Like all Washington Post contributors, I have a deep network of politically savvy coastal elites who do not get rattled easily. We occasionally get together to wine, dine, dish and set global fashion trends. So when one of them -- someone who is pretty well-versed in how Washington policymaking works -- asked me last week, "Dan, are we actually all going to die?" I promised that I would write this column. Because we coastal elites take care of our own (also: the rest of the country).
The sources of my friend's anxiety were unsurprising: the twin stories of Bob Woodward's still-not-officially-released-book "Fear: Trump in the White House" and the anonymous New York Times op-ed last week. Let's just quote from the latter now, shall we?
Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.
“There is literally no telling whether he might change his mind from one minute to the next,” a top official complained to me recently, exasperated by an Oval Office meeting at which the president flip-flopped on a major policy decision he’d made only a week earlier.
And then there's the Woodward book. My Post colleagues Philip Rucker and Robert Costa reported on the book's highlights. The national security parts are a mite disturbing:
Again and again, Woodward recounts at length how Trump’s national security team was shaken by his lack of curiosity and knowledge about world affairs and his contempt for the mainstream perspectives of military and intelligence leaders.
At a National Security Council meeting on Jan. 19, Trump disregarded the significance of the massive U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula, including a special intelligence operation that allows the United States to detect a North Korean missile launch in seven seconds vs. 15 minutes from Alaska, according to Woodward. Trump questioned why the government was spending resources in the region at all.
“We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told him.
After Trump left the meeting, Woodward recounts, “Mattis was particularly exasperated and alarmed, telling close associates that the president acted like — and had the understanding of — ‘a fifth- or sixth-grader.’ ”
One can understand my friend's consternation. These stories and Trump's histrionic reaction to them led to more than 40 new additions to my #TodlerinChief thread in the past week alone. Heck, there have been times when I have shared this anxiety. Last week, as I was driving, the Emergency Broadcast System klaxon started going off on my radio station. For half a beat, I wondered, "Did the Woodward book finally push Trump over the edge?"
That said, both of these stories contained information strongly suggesting that Trump will not be initiating World War III anytime soon. This is for two reasons.
The first is that a picture is developing about Trump's approach to national security issues, and it is one where his relative lack of knowledge empowers the guardrails that check his worst impulses. I made this point last year when Trump's Afghanistan policy was announced:
Trump is an exceptionally weak commander in chief. He lacks the gravitas and expertise to countermand his military advisers, even when his instincts push him in that direction. Trump also lacks any civilian staffers with the knowledge and wherewithal to put an unconventional solution onto the table. Steve Bannon apparently backed a hare-brained scheme to outsource the war to Erik Prince’s military contractors, but with Bannon’s departure even that idea was scotched.
What was unusual about this decision is that when faced with a choice between an unappetizing status quo and a future of even worse alternatives, Trump chose the status quo. He does not normally do this — except when it comes to decisions involving the military.
Because Trump is so uninformed, his impulses tend to guide him toward the extremes. When it comes to national security questions, Trump wants to go big or go home. This has been the case with North Korea, with Trump relying on "fire and fury" rhetoric last year and going out of his way to praise Kim Jong Un this year. On Syria, Trump got into a dust-up with theater generals earlier this year about pulling out U.S. troops as soon as possible.
Last week's tidbits, however, reveal how Trump can careen from uber-dove to uber-hawk in a heartbeat. In response to a Syrian government chemical weapons attack, Trump's first instinct was to blow everyone in the country up and let God sort it out. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said sure to the president's bluster, and then did not follow through, telling his subordinates: " We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured."
Many commentators have expressed deep unease with the fact that Mattis seemed not to execute Trump's preferences, but that has to be understood through the lens of Trump's radical ignorance on foreign affairs. Because Trump knows so little, his first impulses are often wrong, as even Trump himself acknowledged in his Afghanistan speech. When the anonymous op-ed writer explained, "This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state. It’s the work of the steady state," he or she meant that Trump's national security officials were trying to constrain Trump impulses as an extreme hawk and as an extreme dove.
This does NOT mean that Trump is constantly thwarted. When Trump has been insistent on a policy -- such as tariffs -- his advisers have tried to execute it, no matter how daft it has been. But slow-rolling a policy makes sense if the president's own impulses are not fully formed. This is not "an administrative coup d'etat" as Woodward suggests, so much as half-decent staffwork.
I think I can do a better job than Trump at a lot of things. But I would hope that if I should ever hold a position that can affect the life and death of others, my staff would save me from my worst impulses.
That seems to be happening in the White House now. Trump is unlikely to trigger World War III because his warlike impulses are usually ephemeral, and his staff knows it.
Trump's foreign policy instincts are awful. For the most part, however, they are also protean, which means that his advisers can handle him in this arena. Which is one reason the world has not ended yet.
Slate's Isaac Chotiner is less sanguine about this dynamic, and everyone should read his argument. I do not mean to valorize Trump's staff as heroic in any way here. I am saying that the revelations this week reveal a presidential staff doing what they should be doing in this situation. In dealing with a president who possesses either unformed or uninformed foreign policy views, slow-rolling things is the way to go.
This is an imperfect solution to a radically unsatisfactory status quo, and creates other problems that I will discuss tomorrow. But World War III is not one of them.