Two of the Washington Post’s Trump-despising reporters, Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, have a new book about the president called A Very Stable Genius. In advance of its publication, the Post ran an excerpt in today’s paper.
The excerpt describes how three of Trump’s then-top advisers — James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, and Gary Cohn — organized a session for the president designed to sell him on key aspects of conventional policy wisdom. According to Leonnig and Rucker, the three were alarmed by what they viewed as “gaping holes in Trump’s knowledge of history, especially the key alliances forged following World War II.”
By holding the session — a “tailored tutorial” in the authors’ words — the three hoped to educate Trump. In particular, they sought to instruct him as to why U.S. troops are deployed in so many parts of the world and why, in the view of the three, America’s safety depends on a complex web of trade deals, alliances, and bases across the globe.
Anyone want to guess how the “tutorial” went?
Right. According to the Post reporters’ sources, Trump “appeared peeved by the schoolhouse vibe.” Moreover, “his ricocheting attention span led him to repeatedly interrupt the lesson.”
What nerve! He’s lucky to have avoided detention.
Trump even went so far as to express dismay that the U.S. wasn’t winning the war in Afghanistan. When Gen. Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, explained that the military hadn’t been under orders to defeat the enemy, Trump lost his temper.
According to the Post reporters’ sources, he said, “I want to win.” Then, he added, “I wouldn’t go to war with you people” and told the assembled group, which included top military commanders, “you’re a bunch of dopes and babies.”
The meeting soon ended. It was shortly afterwards that Tillerson made his famous remark that Trump is “a f*****g moron.”
But the account of this meeting, rendered in part by Tillerson I assume, doesn’t support this assessment. Rude, yes. Indelicate, highly.
Trump certainly shouldn’t have called our military leaders “dopes and babies” (if he did). But it’s not moronic to question internationalist wisdom or to complain about how the war in Afghanistan has gone.
Gen. Dunford, though rightly unhappy, I’m sure, with the language Trump used about the military brass, had the correct take on the meeting. He said:
[Trump] asked a lot of hard questions, and the one thing he does is question some fundamental assumptions that we make as military leaders — and he will come in and question those. It’s a pretty energetic and an interactive dialogue.
Personally, I probably agree with many of the assumptions that Mattis, Tillerson, Cohn, and Dunford pushed at this meeting. But there’s nothing wrong with a president questioning these assumptions. In fact, such questioning is a good thing.
Here’s the important question, though: What policies have emerged from discussions between Trump and the purveyors of conventional wisdom? How has Trump synthesized establishment theses — e.g. on our post-World War II alliance with Western Europe and on trade — with his own skepticism?
Trump has not dismantled NATO. The Trump synthesis is a NATO in which all members meet their payment obligation. Nothing wrong with that.
On trade, the Trump synthesis is an improved agreement with Canada and Mexico. It’s also a more balanced trading relationship with China. Sounds good to me.
Leonnig and Rucker mention the Iran nuclear deal. Here, there is no synthesis — not at this point, anyway. The deal is the thesis; pulling out, as Trump has done, is the antithesis. A synthesis would be an improved deal. That may be a pipe dream.
But the Iran nuclear deal is not part of the post-World War II internationalist vision that Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn were trying to sell to Trump. Nor was it the product of any contemporary bipartisan consensus. If it had been, President Obama could have gotten the deal ratified as a treaty. Trump is neither an iconoclast nor a “moron” for pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal.
To get a true sense of the arrogance and condescension behind the Mattis, Tillerson, Cohn “tutorial” for Trump, consider this statement by a “senior official” who helped plan the meeting:
We were starting to get out on the wrong path [Note: the path the president campaigned successfully on and wanted to take], and we really needed to have a course correction and needed to educate, to teach, to help him understand the reason and basis for a lot of these things. We needed to change how he thinks about this, to course correct.
Everybody was on board [Note: that’s how it is with conventional wisdom], 100 percent agreed with that sentiment, [but] they were dismayed and in shock when not only did it not have the intended effect, but he dug in his heels and pushed it even further on the spectrum, further solidifying his views.
Who is the “f*****g moron” — the president who pushed back during a “tutorial” on conventional wisdom or anyone who didn’t realize that this sort of session would not have its “intended effect”?