I have been wanting for at least a couple of months to start a thread/series involving the whole Power Line team on “Ten [or 15, or 20] Ways to Think About Trump,” as this maddening, erratic, seemingly undisciplined, cantankerous, disruptive, sometimes brilliant, often embarrassing, and always unpredictable man rampages on the world stage, much of the time to good effect—at least so far. Too soon to tell, for example, whether his brinksmanship trade strategy will work or will result in an economic train wreck. Trump is, as I have often put it borrowing Wall Street language, a “high-beta presidency,” that is, presenting large risk but potentially offering large reward, but above all highly volatile all along the way.
Perhaps today is a good day to start. So how to explain Trump’s extraordinarily dismal performance with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki today? Is he trying to play good cop to his administration’s otherwise bad cop? After all, Trump’s actual policies toward Russia—from defense spending, stepped up missile defense and troop deployment in eastern Europe, to energy, to browbeating NATO to spend more on defense, to killing Russian mercenaries in Syria, etc—are much tougher and pose much more adversity for Russia than Obama’s policies, or anything Hillary Clinton might have done.
I don’t go in for the “Trump is playing eight-dimensional chess” school of thought, though I will be interested to see how Scott Adams thinks about this episode. Adams has been from the very beginning very perceptive about understanding Trump and his moves.
Maybe Trump is a good Kantian, hoping that public expressions of goodwill will make Putin reciprocate with better behavior. Perhaps that’s why he’s channeling Jimmy Carter in suggesting that we should get over our inordinate fear of Russia. (Heh. Yes—it is rich hearing liberals complain about a Republican being “soft on Russia” after their mockery of Mitt Romney on this point in 2012, not to mention their entire legacy of Cold War soft-headedness.) Maybe it is an aspect of Trump’s famous “art of the deal” negotiating strategy, in which making nice to someone you want to clobber is better than being a tough guy—a variation of “hold your friends close, but hold your enemies closer.” And as for Trump’s disavowal of intelligence findings that Russia actively interfered with the 2016 election, Trump did miss a great opportunity to ask, “At this point, what difference does it make?”
Maybe he’s just trolling or distracting everyone on purpose, knowing that these comments will set off the media and the Democrats into a blind rage while his administration quietly continues the work of dismantling the administrative state and Obama’s legacy—not to mention knocking attention away from the left’s efforts to build public attention and momentum for their smear campaign of Judge Kavanaugh. (As long as CNN is in a tizzy about Trump and Putin, Jeff Toobin won’t be getting much air time.) This possibility shouldn’t be completely discounted. Maybe he is also making these noises as yet another less than subtle but still indirect pressure point on European countries to increase their defense spending commitments, by planting the worry that they might be on their own vis-a-via Russia. Like Trump’s trade strategy, it’s high risk. Symbolic that this quick meeting took place in Helsinki. The term “Finlandization” still has some real meaning there.
Maybe Putin has something on Trump? One popular theory for a long time now is that Trump is in financial hock to the Russians. This lacks much plausibility for two simple reasons. First, even if it is true that Trump owes a lot to Russian financiers, one thing we know is that Trump is good at stiffing creditors. Second, being president is certainly the best position ever from which to stiff a foreign creditor.
Maybe Putin has real blackmail material on Trump, like the supposed “pee tape” mentioned in the infamous Steele dossier? Unlikely, because if such a tape did exist, it would likely have leaked by now, or some kind of confirmation of its existence would be known. If I had a nickel for every rumor of a scandalous recording of a prominent political figure over the last 30 years (there were several about Newt Gingrich in the 1990s) I could play for a long time at the nickel slot machines in Vegas. But at this point how damaging would it really be? Since the “Access Hollywood” tape and the Stormy Daniels whirlwind, Trump’s personal behavior has been fully priced in by the political market.
So where are we? People are scandalized that Trump talks bluntly and rudely to our friends and allies, and scandalized that he talks softly to and about our adversaries like Putin. Why, Trump has said he looked into Putin’s eyes and said he could make out the sincerity of a benevolent Christian believer! Oh, wait—that was President George W. Bush. Never mind. One thinks also of the blunt ways Lyndon Johnson dressed down Charles de Gaulle back in the 1960s, or Harry Truman smacking around Soviet foreign minister Andrei Vishinsky at a time (spring 1945) when the Soviet Union was still officially our ally.
Today the left is trying to drive a wedge among Republicans demanding that Republicans call out Trump’s egregious performance. John McCain, as usual, is happy to oblige, saying today that it was “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory,” and that Trump “abased himself … abjectly before a tyrant.” And even Newt Gingrich, normally a total Trump defender, thinks Trump has blundered badly here.
Another Republican Senator said,“We’ve had leaders who got into a personal relationship and have gotten soft—I’m thinking of Roosevelt and Stalin,” while another leading conservative activist, Howard Phillips, said Trump is “fronting as a useful idiot for Russian propaganda.”
Actually, those last two quotes were said about Ronald Reagan in 1987, and I have a whole bunch more just like that in my research files. At the time, conservatives suspicious of Soviet duplicity, and lacking the intelligence that Reagan had about how quickly the Soviet Union was unraveling, had plausible reason to think this. However, it should be recalled that even Ronaldus Magnus could turn in a confusing performance vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, from the earliest days of his presidency.
Recall the handwritten letter Reagan sent to Leonid Brezhnev in April 1981, shortly after Reagan was shot, in which Reagan said:
“When we met [at Nixon’s San Clemente home in 1973] I asked you if you were aware that the hopes and aspirations of millions and millions of people throughout the world were dependent on the decisions that would be reached in your meetings. You took my hand in both of yours and assured me that you were aware of that and that you were dedicated with all your heart and mind to fulfilling those hopes and dreams.
“Is it possible that we have permitted ideology, political and economic philosophies, and governmental policies to keep us from considering the very real, everyday problems of our peoples? . . . Mr. President, should we not be concerned with eliminating the obstacles which prevent our people from achieving their most cherished goals? And isn’t it possible some of these obstacles are born of government objectives which have little to do with the real need and desires of our people?”
Reagan wrote later that he “aimed at reaching [Brezhnev] as a human being” with this letter. The State Department and Reagan’s top aides at the National Security Council were horrified at Reagan’s handwritten letter, and tried to stop Reagan from sending it. (“It was so maudlin and so at odds with Reagan’s public stance,” Richard Pipes wrote.) For one of the rare moments in his presidency, the State Department took a harder anti-Soviet line than Reagan, and produced its own much tougher letter for Reagan to send. (And let’s keep in mind that the State Department was usually horrified at Reagan’s tough anti-Soviet public rhetoric, like the “lie, cheat, and steal” press conference his first week in office, and of course the “evil empire” speech.)
So what happened? Reagan sent both letters to Brezhnev. It must have been deeply confusing to the Soviets to receive these two disharmonious letters, both signed by the President of the United States.
The point is not to suggest a close parallel between Trump and Reagan, but simply to point out that confusion and cross-purposes—even conflict—among the senior reaches of an administration on the most important foreign policy problems is hardly unknown. And given Trump’s erratic nature, it is entirely conceivable that he could call Russia an “evil empire” at any point in the coming weeks or months.
Like I said: high beta, high volatility.