Inexperience and Alarming Bluster

America took a gamble with Donald Trump. The man never held political office before. His grasp of how our government (or any government) works is a few steps below rudimentary. He has no experience in foreign policy, other than with the intricacies of resort and hotel development in far-off lands, and with the issues involved in staging a beauty pageant in Moscow – and he has no military experience, other than high school at that military academy for underachieving lazy rich kids. But he is, he says, a billionaire, a master dealmaker who always gets his way, humiliating anyone who gets in his way. He won. He always won – and now America would always win. No nation would ever humiliate America ever again, even if none really had. He said they had, and starting with Mexico, we’d humiliate them all – and starting with Little Marco and Lyin’ Ted, and moving on to Crooked Hillary, he humiliated anyone who disagreed with him about anything at all. His tweets destroyed them. He was a winner. We’d all be winners, again, finally. He’d make America great again.

That was the general idea and that was the gamble. Just enough voters in just the right places each placed their bet – maybe this guy could make America great again. If not, he would at least stick it to Mexicans and Muslims and gays and urban hipsters and fancy-pants experts and the French and the Chinese and all “politicians” and globalists and young black thugs and Rachel Maddow. Maybe he’d put Hillary Clinton in jail. That might not make America great again but that would be damned satisfying.

All of that would be satisfying – but Trump voters have maintained that they weren’t motivated by cultural or racial insecurity or nostalgia or spite or any of that. They had gay friends. Some of their best friends were black. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a Muslim and he’s a fine fellow. They weren’t angry – at least most of them weren’t. They were patriots. They only wanted the best for America. Trump said he’d deliver. Maybe he could, in spite of his inexperience and alarming bluster. It was worth a shot.

That’s not working out. Inexperience and alarming bluster won’t make America great again. The guy’s an embarrassment:

The world’s most powerful leaders gathered in Germany this week to hammer out tough geopolitical issues – and, according to a tweet from President Donald Trump, to dump on Hillary Clinton’s former campaign chairman.

“Everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA, Disgraceful!” Trump tweeted from his personal account early Friday morning, half an hour before he was scheduled to depart his hotel for the G20 summit in Hamburg.

It was a peculiar aside deviating sharply from some of Trump’s other tweets during his swing through Germany and Poland, which have largely focused on the serious business at hand – with a few shots at “Fake News” and “the haters” who annoy the president. It also appeared to get basic facts wrong about last year’s alleged Russian election-meddling: Podesta worked for the Clinton presidential campaign at the time, not the Democratic National Committee, and hence had no say in the treatment of the latter’s hacked email servers.

This isn’t going to make America great again:

The tweet baffled White House aides on the trip. “I have no idea what he’s talking about,” one messaged The Daily Beast. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not cleared to discuss the bizarre tweet.

According to those present, the only world leader at the summit who was actively bringing up Podesta and “the DNC server” was the U.S. president.

“Trump himself brought it up” randomly in person while talking to staff, a senior official on the trip told The Daily Beast.

Puzzled advisers nodded politely or ignored him as the president went down the rabbit hole of a controversy…

Others didn’t nod politely and ignore him:

Podesta – who chaired Clinton’s presidential campaign – responded in kind, tweeting at “our whack-job POTUS” to “get a grip” and “get your head in the game” at the summit. “The Russians committed a crime when they stole my emails to help get you elected President,” Podesta wrote. “Maybe you might try to find a way to mention that to President Putin.”

That’s good advice:

Podesta and the DNC were the victims of parallel cyber-intrusions that U.S. intelligence agencies have attributed to Russian government actors. But Trump appeared to conflate the two – “I had nothing to do with the DNC,” Podesta noted – raising immediate red flags about the veracity of the president’s claim that “everyone” at the summit was discussing it.

“What gave it away, the president not knowing the difference between the DNC and the Clinton campaign, or the idea that a dozen other heads of state don’t know the difference either?” one senior administration official remarked…

A dozen other heads of state don’t care. They now know Donald Trump. The guy makes stuff up, out of thin air, and then gets angry about it. Then he says that everyone is just as angry as he is – everyone is talking about this or that outrage – but no one is because it never happened. Americans may be fine with getting angry at entirely imaginary outrages. That’s what Americans do – but that’s their business. No one else has to play along.

No one else is playing along. The Washington Post’s Michael Birnbaum and Damian Paletta report this:

The growing international isolation of the United States under President Trump was starkly apparent Friday as the leaders of major world economies mounted a nearly united opposition front against Washington on issues ranging from climate to free trade.

At a gathering of the Group of 20 world economic powers – normally a venue for drab displays of international comity – there were tough clashes with the United States and even talk of a possible transatlantic trade war.

The tensions were a measure of Trump’s sharp break with previous U.S. policies. They were also a warning signal of Washington’s diminished clout, as the leaders of the other nations who gathered in Hamburg mulled whether to fix their signatures to statements that would exclude Trump or to find some sort of compromise. Two European officials said they were leaning toward a united front against Washington.

Diminished clout is not making America great again:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who faced the difficult job of bridging the differences, made little attempt to paper over the disagreements after the first day of meetings.

“The discussions are very difficult. I don’t want to talk around that,” Merkel said.

She described the view of most participants that “we need free but also fair trade,” a rejection of Trump’s skepticism about the value of sweeping free-trade agreements. And she predicted that the lower-level officials charged with negotiating a final statement deep into the night “had a lot of work ahead of them.”

It is hard to deal with a rogue nation whose leader makes stuff up:

There were sharp warnings about U.S. steel policy as Trump mulls restrictions on imports…

In one of the most consequential decisions of his young administration, Trump could within days impose the restrictions on steel, a move that could affect trade with more than a dozen major countries.

“We will respond with countermeasures if need be, hoping that this is not actually necessary,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters, adding figuratively: “We are prepared to take up arms if need be.”

Juncker warned that Europe would respond in days, not months, if Trump announces the restrictions.

There’s no need for them to back down:

The comments made for a remarkable display of disharmony as the gathering got underway. They also were a reflection of how European officials not only do not fear Trump but also see much to gain from opposing him. Trump is deeply unpopular in Europe, and politicians here can get a boost when they emphasize their differences.

That’s not making America great again either:

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has nearly finished a multi-month review of U.S. steel imports, and he has said that the large amount of steel imported by the United States puts national security at risk because it has weakened the domestic steel industry. The White House is considering using this rationale to impose new restrictions, either by imposing tariffs or quotas, or a combination of the two.

Ahead of the summit, the White House was close to making a decision, but top Trump administration advisers slowed the process down at the last minute, persuading Trump to meet with other world leaders at the G-20 before deciding how to proceed.

It’s easy enough to imagine the scene. Everyone in the room but Steve Bannon and Wilbur Ross is aghast. Most of them come from Goldman Sachs. All of them come from big business. We slap on this tariff. They slap on that tariff. In retaliation we slap on more tariffs. In retaliation they slap on more tariffs. Trade slows. Consumer prices skyrocket. Trade stalls. Corporations lay off tens of thousands of workers and a deep recession follows. Trade stops. It’s the Great Depression again – so wait. Go talk to the folks in Europe.

That was the idea:

Trump and Merkel spoke about trade and steel a few days ago, a reflection of how seriously both sides consider any new action on the issue.

U.S. negotiators were pressing their international counterparts on what they described as a global glut of steel production in the hopes that they can reach an agreement by Saturday on how to curb it, a U.S. official said. The official said the issue was consuming significant time.

Other countries have also stood in opposition to Trump’s drive to erect trade barriers.

When there is protectionism, “the entire international economy shrinks,” Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Norio Maruyama told reporters.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told leaders that all countries in the global economy must abide by “free and fair rules and these rules need to be maintained at the high level, and need to be respected,” Maruyama said.

Forget that:

In a Twitter post Friday, Trump wrote of the G-20 that “I will represent our country well and fight for its interests! Fake News Media will never cover me accurately but who cares!”

After the conclusion of the first day of meetings, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that Trump’s interactions with foreign leaders were going very well.

“We’ve had very productive economic meetings,” he told reporters at the summit. “There have been very substantive issues discussed,” he said without going into detail.

Donald Trump doesn’t do detail:

As Trump entered the meetings Friday morning, he strode up to Merkel, smiling, then shook her hand vigorously. Walking away, he looked toward reporters and pumped his fist in the air.

No one knows why:

European Union officials on Friday emphasized their commitment to free trade and open borders… The EU has pointed proudly at a wide-ranging trade deal with Japan, concluded Thursday, as a retort to Trump’s protectionist inclinations.

Europe expects to increase its exports to Japan by a third after trade barriers drop away, and the United States will matter less and less and less as the years go by. Mexico will make its trade deals with China. America will never be great again. That bet on Donald Trump was a bad bet.

Inexperience and bluster are the problem:

Eight months after an American election that U.S. intelligence agencies believe Russia tried to sway, President Trump and President Vladimir Putin sat for their first face-to-face talks Friday, a friendly encounter that ended in confusion over whether Trump had agreed to absolve the Kremlin of any wrongdoing.

Trump, believed to be the intended beneficiary of the Russian meddling, emerged from the extraordinary meeting – which ran so long that Trump’s wife tried to break it up – with a deal on a partial cease-fire in the Syrian war. The agreement would mark the first time Washington and Moscow had operated together in Syria to try to reduce the violence.

But there were no grand bargains on U.S. sanctions on Russia, the Ukraine crisis or the other issues that have divided the two nations for years. And the session offered little clarity on the question of Russian election interference, which had made this the most anticipated meeting between a U.S. president and his Russian counterpart in recent memory. Instead, both sides indicated that they wanted to move beyond the subject.

Melania Trump knows her husband. She knew he was in over his head, but of course he ignored her and kept on talking and talking that “man stuff” – but Anne Applebaum saw this:

There were six people in the room when the president of the United States met the president of Russia: two presidents, two foreign ministers, two translators – with no aides, no advisers, no experts. There was nothing prepared in advance: The U.S. national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, said last week that there was “no specific agenda – it’s really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about.”

A nearly empty room. A blank slate.

The Russian-American relationship, which has always been atypical, has now become strange, even surreal. It is not even predictable, in the way that most diplomatic relationships are usually more or less predictable, because it is not driven by the geopolitical or economic interests of either Russians or Americans. It is driven, rather, by the personal interests of the two main players.

That means that this was about what it wasn’t about:

The actual agreements reached were underwhelming: an open channel of communication on Ukraine, whatever that means; a cease-fire in part of Syria, which could be hopeful but has been tried before; some new ambassadors. Far more important, as I say, were the personal stakes – and Russian President Vladimir Putin got most of what he wanted out of the meeting in the first few seconds. Outplaying President Trump at his own silly game, he waited for the American to offer his hand. Cameras clicked and flashed; minutes later, Russian websites had the photograph – a picture of Trump holding out his hand to a haughty Putin – on their home pages.

And that was the point. For the Russian leader, 99 percent of the value of this meeting was its use in domestic propaganda. On Russia’s Channel One news station, a talk-show host waiting for the meeting to conclude marveled at its length (more than two hours) and called it a sign that Trump considered Putin more important than any other leader there. Snide Twitter posts kept flashing on screen (“Trump is like a schoolboy sitting next to Putin”). As an undemocratic leader who presides over a rocky economy, Putin needs to offer his public some reason to support him. This was it: He is at the center of the world stage. He calls the shots. He is munificently offering solutions to problems – in Ukraine, in Syria, in “cybersecurity” – that he himself has helped to create.

Trump won only this:

In light of the ongoing FBI investigation, he had to raise the difficult question of Russian interference in the U.S. election, even though he was reluctant to admit there had been such a thing as recently as Thursday. But he managed it. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pointedly declared afterward that Trump had “pressed” the subject and then dispensed with it: The two men wanted to move on and were not “re-litigating” the past. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, declared that Trump had “accepted” Putin’s denial of interference as the truth. At the very least, the U.S. president can now tell himself that he doesn’t need to bring up that difficult subject again.

Trump was not making America great again:

From Trump’s comments going back more than a decade, it seems that Trump also needed something else from Putin: acceptance. I’m not sure why this is true, or which part of Trump’s psychological profile explains it. But he has long admired the Russian dictator, whom he has praised repeatedly and never criticized. “It’s an honor to meet you,” he said at the first encounter. Maybe it’s the oligarchic style represented by Putin, who used money to get political power and then used political power to make money, and a lot more money than Trump; maybe it’s the way Putin also used his office to empower his friends and family, something Trump does, too. From Tillerson’s remarks, it sounds like Trump got what he was looking for. There was “positive chemistry” between the two men, he said: “Neither one of them wanted to stop.” At one point, Melania Trump was sent in to break this love-fest up.

That’s what it was:

Both men got what they wanted – bragging rights for Putin – a new friend for Trump. As for the rest of us – it doesn’t matter what we think. In this relationship, only two people matter.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan agrees with that:

Putin emerged as the winner. At a press briefing after the meeting, Tillerson said that Trump did raise – more than once – the charge that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. However, Lavrov told reporters that Trump accepted Putin’s denial. Perhaps Lavrov was exaggerating, but Tillerson did say the two presidents agreed to “move forward” and not “re-litigate the past” – which amounts to the same thing.

In other words, Putin did not, and apparently will not, pay any price for his information-warfare campaign against American democracy. In fact, Tillerson said that Trump merely “noted” the domestic concerns about the charges, which could prove “a substantial hindrance” to future Russian–American relations. That’s very different from pressuring or even endorsing the accusation against Russia, which has been leveled by the entire U.S. intelligence community. Putin must also have noticed that hours before their meeting, Trump again voiced skepticism not only about the accusation but about the general competence of his intelligence agencies, likening their conclusions about Russian hacking to their 2002 warnings about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Trump really was like a schoolboy sitting next to Putin:

Putin’s goals were at once more ambitious and more fully met than Trump’s. First, Putin came off as the full peer of the president of the United States, an enormous accomplishment given the relative weakness of his country and the thorough corruption of his regime. More important still, Putin won shrugged acceptance of his role in skewing an American presidential election and might interpret this as tacit permission to try again the next time—as long as he skews in a direction to Trump’s liking.

By contrast, Trump came off as able to hold his own in a two-hour-plus meeting with the likes of Putin with, as far as we know, no big gaffes or missteps. That may be triumph enough for Trump – look for his aides to trumpet the fact – but it’s a low bar at a global forum where American presidents are expected to lead, not merely endure.

American presidents really are expected to lead. American voters, every four years, bet that this candidate or that really will lead, but it’s always a gamble, and sometimes it’s a sucker’s bet. Inexperience and often alarming bluster were never going to cut through the usual crap of domestic and geopolitics. American voters bet on something completely different for a change. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what they got.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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