For the second time in two weeks Wednesday, President Trump emerged from a high-profile meeting with European allies and claimed victory. This time, it was hailing alleged concessions from the European Union to avert the escalating trade war Trump launched.
“This was a very big day for free and fair trade — a very big day indeed," Trump intoned alongside European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
But claiming victory is one thing; demonstrating it is another. And Trump has shown more of a knack for the former than the latter.
Despite Trump's “very big day for free trade" declaration, the details thus far are thin and vague. The E.U. will buy more soybeans and liquefied natural gas, and existing tariffs on steel and aluminum will be reevaluated. The rest, it seems, is to be determined — part of “a dialogue" Trump proudly announced and predicted would be a great success. “We’re starting the negotiation right now, but we know where it’s going," Trump said, making clear this is hardly set in stone.
It's obvious why Trump would want to shift the narrative; just Tuesday, he was forced to give farmers hurt by the retaliatory tariffs in the trade war a $12 billion bailout. But it all sounds a little like Trump's dubious victory declaration after a NATO summit in Brussels two weeks ago. Before exiting the summit, Trump called a news conference and claimed that NATO allies had given in to his demand that they increase their spending on the common defense. “They have substantially upped their commitment, and now we’re very happy and have a very, very powerful, very, very strong NATO,” he said.
To this day, there's no concrete reason to believe anything has changed. A communique at the end of NATO described the goal as it had been — 2 percent of each country's GDP by 2024 — and French President Emmanuel Macron openly disputed that any new agreement had been reached. “The communique is clear," Macron said. “It reaffirms a commitment to 2 percent in 2024. That is all."
Even in announcing the supposed breakthrough, Trump didn't lay out which countries agreed to what — “Some are at 2 percent, others have agreed definitely to go to 2 percent, and some are going back to get the approval, and which they will get to go to 2 percent," Trump said — and the White House hasn't substantiated his claim.
From a political standpoint, the strategy makes sense. Diplomacy is complicated and extremely difficult for your average American to understand, as is trade. Trump has also shown he's not particularly worried about the media and experts parsing his comments and casting doubt on his victories, as long as he can sell them to a base that has stood by Trump through thick and thin and almost always seen his exploits in the best possible light.
If your only goal is to appeal to voters who already mistrust what the media and experts are telling them and you have little regard for specifics, it becomes easier to manufacture crises and then claim you have used them to obtain concessions. As long as the E.U. imports more soybeans, Trump has something specific he can point to as a deliverable from his trade war strategy. And people who want to believe Trump will believe he just stuck it to the E.U. and bent it to his will.
It's also worth noting that often the belligerent actors on the world stage get what they want — because other countries are wary of poking the bear. Trump has certainly made himself into a bear, feuding with allies and cozying up to strongmen. But even if you can win a series of small victories that way, you only need to fall short once for the “madman strategy" to seriously backfire.
That hasn't happened yet, which means Trump can keep plausibly claiming victories — no matter how thinly constructed or tentative they are. And that appears to be what he'll keep doing.