The Heritage Foundation’s James Jay Carafano has been one of the Trump administration’s most stalwart defenders in its first 100 days. In his latest at the National Interest, Carafano argues that, all appearances to the contrary, the administration really has a coherent foreign policy strategy. Carafano further argues that the appearances are confusing more critical commentators such as myself:
Since the early days of the campaign, one thing has been clear: trying to stitch together an understanding of Trump’s foreign and defense policy based on Trump’s tweets and other off-hand comments is a fool’s errand. That has not changed since the Donald took over the Oval Office.
That is not to say that none of Trump’s rhetoric matters. He has given some serious speeches and commentary. But pundits err when they give every presidential utterance equal merit. A joint address to Congress ought to carry a lot more weight than a 3 a.m. tweet about the Terminator.
As someone who just wrote a book lamenting that many academics make a mistake in treating all words equally, I can sympathize with Carafano’s position. That said, when foreign populations react to some of Trump’s more careless words, I think it’s a thing.
More importantly, sometimes a single tweet of Donald Trump’s can tell us a great deal about the man and how he is doing as president. So, in response to a challenge from the Boston Globe’s Michael Cohen, let me offer six different ways of looking at a Trump tweet from yesterday:
Eventually, but at a later date so we can get started early, Mexico will be paying, in some form, for the badly needed border wall.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 23, 2017
What can be inferred from this tweet about Trump’s approach to the presidency and foreign affairs? I would argue, contra Carafano, quite a bit! In ascending order of importance:
1) Trump cannot write his way out of a paper bag. This is a run-on sentence riddled with redundancies. It is more coherent that he sounds in his AP interview, but it’s a close call. Given the style and the time of its composition, we can assume that he wrote it. We can also infer that whenever Trump is speaking off the cuff, he is very likely to say something that will harm the national interest. A truly America First strategy would put Trump into the same penalty box as Rex Tillerson when it comes to improvised remarks. This would avoid devaluing Trump’s words and reduce the need for the rest of the foreign policy team to clean up after the president.
2) Trump lies a lot. Even if you think illegal immigration is the most super-important issue in the whole wide world, the border wall is not “badly needed.” Illegal immigration across the southern border has been declining since the 2008 financial crisis. It has fallen even more dramatically in 2017. Even if you want to stop the remaining streams of illegal immigration, “building a wall is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border,” according to one GOP congressman from Texas. Maybe this explains why, according to the Wall Street Journal, “not a single member of Congress who represents the territory on the southwest border said they support President Donald Trump’s request for $1.4 billion to begin construction of his promised wall.”
So either Trump does not know what he is talking about or he’s lying. Actually, both are possible.
3) Trump won’t honor many of his campaign promises. The Trump campaign’s original proposal on this issue said the following:
Mexico must pay for the wall and, until they do, the United States will, among other things: impound all remittance payments derived from illegal wages; increase fees on all temporary visas issued to Mexican CEOs and diplomats (and if necessary cancel them); increase fees on all border crossing cards — of which we issue about 1 million to Mexican nationals each year (a major source of visa overstays); increase fees on all NAFTA worker visas from Mexico (another major source of overstays); and increase fees at ports of entry to the United States from Mexico [Tariffs and foreign aid cuts are also options]. We will not be taken advantage of anymore.
Seems pretty clear: Unless and until Mexico started paying, Trump was promising to sanction them immediately. Alas, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes evidence that Trump’s foreign policy team has not talked to Mexico about paying for the wall — and by behind-the-scenes evidence, I mean Trump officials talking on television.
This merely highlights the many Trump campaign promises that he has gone back on, particularly in the area of foreign policy. Which, by the way, will undercut his reputation for resolve and credibility in international relations almost as much as, oh, I don’t know, misplacing an aircraft carrier group.
4) Trump continues to make promises that he will not be able to honor. This is yet another example of threatening an ally in such a way as to reduce the likelihood of Trump’s preferred outcome from occurring. It also threatens to set Mexican-American relations back to the pre-NAFTA era, an outcome that even someone like Mark Krikorian thinks is a bad idea.
5) Weirdly, Trump’s tweet steps on one of his few tangible policy accomplishments. As we approach the 100-day mark, Trump cannot claim a lot of policy accomplishments beyond getting Neil Gorsuch confirmed. But I do think his hostile rhetoric deserves some credit for causing illegal immigration inflows to drop even more than they had been dropping before he was inaugurated. One can question whether this achievement is worth the cost, but for a presidency with precious few accomplishments, this is a real thing he can tout.
The thing is, if Trump’s rhetoric is what’s causing the drop, then this tweet steps on his policy accomplishment by ignoring it. The tweet suggests that without the wall, which is “badly needed,” not much will be accomplished.
6) Trump is explaining — which means that he’s losing. In Politico, Michael Kruse offers up the argument that Trump has succeeded all his life by basically denying that his failures ever exist.
Trump has perfected a narrative style in which he doesn’t merely obscure reality — he tries to change it with pronouncements that act like blaring, garish roadside billboards. Unrelenting in telling his own story, he has defined himself as a success no matter what — by talking the loudest and the longest, and by insisting on having the first word and also the last. And it’s worked. Again and again, throughout his adult life, Trump in essence has managed to succeed without actually succeeding.
This worked for him in the private sector, it worked for him in the presidential campaign — will it work for him as president? The experts in Kruse’s essay are on the fence. His poll numbers suggest that he’s keeping his base and alienating everyone else.
This tweet suggests that he’s got a big problem, however. In politics, if you’re explaining, then you’re losing. This tweet is Trump’s effort to explain why his promise that Mexico would pay for the wall is not being fulfilled. Whenever he tries to explain what he’s doing, Trump is playing defense. And since Mexico ain’t paying for the wall, he’s going to constantly be on defense.
Many people are saying that Trump’s tweets do not matter. The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts concludes that, on the contrary, Trump’s tweets contain multitudes.