Driving to a baseball game today, I caught the first few minutes of “Meet the Press.” Chuck Todd was trying to make the case that President Trump is a serial flip-flopper.
He cited three examples. None was compelling.
Two of them involved a shift in labeling. During the presidential campaign, Trump labeled NATO “obsolete” and China a “currency manipulator.” Now he says NATO isn’t obsolete and China isn’t a currency manipulator.
In the case of NATO, candidate Trump’s main objection was that some member nations don’t meet their financial commitment to the alliance. But now, presumably in response to Trump’s criticism, this appears to be changing. Thus, it is no flip-flop for Trump to be satisfied with NATO.
In the case of China, Trump apparently agreed to give up the currency manipulator charge in exchange for help in dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat. Therefore, Trump has changed his position. However, a more realistic, more adult interpretation is that Trump used his initial position as leverage to gain China’s cooperation on an issue of vital concern to our national security — cooperation that the past three administrations failed to secure.
Whether anything important will come of this remains to be seen. But to present the story as a flip-flop rather than a potential diplomatic breakthrough demonstrates bias.
The third case cited by Todd is Trump’s bombing of a Syrian air base. During the campaign, Trump spoke with disfavor about intervention in places like Syria and in Syria itself. But if the bombing turns out to be a limited response to a chemical attack, has Trump really flip-flopped?
FiveThirtyEight thinks so. It cites this statement by Trump from the campaign:
One day we’re bombing Libya and getting rid of a dictator to foster democracy for civilians, the next day we are watching the same civilians suffer while that country falls apart.
But Trump’s bombing of the air base does not appear to be part of an attempt to “get rid of a dictator to foster democracy.” So far, it looks like an attempt to enforce a red line against the use of chemical weapons.
FiveThirtyEight also cites this statement:
Syria is fighting ISIS. What we should do is focus on ISIS. We should not be focusing on Syria.
Trump is focusing on ISIS, not Syria. So far, the bombing of Assad’s assets is a one-off based on a special circumstance.
If Trump has flip-flopped in the realm of foreign policy, it is with regard to Russia. During the campaign, Trump indicated that he would seek better relations with Putin. So far, he hasn’t. Rather, his administration has adopted a rather adversarial approach.
But Chuck Todd and the rest of mainstream media don’t cite Trump’s approach to Russia as a flip-flop. Why? I imagine it’s because doing so would undercut their narrative that the Russians helped elect Trump so he would do their bidding.
To the extent that Trump reverses some of his campaign positions, I think it’s more likely to occur in the realm of domestic policy. This, at least, is the concern of some conservatives I know.
The concern seems justified. For one thing, Ivanka Trump, a moderating influence, seems much more concerned with domestic than foreign policy. Same, probably, with Gary Cohn, who is said to be an ascending force in the White House. For another, Trump supposedly is hunting for “W’s” (by which the media types who use the letter mean victories) and may require Democratic assistance to obtain them on the domestic front.
President Trump touts himself as flexible and comes to the White House with views less fixed than a career politician’s are likely to be. Thus, it won’t be surprising if he reverses course from time to time. Moreover, Trump has been a centrist, if not a member of the center-left, for most of his life. Thus, it won’t be surprising if his presidency sometimes deviates from the right-leaning populism of the campaign.
Just because Chuck Todd couldn’t identify serious flip-flops doesn’t mean there haven’t been any, and won’t be more.