by giving a shape to them he can accept and act upon.

Axios reports this morning that sources close to Trump say he “feels” that Bolton “will finally deliver the foreign policy the president wants” on Iran and North Korea. What makes this account almost certainly dead on is the word “feels.” As Michael Warren of the Weekly Standard points out, Bolton has skillfully used his conservative media perches to send messages to Trump that nudge him toward “more hawkish stances” by “casting them as fulfillments of Trump’s own pledges and true beliefs.”

Bolton wants to bomb Iran. There is no particular reason to believe that Trump either favors or opposes that stance. Trump knows that the Iran nuclear deal is bad because Barack Obama negotiated it; Trump knows Trump is strong and Obama is weak; and Trump knows his supporters cheered when he vowed to rip the agreement to shreds. But Trump has not meaningfully articulated why we should pull out of it, because he can’t.

And so, when Trump was debating whether to certify the Iran deal last summer and was unhappy with advisers urging him to do so on substantive grounds, then-adviser Stephen K. Bannon handed him a piece by Bolton urging him to decertify. Bolton’s piece cast that as the only course consistent with Trump’s “view that the Iran deal was a diplomatic debacle,” because Obama had given Iran “unimaginably favorable terms.” Trump has no idea whether this is true — it isn’t — but it persuaded Trump to come close to decertifying, though ultimately the adults prevailed that time.

The point is that Trump doesn’t grasp the details, but Bolton skillfully gave shape to his impulses. Now Bolton will be in an even better position to persuade Trump to kill the Iran deal, and if and when that happens, to push Trump more in the direction of his own bellicose designs, which Bolton will almost certainly cast as in keeping with Trump’s vow to be tougher than Obama.

Or take North Korea. Everyone knows that when Trump agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un, he did so on an impulse, with no thought through rationale or sense of the risks and complexities involved. Bolton wants to go to war with North Korea and has dismissed talks. But he cleverly greeted Trump’s announcement by describing it as “shock and awe” and an opportunity for Trump to give North Korea an ultimatum if it does not immediately begin “total denuclearization.” This, too, gave a shape to Trump’s impulse that he will very probably find flattering, but also one that might move Trump toward Bolton’s position.

If Trump now “feels” that Bolton will give him the policies he wants on Iran and North Korea, it’s because Bolton is skilled at making Trump feel that way. That’s ominous, because it means Bolton may be able to push Trump toward believing that Bolton’s goals are a realization of his own foreign policy vision, such as it is.

Trump’s vision is formless

And that foreign policy vision is formless. During the campaign, Trump opposed the Iraq War, sending the message that he won’t get drawn into the misguidedly idealistic or stupidly conceived military adventurism so typical of our clueless, corrupt elites. But Trump has never been either antiwar or an isolationist. His posture was rather that he will magically smash our enemies and aggressively represent our interests abroad effortlessly, without any serious cost, because he’s tougher, stronger and smarter than those elites. How hard will it be for Bolton to shape those impulses into something more in line with his own vision?

On trade, the process leading to Trump’s decision to impose tariffs was a joke with no regard for specifics. But it did showcase the rising star of trade adviser Peter Navarro, who unabashedly stated that he had provided the “analytics” to “confirm his intuition,” which is “always right.” Trump just pushed out lawyer John Dowd, who advised careful cooperation with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, and has added Joe diGenova, who has fed Trump’s fantasies of a “deep-state” plot against him, signaling the much more aggressive confrontation with Mueller that Trump clearly craves, without having the foggiest strategic rationale. In both cases, these people are successfully giving shape to Trump’s impulses.

As Michelle Goldberg recently observed, one after another, the people who are supposed to be “checking Donald Trump’s worst instincts and most erratic whims” have departed. But this doesn’t mean Trump is getting back to being who he always wanted to be. It means he is increasingly listening to people who are good at exploiting and shaping those instincts and whims.

* KELLY WANTED McMASTER OUT, BUT NOT BOLTON IN: The New York Times reports some of the backstory on why Trump is replacing McMaster with Bolton:

McMaster … had a difficult relationship with the White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, people close to the White House said. Mr. Kelly, they said, prevailed in easing out General McMaster but failed to prevent Mr. Trump from hiring Mr. Bolton, whom they said Mr. Kelly fears will behave like a cabinet official rather than a staff member.

Also, as the Times notes, McMaster committed the sin of acknowledging that Russia interfered in our election, which drew Trump’s Twitter wrath.

* BOLTON FAVORS REGIME CHANGE IN IRAN: The Post’s write-up reminds us that Bolton has gone a lot further than merely calling for withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal:

In January, Bolton told Fox News that Trump should dump the nuclear deal, reimpose economic sanctions on Tehran, and work toward an overthrow of the government there. “There’s a lot we can do, and we should do it,” Bolton said. “Our goal should be regime change in Iran.” He similarly called for bombing Iran in a New York Times editorial in 2015.

Why, yes, Bolton did indeed call for bombing Iran in 2015.

* A FRIGHTENING CHOICE: Vox’s Zack Beauchamp aptly sums up Bolton’s career and the significance of his appointment:

Bolton has said the United States should declare war on both North Korea and Iran. He was credibly accused of manipulating US intelligence on weapons of mass destruction prior to the Iraq war and of abusive treatment of his subordinates. He once “joked” about knocking 10 stories off the UN building in New York. … American foreign policy may be soon be shaped by someone who seems to truly believe that war is the answer to the world’s most pressing problems.

As Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute puts it: “Bolton should be kept as far away from the levers of foreign policy as possible.”

* BOLTON DEEPLY ALARMS DEMS: This quote from Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut aptly sums up the reaction of many Democrats to the Bolton appointment:

“The person who will be first in, first out of the Oval Office on national security matters passionately believes the U.S. should launch pre-emptive war against both Iran and North Korea with no authorization from Congress. My God.”

McMaster had urged caution against scrapping the Iran deal, though he’d also urged a hard line against North Korea. Now we’ve got someone even more hawkish.

* SPENDING BILL PASSES AS REPUBLICANS SCRAP PRINCIPLES: The Post reports that the Senate passed the massive $1.3 trillion omnibus, which jacks up spending on defense and non-defense spending alike:

It abandons GOP claims of fiscal discipline in a stark reversal of the promises many Republicans ran on in capturing control of the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014 as they railed against what they described as a profligate President Barack Obama. And in another about-face, GOP leaders tossed aside their own rules and past complaints about Democrats to rush the legislation through the House ahead of the Friday midnight government shutdown deadline.

Anyone who is surprised by this hasn’t been paying attention to how Republicans have operated for the last decade or more.

* TRUMP THREATENS VETO: Hello, Mr. President:

Does Trump understand that he could have lots of wall funding if he agreed to permanent protections for the “dreamers”?

* TRADE WAR COULD HURT TRUMP COUNTRY: Bloomberg reports that China has taken retaliatory moves against Trump’s latest round of tariffs that could hit Trump country hard:

China announced a 25 percent levy on U.S. pork imports — a heavy blow to Iowa, the top pork-producing state and a political battleground that swung to Trump. … China has plenty of leverage over the Farm Belt voters who helped elect Trump. … The Asian nation is the most important foreign customer for U.S. agriculture. … Any hit to agricultural producers’ earnings would be especially painful as falling commodity prices already are hurting rural America.

Anyone in Trump country who is hurt by this should rest assured that Trump has vowed that it will be “easy” to “win” any trade war he causes.

* TRUMP BUMBLES INTO TRADE WAR: Paul Krugman notes that China is behaving badly by ripping off intellectual property, but he argues that a trade war is exactly the wrong way to do anything about it:

If you want to pressure China into respecting intellectual property, you need to assemble a coalition of nations hurt by Chinese ripoffs — that is, other advanced countries, like Japan, South Korea and European nations. Yet Trump is systematically alienating those countries. … Trump’s trade policy is quickly turning into an object lesson in the wages of ignorance. By refusing to do its homework, the Trump team is managing to lose friends while failing to influence people.

And as Krugman notes, the big picture is that Trump is squandering our global reputation, which will help… China. So much winning!