Donald Trump: Conducting Foreign Policy via Twitter. Sort of.

(This is another long one folks, so you might want to grab a drink or postpone it until you’ve whipped through your other emails.  I will try to get back to shorter posts, but the omnipresent Trump is tough to nail in a few words.)

The Trump show has basically remained the same as when he was a candidate, but now his tweets go beyond a campaign tactic.  Now they impact our foreign policy, but who knows just how much, as those tweets raise many questions but provide few answers.  This point was made in a Chinese newspaper earlier this month.  It indicated Trump’s tweets about serious matters are “impossible to fathom”, so it is better to pay close attention to his actions, not his words.

I’m happy that the Chinese government seems to understand that, figure Vladimir Putin understands it even better and hope the rest of the world follows suit.   It is bizarre to say to the world that they shouldn’t take many of our president’s tweets seriously, but that is where we are.

Tweets, by nature, are very short and not usually well thought out, which often leaves more room for ambiguity than most forms of communication.  That’s perfect for Trump, as the ambiguity in controversial tweets provide tons of speculative fodder for the press.

Part of the ambiguity lies in the limitation to 140 characters, but with Trump, maybe a good share of that lack of clarity is intentional.  The more provocative and ambiguous a tweet seems the more it prods the TV chattering class to dissect and speculate it ad nauseam, which then prompts his word handlers to walk the statements back which then gives the pundits further fodder to digest, until some new provocative statement over shadows the last one.

The effect is to make Trump the center of our attention most of the time.   What more could a supreme narcissist want?

A typical example is the kerfuffle spawned by Trump’s tweeting last Friday about the need to “expand our nuclear capability.”  That seemed to come out of the blue unless you realized Vladimir Putin spoke about strengthening the Russian nuclear capability last Thursday.   The important nuance here (for those who still care about such things) is that Putin seemed to be talking about modernizing his force, not actually expanding it in terms of war heads.

Trump either saw that as a challenge, or just an opportunity to reinforce his tough guy image by shadow boxing with this buddy Vlad, knowing that Putin wouldn’t get up in arms, so to speak.   Hey, as many have noted, they have a bromance going

The press interpreted Trump’s words as a call to grow our nuclear arsenal, just the opposite of American policy for decades, but his word whizzards denied that.  What he meant, they said, was to strengthen and update our nuclear capability, not expand it in size.  Actually Obama has had a plan in place since last January to do just that, but of course Trump always ignores whatever facts fail to support the point of his story.

The next morning, to keep us all on pins and needles and remind us of his boldness, Trump ignores his spinners and doubles down on the possibility of nuclear expansion, not just modernization, in a phone conversation with a morning talk show host:  “Let it be an arms race, we will outmatch them at every pass.”

Who knows what he meant by that, even him?  I’m not even sure who the “them” is.  Surely, not his bro-buddy, Vlad, who later that day asserted he certainly didn’t want a renewed arms race.   And today I hear that Putin has invited the children of American diplomats to a big Christmas/New Year’s party normally reserved for Russians.

Certainly Uncle Vlad wouldn’t be rattling the nukes.

But of course the TV press goes into a frenzy about reversing decades of nuclear policy, just as Trump wants.  Once getting the issue to a boiling point, our president-elect decided to turn it down to simmer later Friday.  He unveiled a letter received a week ago from Vlad congratulating him on his election victory (a hug to you buddy).

Then later still on Friday Trump pointed to a tweet from Putin criticizing Hillary for bad sportsmanship.  Wrote Putin:  “In my opinion, it is humiliating. One must be able to lose with dignity.”…….(this from a world class thug)

“So true!” responded Trump, making that earlier talk of an arms race seem what it was, a playful tug on the marionette strings of the press.

I have bothered to break down a Trump induced frenzy of non-news because I think we will get a lot of this sort of nonsense over the next few years and we’ll all have to handle it the best we can.   It is of little use to parse his words unless those words tie to actions, which at the moment are largely a matter of the selection of his governing team.

Foreign policy feints through off hand tweets?  That is the way Trump has set up his show and our media keep distributing tickets while many of the rest of us watch the performances.   Even if we don’t watch them, we hear about them.  Those damn little tweets remind me of the West Nile Virus.


P. S. – The “arms race” incident I referred to includes several interesting aspects succinctly described in an article in the  The Week written by Peter Weber, including a short video of foreign policy expert David Ignatius.  Ignatius suggests there may be some value in Trump’s disruptive moves, but adds that value would depend on a vision and discipline that Trump has yet to display.

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President Obama’s Legacy and the Trump Wrecking Crew

It’s been over four weeks since I last posted.  I have been watching and waiting for things to unfold.   The problem is with Donald Trump stuff unfolds like a laundry basket in a hurricane, leaving my thoughts bumping into each other while trying to grab one thing to write about.

I’ve never seen the selection of a cabinet attract so much attention.  I’d say it’s because Trump has turned it into a show, like everything else.  The best story line is his  belated choice for Secretary of State, which prompted much speculation and will remain suspenseful because of nomine Rex Tillerson’s working too closely with Vladimir Putin while head of Exon Mobile.  That and CIA assertions that Putin himself directed the hacks of those emails of the Hillary team.  A charge which Putin denies and Donald Trump calls “ridiculous.”

So, before he even begins his new job our new president is dismissing the competency of our intelligence services, especially the CIA.   And at odds with several Senators in his own party who think both he and Tillerson have been too chummy with a virtual dictator and thug.  This is an ongoing story I’ll get back to in a future post.

Today, however, I want to concentrate on something else, the Obama legacy in the hands of Trump’s other cabinet members.  After putting the Republican establishment through a series of nightmare scenarios during the election process, President-Elect Trump has given them a cabinet that is basically a conservative Republican’s dream team.  The never-Trumper likes of Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush (sort of) are nearly drooling over this bunch, and those two are more moderate than many in the party.  His win and his selections have turned night into day.

This unity figures to be tested down the road,  but the selections show Trump acting like a conservative Republican despite spending most of his life appearing moderate and in the campaign saying all sorts of things.  This team figures to roll back government restrictions on business, especially climate change measures, enact a more unsympathetic policy towards immigrants in general, especially the illegal or Middle East kind,  and provide greater support for police actions and less sympathy for those who protest mistreatment.

Trump’s foreign policy is fuzzy at best, but the rest of his governing slant seems pretty clear and, I would say, well thought out from a staunchly conservative perspective.  His team is made up, for the most part, of impressive people.  However, from a liberal point of view, or even that of a moderate conservative, many of the cabinet picks are like hiring arsonists to run your fire department.  Try to imagine who Hillary Clinton might have appointed and President Obama would have seconded as defenders of his legacy, and these are definitely not them:

For Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, a senator who has been a staunch opponent of immigration reform and when AG in Alabama prior to that had a debatable record on supporting civil rights.

For Secretary of Housing and Urban development (HUD), Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon whose primary qualification for the job is that he overcame a poor background and became a stalwart supporter of Trump.  He seems more likely to stress a pull-yourself-up by the bootstraps approach as opposed to developing programs to aid the poor.

For Secretary of Labor, Andrew Puzder, a billionaire head of two fast food chains who has been against the minimum wage and certainly is against raising it.

For  Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, another billionaire who has spent much time and money as a “lobbyist” for charter schools while seeming to give up on public ones.

For Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), Tom Price, a congressman and former orthopedic surgeon  who has been a staunch critic of Obamacare while a steady supporter of laws that favor doctors over patients.

For Secretary of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, a Kansas state AG who has a law suit pending against the EPA and has often been characterized as a climate denier.

For  Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke,  a Montana congressman who frequently votes against environmentalists on issues ranging from coal extraction to oil and gas drilling.

For Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, a former Texas governor who in a 2012 presidential election debate would have said he wanted to cut the Department of Energy, but couldn’t remember its name.

Do you see a pattern here?   Sure my one sentence depictions are simplistic, but these are picks I’m sure President Obama finds hard to swallow.  While insuring a smooth transition may be a big motive for  Obama’s doing all he can to reach out and help Trump, I imagine there is another powerful motive at work and that is the realization that what he has worked so hard on over the past eight years might be torn apart by the Trump administration and all Obama can do at this point is to develop a good relationship with the incomer in hopes he can sway some thinking privately that he could never do publicly.

Obama must have a wry recollection at times of how in 2009, when he and Senator John McCain differed over a policy in a meeting, he told McCain:  “Elections have consequences.”

We are just beginning to see some of the latest ones.