President Trump blasted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over a refugee agreement and boasted about the magnitude of his electoral college win, according to senior U.S. officials briefed on the Saturday exchange. Then, 25 minutes into what was expected to be an hour-long call, Trump abruptly ended it.At one point, Trump informed Turnbull that he had spoken with four other world leaders that day — including Russian President Vladimir Putin — and that “this was the worst call by far.”
He seemed confused about our policy of accepting refugees from Australia. He later tweeted: “Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!” No, we didn’t agree to take “illegal immigrants,” Mr. President.) He at least did not threaten to invade Australia.
CNN’s backstory provides no comfort. “Trump, [a] source said, was feeling some fatigue after his first major bout of diplomacy.” Low energy? He is 70, but one would have thought talking on the phone would not have exhausted him. CNN further reports that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande “pushed back on the travel ban over the phone. Merkel felt she had to explain the Geneva Convention to Trump — a lecture a source has said Trump chafed at.”
Meanwhile, more details came out about a phone call to Mexico, which was intended to patch things up between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. An Associated Press report first suggested Trump had threatened to invade Mexico, a charge denied by both governments. The transcript CNN obtained turned out to be slightly less alarming. “You have some pretty tough hombres in Mexico that you may need help with,” Trump reportedly said. “We are willing to help with that big-league, but they have [to] be knocked out and you have not done a good job knocking them out.” So he insulted Mexico (again) but didn’t really threaten invasion. The bar has been set so low that we are expected to take this as some vindication of Trump’s foreign-policy skill.
On one level, this is high farce, a comic illustration that Trump is just as ignorant, impulsive, uncouth and obnoxious as his critics claimed. We, however, tend to look at the two incidents as downright scary. Trump gets fatigued after a few calls. He comes across as a fool to allies who must make calculated decisions based on their assessment of his reliability.
You do wonder whether anyone briefed him for these calls. (Do not call them “hombres.” Do not insult Australia.) America, and also our allies and foes, sees a child-like figure unprepared and unschooled in even the basics of foreign policy. They see someone entirely motivated by personal insecurities and grudges, unaware and unconcerned with the nation’s policy requirement. The leader of the Free World can’t seem to keep up, let alone lead. Well, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, welcome to the job.
Where does Tillerson even begin to erase the perception being formed that Trump is, bluntly, “not all there”? Kori Schake, who has served on the National Security Council and in the State and Defense departments, tells Right Turn that she is not optimistic that Tillerson can become the sole or even primary voice on foreign-policy issues. “The president is too voluble on those subjects,” she says. “But he can build allies in the Cabinet and Congress to ensure that irrespective of what the President says, policy decisions are consistent with his views.”
Tillerson might start by making certain, as national security adviser Mike Flynn apparently has not done, that the president is better briefed and rested (if his endurance and concentration are poor) and that he is given, if not a script, at least some solid bullet points to help him get through calls. (This latest incident provides one more bit of evidence that Flynn, who is charged specifically with providing information and guidance to the president, lacks the skills and heft to avoid such calamities.)
One shudders to think what might happen during an in-person meeting with, say, Russian President Vladimir Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping. Honestly, Tillerson can do only so much. America elected someone entirely unfit for the job. Now the world knows it, too.