For President Trump, the past week might have been the best of times. He surprised the world with the announcement that he would meet North Korea leader Kim Jong Un. He delivered to his base and alarmed Republican politicians by promising new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. The economy produced 313,000 jobs in February. For a reality-TV aficionado, he couldn’t have had it written better for him.
Behind the curtain, things were rockier. The decision to meet the North Korean dictator came with no serious staff preparation and caught many of his advisers by surprise. The internal debate that resulted in the tariffs announcement was messy, and along the way Trump lost his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn. Meanwhile, an alleged affair with a porn star brought new and troubling questions about buying her silence, and, oh yes, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III continued to squeeze those around the president.
The week produced a sequence of events that fed the appetites of friend and foe of the president, another week in which where one sat determined what one saw. For Trump’s loyalists, it was another example of a president willing to abandon old habits, ignore cautionary signals from “so-called experts” and break some crockery. “That’s a decision the president took himself,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday, a day after he had said the administration was a long way from negotiations with North Korea.
For the president’s opponents, the week provided fresh evidence of an impulsive president who doesn’t know history or policy and doesn’t care, who lives in the moment and worries little about longer-term implications of his actions. Yet even among some critics, there was grudging acknowledgment that the president’s hard-line approach to North Korea — his saber-rattling and belittling tweets toward Kim and the tightening of sanctions — probably contributed to the invitation for a meeting between the two leaders.
The week represented a pair of huge policy gambles that inevitably will define the president’s first term in office — that is, if he carries through with them. Trump’s new tariffs, if truly implemented, risk a global trade war that many economists say would produce no winners and many losers. His sudden willingness to meet face-to-face with the leader of North Korea represents a step no other sitting president has been willing to take, a high-stakes act of diplomacy by a president who claims to be a dealmaker like no other.
This is the president that Trump promised he would be when he campaigned for the office in 2015 and 2016. He pledged not to be predictable or conventional. He demonstrated that he has no fixed ideology or convictions — although hostility to long-standing U.S. trade policy might be the one area of consistency in a record otherwise dotted with contradictions and reversals. He listened only occasionally to his top advisers, relying instead on his own instinct and self-confidence.
Trump has shown repeatedly he is prepared to ignore orthodoxy and question policies that other administrations have accepted as constants. He has hectored NATO allies over their defense spending, frustrations shared but rarely aired as undiplomatically by other presidents. He questioned whether U.S. military policy in Afghanistan would ever work, before finally accepting recommendations of his military advisers. He has defended his brinkmanship toward North Korea by noting that the policies of past administrations had not shut down the North Korean nuclear program.
Thursday’s announcement on tariffs was staged for maximum appeal to the president’s blue-collar base, even if his statement about the tariffs left considerable flexibility regarding the implementation. Flanked by industry workers, he said past U.S. trade policies had resulted in “an assault” on the country and that they had “betrayed” working men and women. But, he also said, “America will remain open to modifying or removing the tariffs for individual nations as long as we can agree on a way to ensure that their products no longer threaten our security.” Tariffs could go up or down, carrots and sticks deployed at will.
Overall, it will take time to know whether what Trump launched Thursday becomes one more example of a U.S. leader initiating unilateral tariffs, as some of his predecessors did, or a move in the direction of broader protectionism that would then trigger the kind of reciprocal actions by other nations that could threaten the existing order on global trade practices. Clearly, many believe the latter, though Trump’s unpredictability and malleability are major caveats. For now, the protectionists around him have won, and he appears to be one of them.
Negotiations with North Korea present a different series of challenges and risks. The spur-of-the-moment decision to accept Kim’s offer for talks must give way to a far more orderly and deliberate process of preparation before the two leaders sit down with each other. The president’s national security advisers will have to play catch-up at a time the administration has lost some key officials whose expertise would be valuable right now. And though the announcement said the meeting would take place by May, there is not yet a fixed date.
In dealing with Kim, Trump must reckon with the same charge leveled at President Barack Obama and his advisers by their critics when they sat down to negotiate with the Iranian regime over its nuclear program: How could they deal with such an untrustworthy adversary? Trump’s views about the Iranians are clear. He has declared repeatedly that the nuclear pact was flawed and that the Iranians are not trustworthy. Does he believe that the North Koreans, who have violated the terms of past agreements, are any more trustworthy? If not, how can he produce something that has eluded other administrations?
Trade and North Korea represent matters of high policy and potentially serious impact on the country’s well-being. The Stormy Daniels matter is anything but that. It is the tawdry side of this presidency. That it reached a new stage of controversy as the other issues were unfolding seemed somehow fitting, if also revolting. This is the tabloid part of the Trump presidency.
The issue that presents problems for the president is not an alleged affair. It is a variation of the old formulation: What did the president know, and when did he know it? What did he know about the payment from his lawyer Michael Cohen to the porn star that occurred shortly before the election, and where exactly did the money come from?
Cohen has long said he made the payment from his own funds, without interacting with the Trump campaign or the Trump Organization, and that Trump did not know anything about it. On Friday, multiple news outlets reported that Cohen had used his Trump Organization email account to arrange for the funds he paid Daniels as part of a nondisclosure deal. But in an interview with ABC News, he said that he regularly used the email account for numerous purposes and dismissed the accusation from Daniels’s lawyer that this was proof Trump knew of the transaction.
Every week of the Trump presidency brings drama on a grand scale, but few weeks captured the essence of this president — how he operates, what he thrives on and all the noise and controversy that surrounds him — more than the one just completed. For Donald Trump, it’s always about the show. For everyone else, it will be about the consequences of what he set off this past week.