Senior U.S. officials struggled Monday to explain and act on President Trump’s abrupt decision to rescue Chinese telecom giant ZTE — a move that caught many of them by surprise.ZTE said last week that it would shutter major operations after the United States announced punitive measures in response to the company’s failure to comply with a settlement of charges for violating sanctions on Iran and North Korea.But Sunday, in a stunning reversal that officials said came without a formal policy process at the White House, Trump tweeted that he had ordered Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to save ZTE from collapse, saying the company’s failure would cost too many jobs in China.
The rapidly changing U.S. position highlights the stakes — and the confusion — ahead of crucial negotiations Tuesday between Trump’s senior economic team and a Chinese delegation led by Vice Premier Liu He.
Trump is the last person you would want negotiating complicated, consequential international deals with aggressive authoritarian leaders whose positions are firm if not intractable and who have studied the president carefully. Trump has a quartet of disastrous personal qualities that raise the potential that he’ll give away the store for the sake of a “win.”
First, he is almost entirely ignorant of the details of policy. If he’s pressed to say what was actually in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, few observers (even Republicans) think he could come out with more than a few disjointed generalities. As a result, he does not know (as we saw in his meeting with legislators on immigration) what is important to his side, let alone the other side. He may be totally ignorant of the conflicting meanings, for example, of “denuclearization,” a term fraught with implications for the United States and South Korea. It’s far from clear that he understood the magnitude of his concession on ZTE or the peril in converting enforcement actions into political bargaining chips.
Second, Trump has no fixed ideology to guide him. He is not, for example, enamored of human rights, which could have provided a means of throwing Kim Jong Un off guard. He operates by slogan (“America First”). To call him an isolationist or an internationalist is folly; he is for whatever is best for Trump.
Third, Trump is a narcissist to beat all narcissists. Compliment him, roll out a red carpet or call him your “friend,” and he turns into a needy supplicant, overly solicitous and naively trusting in the word of cunning adversaries. His impulsive behavior and hunger for personal gratification prompt him to disregard advice (“DO NOT CONGRATULATE”) and go for the immediate satisfaction of impressing others.
Finally, Trump is weirdly contemptuous of our allies. He suspects that they are cheating the United States, making us look like patsies. He disdains anything his predecessors have accomplished, including their success in forging alliances, trade deals and cooperative ventures. Instead, he admires strongmen and craves their approval. He is far less likely to listen to British Prime Minister Theresa May warn him about the dangers of alienating European allies than he is to buy Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assurance that the Kremlin did not meddle in the 2016 election.
In sum, the dangers posed by a rogue president are serious and multifaceted. The best his advisers can do would be to limit his one-on-one time with adversaries and impress upon him that he doesn’t want to be labeled a sucker. We should wish them well in their effort to restrain and guide Trump; our security and prosperity depend on it.