Kids get it. Frustrated parents make threats they never carry out. The kid knows that he (or she) is not going to be grounded for a year, or be sent off to an orphanage, or to a military school, or Milwaukee. And no dessert for a week means “no dessert” that night after dinner – and tomorrow’s another day. Kids also recognize ambiguity. “Keep doing that and you’ll be sorry!”
That means doing what, specifically, and “sorry” in what way? The parent doesn’t specify. The kid shrugs – and lays low for a few hours, waiting for this minor storm to pass. It does, and the kid grows up knowing that most threats don’t mean much at all. Those who are frustrated, because they sense they have no power in a given situation, make threats. It makes them feel better. The threats can be ignored, or, to be polite, one might feign great fear, as a matter of courtesy. There’s only one exception to this – a threat made with a loaded gun to your head is probably a real threat. But those threats are rare. Adults hear the same thing kids hear. “Keep doing that and you’ll be sorry!”
Yeah, yeah, Trump and Mexico, as the New York Times’ Peter Baker explains here:
For nine days, he had his finger on the trigger and threatened to pull. For nine days, he put two countries, entire multinational industries, vast swaths of consumers and workers and even his own advisers and Republican allies on edge, unsure what would happen with billions of dollars at stake.
And then, almost as abruptly as it started, it was over. President Trump announced that he was calling off the crippling new tariffs he had vowed to impose on Mexico barely 48 hours before they were to go into effect because he had struck a last-minute immigration agreement – one that mainly just reaffirmed prior agreements.
There was really nothing there. He couldn’t impose the tariffs. Every corporation in America said this would ruin everything – the economy might collapse. Congress – specifically the Republican Senate – said they would block these tariffs. He threatened again. He could veto whatever they did. They said they had the votes to override his veto.
Checkmate. And it was clear that there was not much more that Mexico could do. But Mexico had agreed to a few things a few months ago – so one might pretend that all of that was brand new, a humiliating concession on their part, and hope no one looked up anything. That seemed to be the plan, but this was just an angry and frustrated “parent threat” any kid would recognize as just one of those things that happens when daddy or mommy gets frustrated. Ignore it, politely and respectfully, and let it blow over. Frustrated people are like that:
Nine days in spring offered a case study in Mr. Trump’s approach to some of the most daunting issues confronting him and the nation: When the goal seems frustratingly out of reach through traditional means, threaten drastic action, set a deadline, demand concessions, cut a deal – real or imagined – avert the dire outcome and declare victory.
If nothing else, he forces attention on the issue at hand. Whether the approach yields sustainable results seems less certain.
The approach does not yield sustainable results:
These are often dramas of Donald Trump’s own making, with him naturally the hero. He stakes out maximalist positions and issues brutal ultimatums to compel action, arguing that extreme problems demand extreme tactics. At times, though, it can seem like little more than smoke and mirrors substituting for serious policymaking, a way of pretending to make progress without actually solving the underlying problem.
“This is a pattern we’ve seen since the first days of this administration,” said Ned Price, a former CIA official who worked on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council staff and is now director of policy at National Security Action, a progressive foreign policy advocacy organization.
“The president manufactures a crisis, galvanizes his base around the challenge, leaves the definition of success undefined, pretends to play hardball and, lo and behold, finds a solution that entails little more than window-dressing, if that,” Mr. Price said.
Everyone should be used to this by now:
This same script played out just two months ago. Mr. Trump loudly threatened to close the border with Mexico altogether unless it did more to stop illegal immigration. Mexico promised action. Mr. Trump dropped the threat. But then the flow of migrants only increased, prompting Mr. Trump to issue a new threat on May 30 this time to impose escalating tariffs that would have started on Monday.
He was the frustrated parent feeling powerless because the kid just would not behave, issuing odd dire threats, and so the kid, sensing trouble, humored him:
Under the deal announced this past Friday night, Mexico agreed to deploy its recently formed national guard throughout the country to stop migrants from reaching the United States and to expand a program making some migrants wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are heard in the United States.
But Mexico had committed to do those things before, and it had rebuffed a more significant demand, a “safe third country” treaty, which gives the United States the ability to reject asylum seekers if they had not sought refuge in Mexico first. Instead, Mexico agreed to continue talking about such a move over the next 90 days.
And that was that, except for this:
Other presidents were more judicious about issuing threats, fearing the consequences if they had to follow through or the damage to their credibility if they did not. Scholars could not recall any other commander in chief who was as prolific in his use of threats as a tool of leadership as Mr. Trump has been.
“Not a single one,” said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a professor at Gettysburg College, who has written multiple books on presidential decision-making. “He is an outlier,” she added, referring to Mr. Trump.
Baker thinks that might have something to do with how he spent all of those years up to the day he became president:
This is what the threatener-in-chief does. He unsettles the settled. He shakes up the status quo. Daring to some, reckless to others, it is nonetheless never dull and it keeps the audience on edge, as he tried to do for 14 years hosting a reality show on network television. What will he do next?
After withdrawing his tariff threat against Mexico, Mr. Trump expressed displeasure at some of the “reviews” – his word – of the drama. “While the reviews and reporting on our Border Immigration Agreement with Mexico have been very good, there has nevertheless been much false reporting (surprise!) by the Fake and Corrupt News Media, such as Comcast/NBC, CNN, @nytimes & @washingtonpost,” he wrote on Twitter on Saturday.
His threats worked, damn it! All the reporting was wrong! None of this had been agreed to months ago! Do NOT look that up! He had humiliated Mexico! They had bent to his will! No other president had ever done this before!
At least that last assertion was true, because he has redefined how any president should do the job, which is pretty much how he has lived his adult life:
Mr. Trump’s penchant for threats has been characteristic of his administration from the beginning. In the first days of his presidency, he threatened to impose a high import tax on all goods coming into the country, only to retreat amid a storm of protests by business and its allies.
He makes lots of threats he never follows through on. He regularly threatens to sue adversaries and rewrite libel laws to punish news media organizations. He threatened to take away a license from NBC, to eliminate a tax break for the National Football League and to withdraw American troops from South Korea over a trade dispute.
He threatened repeatedly to lock up Hillary Clinton (while bristling when Nancy Pelosi threatened to do the same to him). He threatened to release tapes of his conversations with James B. Comey when he was FBI director, only to later admit there were no such recordings. He threatened to punish General Motors for closing a plant.
That’s what real presidents do:
Some threats are more apocalyptic. He threatened “fire and fury” against North Korea and “the official end of Iran” if either endangered the United States.
Cool, but of course he changed his mind over and over, and he has to be “managed” too, because his nasty threats often get him into trouble:
His repeated threats to fire Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, amounted to obstruction of justice, according to his critics. His defense is that they were just threats and he did not actually follow through – or his staff refused to carry out his wishes.
And some targets no longer shrink in the face of threats as they once did. After Mr. Trump last week threatened an economic boycott against AT&T to influence the news coverage of its subsidiary, CNN, it was largely ignored. Not only did investors not flee, but AT&T’s stock is up 5.7 percent since he issued the threat.
The kid shrugs at the parent’s threat. The nation begins to shrug at Trump’s threats. Other nations do too, now. But nothing works out as it should:
The president has followed through on plenty of threats, as when he slapped steel and aluminum tariffs on American allies and withdrew from Mr. Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran and Paris climate change accord. Mr. Trump backed off a threat to increase tariffs on China last winter, but when further talks stalled, he followed through on it this spring.
He repeatedly talked about shutting down the government to extract money for his border wall from Congress and then finally did so in December. Of course, it did not produce the result he desired; after 35 days, he retreated and reopened the government without more money for the wall than he had already secured. He then followed through on a threat to declare a national emergency and spend money on the wall anyway.
But the Mexico thing is odd:
Even after the deal was struck on Friday night, the Business Roundtable issued a statement essentially asking Mr. Trump not to do it again, describing itself as “deeply concerned about the threat or imposition of tariffs to press policy changes with our neighbors and allies.”
Business, after all, likes certitude, predictability. So does Washington. The only thing predictable about Mr. Trump’s presidency is the unpredictability. “I don’t want people to know exactly what I’m doing – or thinking,” he wrote in his campaign book. “I like being unpredictable. It keeps them off balance.”
That means he wins, or something. That also means that no one knows what is going on at any given time. That also means he get played, as David Atkins notes here:
It appears that the supposed concessions Trump got from Mexico in exchange for his hostage-taking were either refused or had been agreed to long ago… That means one of two things: either Trump knew that all these supposed concessions were mere window dressing already agreed to long ago – and he lied to the country and especially his base about them – or he didn’t know and got played.
Of course, the president’s staff and advisers would have known, which means they also either went along with the charade to deceive Trump, or were willing and silent participants in Trump’s dishonest gloating about the deal.
Either way, Trump threatened the global economy with catastrophe and got nothing from it. And now he’s celebrating, and his conservative media allies are doing their best to support the facade of success.
He may be referring to Hugh Hewitt saying that Trump’s big win leaves critics sputtering – because everything changed with Mexico, because of his threats to destroy the global economy, starting with them, and then moving on to us, and then the whole world.
But he can be ignored. That seems to be what Jackson Diehl is getting at here:
Is there still a crisis in Venezuela? Judging from President Trump, you wouldn’t think so. Back in January, the president and his top aides were seized with the cause of ousting the corrupt and autocratic regime in Caracas. The White House delivered what it thought would be a decisive blow by blocking U.S. purchases of Venezuelan oil and hinted that a military intervention was under consideration.
Five months later, President Nicolás Maduro is still in office – and U.S. policy is dormant. There has been no intervention, and after a couple of failed attempts to force the regime’s collapse, the Venezuelan opposition has gone back to negotiating with Maduro, with the help of Latin American and European governments.
The United States is not participating. Instead, the Washington Post reported last month that Trump had taken to “complaining he was misled about how easy it would be to replace the socialist strongman.”
Alternatively, he might have misled himself. He threatened Maduro and implicitly threatened Vladimir Putin – because threats change everything, and he who threatens the best wins it all. Both parties shrugged. And he should have known they would shrug:
Before Mexico was Iran, with which Trump appeared ready to go to war in early May if it did not completely reverse its foreign policy. And before that was North Korea, which Trump first threatened with “fire and fury” and then heaped with “love” in a similarly ineffectual attempt to dismantle its nuclear arsenal.
That’s our guy:
There is a pattern here. Trump targets a foreign adversary. He makes a maximalist demand: change your regime; disarm completely; “immediately stop the flow of people and drugs.” Shunning coordination with allies or Congress, he adopts dramatic measures that he supposes will quickly force a result: oil embargoes, tariffs, threats of military action. Then, when it turns out that it is, in the real world, not so easy to oust a Latin American dictator, strip North Korea of its nuclear weapons or force Iran to abandon its regional ambitions, he retreats – or simply moves on to the next target.
And the parallel to his previous life is obvious:
What’s left behind is a string of foreign policy bankruptcies, much like the serial real estate failures that used to be Trump’s detritus. A small army of State Department special envoys is struggling to clean up messes; in addition to North Korea, Venezuela and Iran, they can be found in Afghanistan and Syria.
Trump meanwhile projects equanimity. North Korea is back to launching missiles? The president is not “personally” bothered. “My people think it could have been a violation,” he said after a launch last month. “I view it differently.”
Military action against Iran? “I’d rather not,” Trump now says, weeks after moving to block all Iranian oil sales, dispatching fresh forces to the Persian Gulf and warning Tehran to “never threaten the United States again ” because “that will be the official end of Iran.”
As for Venezuela, crickets – except for a seemingly random Trump tweet last week saying that “Russia has informed us that they have removed most of their people from Venezuela” – a claim that was quickly proved to be untrue.
And that leaves this:
Perhaps we should all be grateful for Trump’s inconstancy. After all, a U.S. invasion of Venezuela or war with North Korea or Iran would be a catastrophe. Instead, we merely have a series of embarrassments that erodes U.S. credibility and plays into the hands of more competent adversaries such as Russia and China.
So, no nation believes anything Trump says now, but at least we’re not at war with any of them. Trump avoided the wars he had suggested with each of them – he put an end to that madness. Whoever said they’d all die, that if they didn’t stop what they were doing, right now, they’d be sorry, really sorry – had been a total fool. He didn’t want war. He only threatened war, right now, unless they changed their ways. But he didn’t want war. But he said there would be war. But he didn’t want war.
What? Diehl says that hardly matters now:
Several of the crises Trump has walked away from contain ticking bombs. North Korea is still suffering from sanctions and running short on food; the regime of Kim Jong Un is suggesting that if it does not get relief by the end of the year, it will cross U.S. red lines, such as by testing intercontinental missiles. With its oil revenue plummeting thanks to Trump, Iran is similarly moving toward scrapping the restraints on its nuclear program. And Central American migrants will keep coming through Mexico.
Maduro can’t do much to threaten the United States. But he can continue to oppress his own people, and he can stand by as the drastic oil sanction Trump imposed, which has caused Venezuela’s already shrunken revenue to crater, compounds a dire humanitarian disaster – and the United States increasingly takes the blame.
But there is this:
Maybe Trump will get lucky and these bombs will defuse themselves. Maduro may finally be ousted by his generals or eased out by Latin American and European diplomats. Rather than trigger a crisis, Iran and North Korea may decide to wait to see if Trump loses his reelection bid.
And maybe pigs will fly:
What surely won’t happen is the realization of Trump’s far-reaching aims through his formula of bluster, bully, and forget.
That sounds like a law firm – Bluster, Bully & Forget – but it’s more than that. That may be the new motto of the United States. That’s an odd way to run a country in this dangerous world, but those who are frustrated, because they sense they have no power in a given situation, make threats. It makes them feel better.
So, is everyone feeling better?