There are few better examples of the terminal confusion gripping the Trump administration than the competing headlines published by The Post and the New York Times last Wednesday. The Post: “Trump instructs military to begin planning for withdrawal from Syria.” The Times: “Trump Drops Push for Immediate Withdrawal of Troops From Syria.”
Both headline writers were trying in good faith to decipher the undecipherable — the intentions of our mercurial president, which can change as rapidly as the weather in Rapid City, S.D. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may have believed that President Trump was really pulling out and thus felt free to apparently use chemical weapons against the city of Douma this past Saturday. But after years spent criticizing President Barack Obama for sacrificing surprise in military strikes, Trump announced that U.S. missiles — “nice and new and ‘smart!’ ” — would soon be striking Syria.
If “Animal Assad,” as the president likes to call him, can’t figure out Trump, he is hardly alone. It is not just that Trump changes his mind often, although he does. It is also that when he speaks his mind, it is often impossible to figure out what he’s saying. Here is Trump speaking last week: “Nobody’s been tougher on Russia than I have. . . . And with that being said, I think I could have a very good relationship with President Putin. . . . Getting along with Russia is a good thing. . . . So I think I could have a very good relationship with Russia and with President Putin. And if I did, that would be a great thing. And there’s also a possibility that that won’t happen. Who knows? Okay?” Who knows, indeed.
Trump’s ramblings about Vladimir Putin were positively pellucid in their clarity compared with his March 29 comments on the U.S.-South Korea trade deal: “So we’ve redone it, and that’s going to level the playing field on steel and cars and trucks coming into this country. And I may hold it up till after a deal is made with North Korea. Does everybody understand that? You know why, right? You know why? Because it’s a very strong card.”
I have asked numerous Korea experts what this is supposed to mean, and no one has any idea. Why would Trump want to hold up a trade deal with South Korea to gain leverage over North Korea? Maybe he is planning to make such massive concessions to Kim Jong Un that he will need to bludgeon Seoul into acquiescing. Or maybe he was simply confusing North and South Korea — a mistake he has made before. Who can keep all those Koreas straight?
Most presidents enter office knowing relatively little about foreign policy and learn a lot on the job. Trump knew less than any of his predecessors and has learned less than any of them. The perpetual fog that clouds his thinking has not lifted an inch; if anything, it is becoming ever more impenetrable.
This is what happens when you are functionally illiterate: Trump can read in theory but chooses not to, and therefore he is incapable of sustained learning. As The Post reported, “He rarely if ever reads the President’s Daily Brief, a document that lays out the most pressing information collected by U.S. intelligence agencies from hot spots around the world.”
Instead of relying on the written word, Trump relies on the nitwits who opine on the Fox News channel. I’ve previously suggested that Fox News is Trump’s RT, but that’s not quite right: Putin is too smart to believe what his own propagandists say. Not Trump: If “Fox & Friends” tells him that a “caravan” of Central American refugees is about to invade the United States, Trump will faithfully echo their hysteria. He even seeks out Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs off air for their fortune-cookie insights.
Trump is proud of his lack of “book learnin’. ” During the 2016 campaign, he bragged, as The Post noted, “that he does not need to read extensively because he reaches the right decisions ‘with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words “common sense.” ’ ” In practice, Trump’s policies defy any kind of sense, common or otherwise.
He is trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korea — but at the same time he is threatening to tear up the one with Iran. He has threatened a trade war against China — but at the same time he needs China’s help to coerce North Korea into making a deal. He is intent on withdrawing from the Iran nuclear accord because he is so worried about Iran — but at the same time he is handing Syria over to Iran on a silver platter. Or at least he was before the latest apparent chemical attack. Now he’s preparing to bomb Syria as a prelude to either greater engagement or disengagement. With the “very stable genius” in charge, who knows what’s going to happen next?
Trump prides himself on unpredictability, but, as the attack in Syria showed, there is a price to be paid for leaving allies and enemies alike guessing about your intentions.
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