After a week in which the threat of recession rocked global financial markets, his trade war with China showed no signs of progress and the government of Israel got into a nasty dispute with two members of Congress, President Trump went to bed Thursday night with other weighty issues on his mind.
“Great news,” he tweeted. “Tonight we broke the all-time attendance record previously held by Elton John at #SNHUArena [Southern New Hampshire University] in Manchester!”
This is the frivolous mind-set of the president of the United States. Trump’s statements over the past few days have brought into focus once again something fundamental about him: He has little understanding of what it means to govern. He would rather tweet from the bleachers.
The 800-point drop in the Dow Jones industrial average at the middle of last week and an inverted yield curve (an arcane but much-watched economic indicator) underscored why there is broad and growing concern about the direction of the economy.
Germany saw its economy contract in the past quarter and other nations’ economies appear to be slowing. The U.S. economy has been growing, and the stock market managed to regain some of the ground lost by week’s end. But given what is happening globally, how long this extended period of growth can last is a major issue for American families — and a consequential issue for Trump’s political future.
The president’s trade war with China has contributed to the problems now facing the global economy. Yet the president accepts no responsibility — for his policies, his statements or his tweets, all of which have added to the uncertainty. He has a mixed message: Everything is great, and what isn’t great is somebody else’s fault.
Trump was reduced again last week to doing what he always does when there is trouble brewing. He attacked others. He hurled more insults at Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell, a Trump appointee who has become the president’s favored whipping boy. He blamed Powell for raising interest rates too high and now for not lowering them quickly or enough. “The Fed is holding us back,” he said in one tweet, which inexplicably ended with, “We will win!”
The Fed wasn’t the only institution in Trump’s sights as talk of economic problems intensified. He lashed out at another favored target: the media. “The Fake News Media is doing everything they can to crash the economy because they think that will be bad for me and my reelection,” he tweeted.
Does anyone not believe that his principal focus these days is reelection?
Under pressure, Trump backed off his threat to impose a major new round of tariffs on China on Sept. 1, moving the deadline back to Dec. 15. Analysts had warned that the new tariffs, which would hit a broad range of consumer goods, could have had a negative impact on the holiday shopping season in the United States.
The president offered an upside-down explanation. “The American consumer is fine with or without the September date, but much good will come from the short deferral to December,” he tweeted. “It actually helps China more than us, but will be reciprocated.”
The president showed the sophistication of his thinking on another China issue, the huge pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong that have rattled the Chinese leadership. “It’s a very tricky situation,” he explained to reporters. “I think it will work out and I hope it works out, for liberty. I hope it works out for everybody, including China.”
The president offered no support for the demonstrators who have been massing for weeks in protest. Nor did he warn China against taking action to put down the protests. Unlike past presidents, he declined to stand for American values or the importance of human rights. He appears unwilling to criticize the Chinese government for fear that it would jeopardize resolving the trade war. For Trump, human rights can wait.
But the president was willing to offer Chinese President Xi Jinping some advice about Hong Kong. Calling Xi “a great leader” and “a good man in a ‘tough business,’ ” he recommended: “If President Xi would meet directly and personally with the protesters, there would be a happy and enlightened ending to the Hong Kong problem,” he wrote. “I have no doubt!”
In another part of the world, Trump decided to stand with the government of Israel against two members of Congress, pressuring the Israelis to block an official visit to their country by Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).
Trump tweeted that a decision by Israel to allow Tlaib and Omar to enter the country would be showing “great weakness,” adding, “They hate Israel and all Jewish people and there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. . . . They are a disgrace!”
The two first-term congresswomen, who happen to be Muslim, have been highly critical of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. They support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
But the Israeli government’s decision drew sharp criticism from Democratic lawmakers and the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a tweet that he disagreed “100%” with the views of Tlaib and Omar but added, “Denying them entry into #Israel is a mistake.”
(The Israeli government later said Tlaib could enter briefly on humanitarian grounds to see her elderly grandmother, who lives in the West Bank. But the government said she would have to sign a pledge not to promote a boycott of Israel. Tlaib initially accepted but later declined the offer under those conditions.)
The president has tried to portray Tlaib, Omar and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) as the face of a radical Democratic Party and targeted them with a racist tweet urging them to “go back” to where they came from, even though three were born in the United States and all are citizens.
Meanwhile, the president is talking about trying to buy Greenland, a story first reported by the Wall Street Journal. Really.
The president’s supporters still love him, as his rally in New Hampshire on Thursday again showed. The president put on quite a show, a rambling discourse that lasted more than an hour and a half and revisited old lines and familiar themes (sometimes more than once).
Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani sent out a series of rapturous tweets about it, comparing Trump with former presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. “These are masterful performances,” he wrote in one tweet. “No one in America can excite a crowd like @realDonaldTrump. . . . This is a unique and potent political weapon.”
Meanwhile, a new Fox News poll of the 2020 campaign showed Trump losing to every Democrat tested. More telling was that the incumbent president did not break 40 percent against any of them. Polls are polls, and the election is more than a year away, but those numbers should concern the president’s advisers.
Trump is following the same limited playbook that got him elected. Whether those tactics have the same potency they once did is the question that will determine his and the country’s future. Meanwhile, serious problems are in front of him, and he is struggling to find the answers.