Michael Sean Winters from Washington
The first few months of the presidency of Donald Trump are a strange mixture of the familiar and the new. He receives heads of state at the White House, poses for the photo-ops in the Oval Office, then they hold a press conference with the flags of the U.S. and the country from which the visitor hales behind the podiums. That much is familiar.
But, the images of Trump, President Xi of China and a gaggle of advisers, all hovering around their ipads examining information about a missile test by North Korea over dinner at Mar-a-Lago, the Florida estate where Trump spends his weekends, that is new. And, the backdrop is stunning, a posh 126-room Rococo palace built by heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and purchased by Trump in 1985. He converted it into a very exclusive club. Now, it has become the “Winter White House.” It is a far cry from the rustic charms of Camp David, the weekend retreat in Maryland most used by previous presidents.
Also new is the information, provided by the president, that he and his Chinese counterpart bonded over chocolate cake, and not just any chocolate cake, but the “most delicious” chocolate cake in the history of the world. Diplomacy in public, or semi-public, in which dessert plays a central role, this is new. And strange.
As a candidate, Trump hurled abuse at China. He pledged to officially label the country a currency manipulator, a step that would result in economic sanctions. Trump complained about America’s trade imbalance with China and promised to rectify it. Not sharing a border with the U.S., China was spared the indignity of a promised wall and, besides, they already have a substantial and famous wall of their own. Still, other than Mexico, no country received more abuse than China during the campaign.
All is forgotten. Trump needs China to put pressure on the North Korean regime, so Xi is now his new best friend. Talk of currency manipulation is archived. The promised trade war is now to be with Canada.
At least, the North Korean threat is the stated reason for the change of heart regarding China. Last week, in a ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Beijing, Nicole Kushner Meyer explained to a roomful of wealthy Chinese businessmen that if they invested US$500,000, they would qualify for what is known as an “investor visa.” Ms. Meyer had just the investment vehicle too: A luxury apartment complex in New Jersey. Meyer’s brother is Jared Kushner, senior adviser to and son-in-law of President Trump.
Strangest of all are the early morning tweets in which the president rants about this or that topic, forcing his staff to scramble to explain what he meant and minimize the damage.
After a terrorist attack in Paris, Trump tweeted, “Another terrorist attack in Paris. The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election!”
After meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he issued a statement in back-to-back tweets: “Despite what you have heard from the FAKE NEWS, I had a GREAT meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nevertheless, Germany owes .... vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!”
The State Department last week sent out a tweet promoting Ivanka Trump’s book “Women Who Work” but quickly deleted it. In addition to the weirdness of foreign policy by tweet, America’s foreign policy establishment is still figuring out how to cope with a first family with conflicts of interest in spades.
Many top officials in the administration also come to their jobs with no government experience. The Secretaries of the Treasury and Commerce, as well as the head of the National Economic Council, all come from Wall Street. The son-in-law, Kushner, who has been tasked with modernizing the entire federal government, Mideast peace, and a host of lesser challenges, has a background in real estate development. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was CEO of ExxonMobil.
Official Washington is represented mostly by the generals. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster are both generals and the U.S. military is one branch of the government that routinely, and determinedly, focuses on its own mistakes as well as its own successes, a trait notably lacking in the president and among his clique of business advisers.
“Mattis, McMaster, and Tillerson are men of substance and experience capable of providing the president with the counsel he needs to make prudent decisions that advance the national interest,” says Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Mattis was a fellow at Hoover also, so he is accustomed to the give and take of ideas. McMaster wrote a book, “Dereliction of Duty,” about the failures of military leaders during the Vietnam War. Tillerson’s nomination was publicly supported by another Hoover fellow, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
But, it is not clear how much influence the trio has given the fact that Hoover more or less represents the very establishment Trump ran against. As Molly Ball wrote in the Atlantic during last year’s campaign, “With the rise of Trump, institutions like Hoover—the sole public monument to the 31st president, who famously was blamed for exacerbating the Depression— have come to seem like an alternate universe, created in the vain longing that reality were not so. In today’s political climate, it isn’t only these particular ideas that seem quaint—it’s the very idea of having ideas at all.”
If all this strangeness were not enough, President Trump threw all of Washington into a tailspin on Tuesday when he fired the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey. The stated reason at the time was a report from the Justice Department criticising Comey's treatment of Hillary Clinton, treatment that was applauded by Trump during the campaign. The suspected reason is that Comey's investigation of Trump's ties to Russia was getting too hot for the administration. Trump has a habit, as one commentator noted, of fighting fire with smoke and firing Comey creates a lot of smoke. But, it is in the nature of smoke to dissipate eventually. When it clears, the questions about Trump's business ties with Russia, and the possibility that his campaign colluded with Russia to affect the election, will remain.