The man is difficult. Donald Trump has a different conception of charm than most everyone else. Maybe he’s Don Rickles – the man who showed that insulting someone to their face is damned funny, watch them squirm, and funny as hell, and they secretly love it. It’s almost affectionate. He’s just kidding around, but he means it too – and of course the audience loves it. Rickles built a fine and lucrative career as an insult comic. And those who can’t take an insult are fools. Rickles died a rich man.
That worked for Rickles from the Borscht Belt to swinging Las Vegas in the late fifties, and beyond, but no one has tried that shtick is real life – one might get punched in the nose – and insult comedy has never been one of the tools of international diplomacy. Foreign leaders don’t consider direct public insults, played for laughs, comic or oddly charming. Still, Donald Trump gave it a go:
President Donald Trump opened a state visit to Japan on Saturday by needling the country over its trade imbalance with the United States. “Maybe that’s why you like me so much,” he joshed.
Trump also promoted the U.S. under his leadership, saying “there’s never been a better time” to invest or do business in America, and he urged corporate leaders to come.
The president’s first event after arriving in Tokyo was a reception with several dozen Japanese and American business leaders at the U.S. ambassador’s residence. He said the two countries “are hard at work” negotiating a trade agreement.
“I would say that Japan has had a substantial edge for many, many years, but that’s okay,” Trump said…
That’s okay. You bastards have been screwing us over for decades, but now it’s our turn to mess you up, big time:
The president is threatening Japan with potentially devastating U.S. tariffs on foreign autos and auto parts. He has suggested he will go ahead with the trade penalties if U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer fails to win concessions from Japan and the European Union.
The idea here is that Japan and Germany have been flooding America with their cars, and that will stop, or they will have to build those cars right here, and employ American workers to build them – so a big change is coming – but just before Trump hopped on his plane to Tokyo there was this:
Toyota Motor Corp. rebuked President Donald Trump’s declaration that imported cars threaten U.S. national security, signaling contentious talks are ahead for the White House and America’s key trading partners.
In an unusually strong-worded statement, Japan’s largest automaker said Trump’s proclamation Friday that the U.S. needs to defend itself against foreign cars and components “sends a message to Toyota that our investments are not welcomed, and the contributions from each of our employees across America are not valued.”
The company said it has spent more than $60 billion building operations in the country, including 10 manufacturing plants.
Almost every Toyota car or truck sold in America is built in America. Trump might have not known that, or he might not believe that, or he knows better and he’s playing to his base, that doesn’t know better, he hopes. But it doesn’t matter. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it:
President Donald Trump, on the first day of his state visit to Japan, dug at Tokyo for what he called a “substantial advantage” in trade and asked Japanese businesses to invest more in the United States…
The Japanese carmarker said Trump’s view of car imports “sends a message to Toyota that our investments are not welcomed, and the contributions from each of our employees across America are not valued.”
Japan’s economy minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, said he did not expect even a partial agreement on trade when Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hold their summit on Monday, according to Reuters.
Motegi met with Lighthizer and told reporters that the U.S. and Japan still need to narrow their differences on trade. He said they did not discuss Trump’s decision to label some auto imports a national security threat.
That’s because there was nothing to talk about. Toyota builds most of the cars it sells here right here. So do Mazda and Subaru and all the rest. They have for decades, but Angela Merkel had the same problem. The largest BMW assembly plant in the world is in South Carolina. Mercedes Benz builds a lot of what they sell here, in Alabama. Trump just stared at Merkel when she mentioned that. That’s not the story he wanted to tell his base – “They send Mercedes-Benz’s in here like they’re cookies. They send BMWs here. We hardly tax them at all.”
That’s because they’re built here. And they don’t seem to be a national security threat either. How could they be? The Japanese and Germans have created hundreds of thousands of American jobs over the last several decades. So the problem is… well, that’s hard to say. But it was clear that Donald Trump was having a lot of sneering fun – and this state visit to Japan also included a lot of golf, and he got to present to new giant Trump Trophy – invented just for him –to the best big fat sumo wrestler at the moment. The video of him handing the giant trophy to big fat nearly naked sumo wrestler was amusing – or unsettling, given the similarities in their physiques – and he gets to meet the new emperor too. Life is good.
Donald Trump was having a fine time. He could say anything. He could do anything. So he did this:
President Trump appeared to contradict his national security adviser on foreign soil in an early morning tweet Sunday, noting that while some in his administration were “disturbed” by North Korea’s testing of ballistic missiles earlier this month, the president himself was unbothered.
In the missive, Trump also used North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a foil against a domestic political rival – former vice president Joe Biden – and complicated his relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the first full day of visit here.
That’s a lot in one tweet. The Japanese have been worried sick about North Korea – those missiles dropping in their waters or flying by overhead. Trump’s national security advisor says they should be worried. Trump called him a fool. Trump isn’t worried – and he wants everyone to know that Kim thinks Biden is a fool. And since Trump admires strong leaders – Kim and Putin and Erdogan and Duterte and all the rest – their opinions matter. Americans should note that. These are the smart tough guys. Americans should note that Kim thinks Biden is a fool. Case closed.
And the case is quite simple:
Trump’s tweet was a direct rebuke of his national security adviser, John Bolton, who on Saturday had warned reporters here that there is “no doubt” North Korea’s missile tests violated United Nations Security Council resolutions, adding that Trump is determined to maintain sanctions pressure on the regime until it backs down.
“North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me,” Trump wrote. “I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me.”
Ah, but Bolton was slyly calling his boss a fool:
Bolton’s comments marked the first time a senior administration official has confirmed that North Korea launched ballistic missiles in contravention of U.N. resolutions, with officials appearing reluctant until now to make such a clear statement, in order to demonstrate their willingness to restart dialogue.
Bolton was telling his boss NOT to restart any talks at all. Bolton was backing him into a corner:
The small weapons Trump referred to were short-range ballistic missiles, one of which flew nearly 300 miles before landing in the sea. That is a direct threat to U.S. ally South Korea, while medium-range missiles would also put Japan in range. Japan also described North Korea’s last test as short-range ballistic missiles, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, but noted that they did not land with Japanese waters or directly threaten its security.
Trump was standing right there. What else were they going to say? But they’re not happy:
The Japanese have long argued for a tougher line against North Korea, with Abe pushing hard for no sanctions relief for North Korea, as well as a resolution to the Japanese abducted by the North Koreans.
The president has significantly tightened sanctions on North Korea, but in a March tweet that unsettled Tokyo and sparked confusion across Washington – including among the president’s own aides – Trump also cancelled a new round of sanctions from his Treasury Department.
They have no idea what’s next, so they should be worried:
Vipin Narang, a political science professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose focus includes nuclear proliferation and North Korea, tweeted that Trump’s social media message was deeply problematic.
“There is a lot that is really disturbing here, but the most important bit is ‘Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me,'” Narang wrote. “Kim never promised to unilaterally disarm, and the problem is Trump continues to believe he did. THAT is why this is so dangerous.”
That is a problem. The man believes odd things, or pretends to believe odd things, to excite his base, but the rest was just odd:
In his Sunday tweet, Trump also misspelled Biden’s name – incorrectly writing “Bidan” – and weaponized his friendship with Kim for campaign leverage over Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate on whom Trump and his allies are most focused.
The president said in the tweet that he had appreciated a recent comment by North Korea state media calling Biden a “low IQ idiot” whose candidacy should not carry high expectations. Trump wrote that he “also smiled when he called Swampman Joe Bidan a low IQ individual, & worse. Perhaps that’s sending me a signal?”
Trump later corrected the misspelling.
But he didn’t say what Kim Signal was being sent. Kim will help him defeat Biden? Who knows? There’s only this:
Before he left the United States, Japanese diplomats expressed indifference to the prospect of Trump unleashing a string of freewheeling tweets while abroad, saying that domestic politics is the president’s business. But in weighing on North Korea, as well as a Democratic political rival, in a single tweet, Trump yet again undermined the Japanese’s careful preparations, in which they hoped to flatter Trump into affirming the important relationship between Japan and the United States.
The president also couldn’t resist offering his opinion on the criminal case against actor Jussie Smollett, in a tweet around 5:45 a.m. Railing against “great incompetence and corruption,” Trump argued that MAGA COUNTRY” was owed an apology.
Smollett is gay and black, so perhaps Smollett needs to apologize to MAGA COUNTRY for that. Japanese diplomats were silent on the matter. They had no idea what might come next, but others could guess, and see where this was heading:
Members of both parties criticized President Trump’s handling of North Korea on Sunday after the president tweeted that he has “confidence” in Kim Jong Un and quoted North Korean state-run media’s assessment that former vice president Joe Biden is a “low IQ individual.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a military veteran who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, cited the Memorial Day holiday in taking issue with Trump’s message.
“It’s Memorial Day Weekend and you’re taking a shot at Biden while praising a dictator,” Kinzinger tweeted. “This is just plain wrong.”
Another Republican, Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa), said she “certainly wouldn’t trust” Kim.
And she pulled rank on the draft dodger:
Ernst, who is also a veteran and serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said she was disturbed by North Korea’s recent missile test as well as by Trump’s reaction.
“I think Japan does have reason to be concerned, and I am concerned as well,” she said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We need to see North Korea back off of those activities, and we need to take a very strong stance on that.”
And then there was the gay guy:
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, said that when Trump met with Kim last year in Singapore and this year in Hanoi, “he was handing North Korea something that country needed, which was legitimacy.”
“And the way diplomacy works – the way deals work – is you give someone something in return for something,” Buttigieg said on ABC’s “This Week.” “It hasn’t worked at all.”
So here is the young gay mayor of a small Midwestern city telling the master, the man who (sort of) wrote the Art of the Deal, how deals really work, but there was this defense:
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders defended the president’s comments Sunday. In an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sanders was asked by host Chuck Todd whether Americans should “be concerned that the president of United States is essentially siding with a murderous, authoritarian dictator over a former vice president in the United States.”
Sanders disputed that characterization. “Chuck, the president’s not siding with that,” she said. “But I think they agree in their assessment of former vice president Joe Biden.”
In short, Trump is not siding with a murderous authoritarian dictator, but when a murderous authoritarian dictator is right, well, he’s right, or maybe not:
Biden’s campaign Sunday pointed to a statement it made last week in response to remarks by North Korea’s state-run news agency that Biden has a low IQ, which itself was a response to Biden’s criticism of the regime.
In that statement, Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said Trump has “been repeatedly tricked in to making major concessions to the murderous regime in Pyongyang while getting nothing in return.”
“Given Vice President Biden’s record of standing up for American values and interests, it’s no surprise that North Korea would prefer that Donald Trump remain in the White House,” Bates said.
Well, someone has a low IQ here, and David Atkins suggests this:
Donald Trump’s slide into unhinged despotism has shifted from gradual to sudden in the last few days.
First, the he suggested – after being reminded by a reporter that the punishment for treason is death – that the former FBI Director, the former FBI Deputy Director and at least two FBI agents had committed treason by daring to investigate him. Then he gave his toady Attorney General unprecedented power to selectively declassify any and all materials related to the probe into his campaign’s ties with Russia, thereby not only retaliating against his own Justice Department but also endangering the lives of its agents. He posted a doctored video of the speaker of House, falsified to make it appear as though she were drunk or mentally impaired. He stormed out a meeting on infrastructure, calling an impromptu press conference in which he forced cabinet members to stand by and attest to how calm he is.
And then he tweeted, from Japan, that he trusted Kim to get rid of his nukes, and everyone should trust him, and by the way, he and Kim both agreed that Biden was a fool, and maybe something could be worked out about that. And this is the Atkins summary:
In what may well be the most reckless and bizarre tweet of his entire presidency, Trump did the following: 1) made light of provocative saber rattling by the biggest immediate threat to the host nation of his state visit; 2) cozied up to the brutal dictator of the world’s most repressive autocratic regime, Kim Jong Un; 3) made himself out to be braver than his staff and advisers in the military and diplomatic corps; 4) commiserated with said brutal dictator against the former vice president of the United States and his potential political opponent in the next election; 5) almost certainly lied about the interaction with the dictator, who is very unlikely to have said or done anything like what Trump described; and 6) wrote about the dictator “sending him a signal” in the context of said commiseration as if he were a middle-school student writing in his or her diary about a first crush.
And then there’s Dan Rather with this:
We have a president of the United States wink at a murderous dictator to mock a former vice president? As what? A campaign surrogate for 2020? This is despicable in too many ways to count.
Atkins then adds this:
At some point, even Republicans are going to have to decide how much more of this they can tolerate. Trump is displaying increasingly dangerous and unstable behavior with unpredictable impacts on American national security. Mike Pence is odious to liberals and progressives for many reasons and would make a horrible president in all the ways for which the conservative base would love him, but he wouldn’t be a Mad King threatening to take the entire country down with him in decompensating fits of destructive narcissism.
Trump isn’t fit to have control of the nation’s nuclear codes or state secrets. Even his closest allies know this, and there will have to be some sort of political intervention by Republicans to avert disaster. We are unlikely to make it through to January 2021 without serious repercussions if nothing is done…
And there’s much more:
Trump’s choice of John Bolton as national security advisor is of particular concern here. It was an odd choice given that Trump ran for president as an anti-war isolationist with a fondness for Putin and Russia, while Bolton is an aggressive militarist imperialist and noted Russophobe. But then again, Trump ran on a fairly liberal (for a Republican) economic platform before ceding control of his entire domestic economic agenda (outside of trade) to Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. But while that ironically made Trump’s domestic economic policy vaguely “normal” if cruel and heartless, it has made his foreign policy a chaos.
Bolton’s instincts on North Korea are militaristic. But Trump loves and feels a personal affinity for Kim Jong Un. So relations with North Korea veer from bizarrely chummy to angry and antagonistic depending on the day. And we get the spectacle of the president of the United States throwing fellow Americans under the bus in commiseration with the North Korean dictator, even as his actual foreign policy apparatus is headed by a man who would just as soon launch a horrific first strike as blink.
But wait, there’s more:
On Iran, the Trump Administration is drumming up for a catastrophic war in a nearly direct repeat of the build-up to Iraq. The only reason this isn’t being treated with the alarm it deserves (beyond the daily distractions of everything else in Trumpland) is that Trump himself has repeatedly condemned the invasion of Iraq, and seems to have only been ramping up aggression with Iran and scuttling peace deals with the Middle Eastern nation less out of direct policy interest than a simple racist desire to undo what his African-American predecessor has accomplished with the nuclear deal. And indeed, Trump is telling people he does not want a war with Iran and generally confusing everyone who works on the issue.
This is more terrifying than Trump’s concerted domestic actions, if only because his domestic actions are predictable. He’s a racist would-be despot. There are things that can be done to combat that, as long as the opposition party and the legal system remain robust in their resistance.
But there isn’t much that can be done when a careless and decompensating chief executive and a bloodthirsty ideologically misaligned national security advisor are calling the shots on war and peace in a cloud of chaos distraction.
But there may be a reason that not much can be done:
In a review of CNN’s Jim Acosta’s forthcoming book, “The Enemy of The People,” Guardian reviewer Martin Pengelly reveals some telling quotes that the CNN White House correspondent relays, including one White House official confiding that President Donald Trump is mentally ill.
According to the report, Acosta’s sources “are often blunt in their assessment of their boss. A ‘senior White House official’ ells Acosta: ‘The president’s insane.’
Oh. That. That was always a possibility. The man is difficult. But maybe he’s just an insult comic who lost his way. The best thing to do now is to get him back to Vegas, where he can do his stand-up routine nightly and amaze his audience with his audacity, and be rich and famous. That might be safer for everyone.