Remember the adults in the room? This was the notion that even though Donald Trump himself was not the most reliable of presidents, his national security and foreign policy team would be able to check his worst impulses. A quick skim of Bob Woodward’s “Fear” hits the high notes of this meme. There are even reports that in early 2017 Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis made a pact that one of them would always stay in the country to “keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House.”
It is 2019 now, and Trump has jettisoned all those people from his administration. Earlier this month Tom Wright argued in Foreign Affairs that Trump’s new foreign policy team seems more in simpatico with Trump’s worldview. As Wright characterizes it:
For the first time, it is possible to identify a singular Trump administration foreign policy, as the president’s team coalesces around his ideas. This policy consists of a narrow, transactional relationship with other nations, a preference for authoritarian governments over other democracies, a mercantilist approach to international economic policy, a general disregard for human rights and the rule of law, and the promotion of nationalism and unilateralism at the expense of multilateralism.
The National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn offered a modest dissent to Wright’s thesis: “this unified field theory of Trump foreign policy may inadvertently ascribe more coherence to it than actually exists. On a variety of issues, ranging from Syria to Russia, dissension, not unanimity, appears to characterize the administration’s stands. ... Trump’s new crop of cabinet officials has often sought to split the difference with him rather than engage in open confrontation.”
It is worth remembering, however, that the former adults in the room attempted the same gambit. Kelly, Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster all tried to split the difference rather than confront Trump. The president eventually ejected all of them except for Mattis, who ejected himself. Their efforts ranged from abject failure (Tillerson) to modest but temporary success (Mattis).
This week will present some intriguing tests for this new crew, because there are twin challenges coming in which Trump seems to want to declare a Potemkin victory and his advisers do not.
Trump is in Vietnam for his second summit with Kim Jong Un and seems way more enthusiastic about it than anyone else in the administration. Indeed, Politico’s Eliana Johnson reports that Trump’s top advisers worry “that Trump, eager to declare victory on the world stage, could make big concessions in exchange for empty promises of denuclearization.” At the same time, the March 1 deadline for trade negotiations with China was approaching, until Trump extended the deadline. The Wall Street Journal’s Bob Davis, Alex Leary, and Lingling Wei report that Trump, spooked by the stock market’s gyrations in response to trade tensions, wants a deal, any deal. His more hawkish China advisers do not.
These tensions are already beginning to manifest themselves. Consider the following extraordinary piece of video in which U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer directly contradicts Trump in front of cameras and the Chinese trade delegation.
Bloomberg News reports that this episode merely reflects the fraying relationship between Trump and Lighthizer:
President Donald Trump and his top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, have grown increasingly frustrated with each other as a China trade deal stays elusive with a key deadline less than a week away, said people inside and close to the administration....
After Friday’s exchange, said two people familiar with the events, the president complained that Lighthizer had embarrassed him by publicly correcting him in front of the Chinese delegation and the press. The president also expressed frustration that Lighthizer hadn’t yet stitched up a deal that Trump views as increasingly important....
For his part, Lighthizer, 71, who’s spent years arguing for a tougher trade stand against China, has been growing irritated with Trump’s interventions, according to people familiar with the administration’s internal deliberations.
Meanwhile, the New York Times’s David Sanger and Edward Wong report that even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the man who has been willing to do almost anything and say almost anything to stay in the good graces of Trump, is beginning to show the strain. He was infuriated by Vice President Pence’s speech at last week’s Warsaw conference, which undermined Pompeo’s efforts to forge a consensus on new sanctions against Iran’s ballistic missile program. And then there’s North Korea:
In private discussions with Korea experts, Mr. Pompeo has conceded that he would be lucky if the North agreed to dismantle 60 percent of what the United States has demanded. But he said even that would be more than any other administration has achieved. ...
In Hanoi, Mr. Pompeo’s largest challenge will be to extract from Mr. Kim a timetable for dismantling his nuclear program. He must also reconcile how the United States and the North define denuclearization, and wants to keep Mr. Trump from having much time alone with Mr. Kim, where the president might make snap concessions.
Pompeo also appeared Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union and said what everyone knows but what Trump refuses to admit: that North Korea remains a nuclear threat.
It is possible that the China talks will yield real concessions and that North Korea will agree to a meaningful timetable toward denuclearization. It is also possible that the World Series champion Boston Red Sox will sign me as the lefty reliever they need. Neither of these things is terribly likely, however.
Over the next few weeks, it will be fascinating to see whether Lighthizer or Pompeo reach a point when he can no longer live with the president’s claims of victory that no one else can see. It seems far more likely, however, they will continue with the John Bolton approach and hold onto power for as long as possible. I wonder if they will ever wonder if it was worth it.