On Tuesday, most political observers agreed that President Trump’s televised Oval Office dust-up with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) did not go so well for the president. That evening, however, the Daily Beast’s Matt K. Lewis made the contrarian argument that Trump had played it well by dispensing with the hypocrisy of bipartisan bonhomie: “I suspect many Americans will see that there was something refreshing about Trump’s public stance. Politicians often promise to drive a tough bargain (when rallying their base before an election), only to engage in conciliatory rhetoric when face to face with an adversary. The civilized ‘norm,’ in other words, is to be a fake.”
Lewis is advancing an argument that I have seen made across the spectrum — that one of Trump’s few political strengths is his inability to be hypocritical. His refusal to adhere to the norms and artifices of politics is supposed to be a breath of fresh air. This helps to explain why much of his base thinks he’s so honest. Even some critics like it when he refuses to parrot the lines of past presidents; they dislike the hypocrisies of the Beltway more than they dislike Trump.
There are two problems with this narrative, however. The first and more immediate point is that Trump is drowning in hypocrisy. In this particular instance, for example, Trump realized quickly that he had screwed up. The Los Angeles Times’s Jennifer Haberkorn reported that “Trump appeared upset after leaving the meeting,” and her colleague Eli Stokols tweeted that it took a long time for the president to calm down. Once that happened, he changed his tune. The New York Times’s Julie Hirschfield Davis reported that Trump acted rather differently once the cameras left the Oval Office:
Despite the public meltdown, Mr. Trump appeared to be open to a way out of the impasse. He called Ms. Pelosi hours after the meeting, she said, and was still reviewing the options that the Democrats had presented. Mr. Trump even went into a lofty speech during the Oval Office session, once reporters had departed, in which he mused about the potential for him to work alongside Democratic leaders in the new Congress to strike great deals.
Gesticulating grandly with Vice President Mike Pence looking on, Mr. Trump told Mr. Schumer and Ms. Pelosi that the new Congress could be the “greatest Congress in the history of Congress,” according to a person familiar with the discussion who described it on the condition of anonymity because it was private. And the president assured them that if they could strike deals that could get through the House, he would compel Republican senators to back them.
It turns out that Trump is as two-faced as previous presidents — he just prefers to be belligerent in public and more accommodating in private.
The deeper problem with Trump’s frayed relationships with norms is that he wants to violate them at all the wrong times. Take, for example, the question of issue linkage in foreign policy. There is no doubt that Trump believes that crude issue linkage can extract concessions in world politics. And, to be fair, there are occasions when tactical issue linkage can lead to grand bargains. But for the United States, most of the time, one wants to keep issues very much separate. That’s because, if the United States links two separate issues, it becomes legitimate for other countries to do the same.
And this brings us to the case of the Huawei executive and Trump’s trade war with China. Reuters explains that “Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer and the daughter of its founder, faces U.S. claims that she misled multinational banks about Iran-linked transactions, putting the banks at risk of violating U.S. sanctions.” She was arrested while in transit in Canada.
This case has roiled stock markets and rattled foreign policy observers, because it happened at precisely the same moment when Sino-American relations are pretty tense. It was understandable to speculate that there might be a connection between the arrest and the Trump administration’s efforts to pressure China. However, as Robert Williams and Prestin Lim explained in Lawfare, the arrest proceeded on a parallel track. And keeping those two tracks separate was important:
U.S. negotiators can credibly claim that Meng’s arrest is a product of a professional investigation and an institutionalized U.S. commitment to the rule of law. Whatever rule-of-law norms have been breached in recent years, and however eroded the American public’s confidence in the country’s institutions, the Justice Department has retained an ethos of independence grounded in constitutional tradition and in the “cultural self-understandings” of the people who work there.
Many in Beijing will find it impossible to see the arrest as anything but a highly coordinated U.S. campaign of aggression, or perhaps as an act of sabotage by economic nationalists within the Trump administration. Chinese leaders may find it inconceivable that Meng’s arrest was not carefully calculated for geopolitical effect. But they shouldn’t.
Ah, except this is when Trump decided to link the arrest with his trade talks. Asked in a Reuters interview if he would intervene in the case, Trump said, “If I think it’s good for the country, if I think it’s good for what will be certainly the largest trade deal ever made — which is a very important thing — what’s good for national security — I would certainly intervene if I thought it was necessary.”
To put this bluntly: It’s not good for the country that Trump even floated this idea. In suggesting the linkage, Trump has managed to do two things: convince many Chinese that the arrest had to be politically motivated, and legitimize the connection between trade disputes and legal prosecutions.
Over at the Monkey Cage, Henry Farrell correctly notes that “Meng’s detention has now become a bargaining chip in a set of economic negotiations.” He goes on to warn about the long-term damage Trump has wreaked on U.S. foreign policy with this shortsighted move:
The U.S. commitment to the rule of law is necessarily hypocritical. The United States wants on the one hand to exploit legal rules to restrain others for its own selfish ends, and on the other to be as little restrained by those rules as possible. Yet if you are to be a successful hypocrite, you need to at least pretend to respect the norms that you say are important. Thus, for example, if you arrange for the arrest of a powerful foreign executive, you should justify the arrest in terms of general legal principles rather than negotiating tactics. As Martha Finnemore and I have argued, Trump is not notably skilled at deploying hypocrisy, instead preferring blunt power politics. This damages the United States’ ability to persuade others to accede to its understanding of the rule of law, since the United States itself does not even bother to pretend to be committed to it....
After Meng’s arrest, China threatened retaliation against Canada. It is probably no coincidence that former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig was apparently arrested by Chinese authorities. He is likely being held as a bargaining token to put pressure on the Canadian government and Canadian courts.
This is not a new tactic for China. For example, there is a long history of business executives disappearing from Hong Kong, only to mysteriously turn up on the mainland, tearfully repenting on television for their purported crimes. However, it becomes much more difficult for nations such as the United States to push back against these tactics when the Trump administration too appears to be using hostage politics to achieve its political ends. Again, a combination of hypocrisy and (often sporadic) commitment to broad ideals has served the United States well in the past, but will be far more difficult to resort to in future.
Since Farrell wrote that, the Chinese have seized another Canadian national. Without in any way absolving the Chinese for their culpability, Trump’s statements made this action easier for them.
Keeping legal proceedings separate from policy disputes is a norm worth preserving for a country built on the rule of law. Trump’s relationship with the rule of law has been rocky at best, however, and his latest stumble has made things worse.
The next time someone tells you that Trump cannot be a hypocrite, recognize this as a factually incorrect statement. Trump is perfectly capable of being a massive hypocrite. He just can’t be a hypocrite at the right time.