Wednesday 19 June 2019

'The Trump reality show is now a real-life political drama'

The US president is back in the White House after a European tour that saw him attack his supposed allies while offering the hand of friendship to Putin. Although Trump will have seen ­domestic ­political ­capital in playing the bully, the so-called 'Finnish fiasco' proved too much for even his staunchest supporters. ­Robert Schmuhl on America's Disrupter in Chief

Fingers in the eyes: Trump meets UK prime minister Theresa May
Fingers in the eyes: Trump meets UK prime minister Theresa May
Trump with his wife Melania and Russian president Vladimir Putin

Donald Trump is back at the White House, leaving in his wake a Europe - and world - simultaneously gobsmacked and flummoxed that an American president could create so much chaos and controversy during less than a week abroad.

From his arrival in Brussels for Nato meetings on July 11 until the conclusion of his joint press conference with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday, Trump proved to his hosts and others that instead of being his nation's chief diplomat, he was closer to personifying the role of Disrupter in Chief.

Long-established ways of conducting US foreign policy seemed insignificant throughout the trip - with precedent meaningless to this president. Allies received finger-in-the-eye treatment usually reserved for adversaries, while an abiding rival enjoyed benevolent smiles and encouraging words.

At a breakfast before the first formal Nato session, Trump began to throw verbal hand grenades in several directions - but chiefly at Germany. "Many countries are not paying what they should," he said, returning to a subject of enduring irritation before making his criticism specific.

Trump with his wife Melania and Russian president Vladimir Putin
Trump with his wife Melania and Russian president Vladimir Putin

"Germany, as far as I'm concerned, is captive to Russia because it's getting so much of its energy from Russia," he stated. "We have to talk about the billions of dollars that's being paid to the country we're supposed to be protecting you against."

Thus began the week that was. By its end, and after Trump's articulation of many more aggravations, German foreign minister Heiko Maas offered his judgment. "We can no longer completely rely on the White House," he commented. "To maintain our partnership with the US, we must readjust it."

Then, without naming names, Maas got personal: "Europe must not let itself be divided, however sharp the verbal attacks and absurd the tweets may be."

The foreign minister's comments followed Trump's response to a television interviewer's question last weekend, asking the president to identify America's biggest foe in the world today.

"Well, I think we have a lot of foes," Trump answered.

"I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade. Now, you wouldn't think of the European Union, but they're a foe. Russia is a foe in certain respects. China is a foe economically, certainly they are a foe. But that doesn't mean they are bad."

Trump's ability to sow chaos and discord on an almost hourly basis is legendary, but there's a constancy to him, too, and it usually revolves around money and the degree to which he receives attention.

He's complained about the US getting cheated on trade for decades, and during the 2016 campaign he argued: "The problem with Nato: it's obsolete." In the next breath, he confessed: "Big statement to make when you don't know that much about it, but I learn quickly."

What Trump learned, however quickly, was that Nato depended on American financial backing at a level he couldn't abide, so he started pushing other member nations to stump up larger contributions.

Conflict comes easy

Challenging Nato countries to pay what he sees as their fair share might offend the leaders and citizens of the other 28 countries in the alliance, but Trump sees domestic political value in playing the bull in this china shop.

His supporters - his base of voters that he works so hard to keep happy and on his side - love that he's a fighter, and he consistently cultivates that impression, particularly in his daily Twitter blasts.

Conflict comes easily to Trump. For decades as a property developer and television personality, he created media attention for himself by picking fights with anyone he deemed not completely in his camp.

Operating that way, with fists always up, brought him continuous news coverage, especially in the bright lights of the New York City media market, and kept him in the public eye. The behaviour also became his reflex reaction as a candidate and now as president. (The Disrupter in Chief can, from time to time, adopt the persona of Destroyer in Chief.)

Truth be told, Trump is much less interested in formulating policy or proposing legislation than he is in projecting the image of a tough, I-know-best figure. To his faithful followers - and his approval rating is inching upwards to the mid-40pc range - the more pugnacity Trump displays at home (and abroad), the more they think he's battling on their behalf.

Observing time-honoured conventions and engaging in political niceties do not come easily to this president. After the Nato meetings, he headed for Britain. Before his first session with the prime minister Theresa May, he was interviewed by The Sun, owned by his friend, Rupert Murdoch.

Asked how he would have negotiated Brexit, the president remarked: "I would have done it much differently. I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn't agree, she didn't listen to me. She wanted to go a different route. I would actually say that she probably went the opposite way."

Trump is fond of using the first-person, singular pronoun. In this case, given the circumstances, he undercut May's position (while shining a spotlight on his approach) and introduced a foreign, outsider's viewpoint into a domestic situation.

If such armchair analysis weren't enough, the president later in the interview said about former foreign secretary Boris Johnson - who "obviously likes me" - that "he would be a great prime minister. I think he's got what it takes".

Trump must have known the dynamite intertwined in his words, but at a press conference with May, he tried to duck and dodge and claim he said nothing untoward. This less-than-deft manoeuvre came after a reporter wondered: "Our countries are meant to have a special relationship, yet you publicly criticised the prime minister's policy and her personally for not listening to you this week. Is that really the behaviour of a friend?"

Without missing a beat, Trump volunteered: "I didn't criticise the prime minister. I have a lot of respect for the prime minister. And, unfortunately, there was a story that was done, which was generally fine, but it didn't put in what I said about the prime minister... It's called fake news."

Since late 2016, Trump has labelled virtually every piece of journalism presenting facts or opinions he judges in opposition to him as "fake news". Repetition of that phrase, appearing frequently on the president's Twitter account with its 53.2 million followers, is done with a definite purpose.

A prominent American television journalist - Lesley Stahl of CBS News - asked Trump why he relentlessly attacked the news media. According to Stahl, who related this anecdote in late May: "He said, 'You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.'"

Brazen Tactics

Do such brazen tactics work? Earlier this year, a survey involving 19,000 respondents, which was conducted by Gallup and the Knight Foundation, found that "four in 10 Republicans consider accurate news stories that cast a politician or political group in a negative light to always be 'fake news'."

The key phrases in that finding are "accurate news stories" and "to always be 'fake news'." Now even truthful accounts are considered false by almost half the people of Trump's party in an environment drowning in charges of rampant fakery.

On the same day that the president met May and Queen Elizabeth, the US Justice Department announced indictments of a dozen Russian intelligence officers for their involvement in hacking the computers and emails of the Democratic Party and its 2016 presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.

The charges, which brought Russian government participation to the fore of the long-running investigation supervised by special counsel Robert Mueller, made cyberespionage a main topic in official Washington.

Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, adopted a strong approach, saying: "Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack." He compared the "warning signs" to those faced by the US ahead of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks: "The warning lights are blinking again."

You might think that actions of a foreign aggressor to interfere with an American election would be met with outrage - and more - from an American president. You might also think that a meeting between the president and the leader of that same foreign aggressor would be a frosty affair akin to Cold War days back in the 1960s and 1970s.

You would be wrong on both counts.

Right before Trump and Putin met for two hours last week, the president's Twitter account was blinking with its own warnings about "FAKE NEWS", charges that "much of our news media is indeed the enemy of the people," and two critiques of the "Rigged Witch Hunt," meaning the Mueller investigation.

The final tweet preceding last Monday's "summit" solemnly announced: "Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of US foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!"

It is, indeed, curious that Trump seems to provoke arguments and disputes at group conferences - for example, the G7 in Canada last month and Nato recently - but conducts himself so differently at one-on-one occasions, such as the meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12 and with Putin in Helsinki the other day.

One possibility is that the president, noted for an Olympian ego, enjoys the much more focused attention that comes from thousands of journalists engaged in reporting about him at each summit site. He might consider some of the news to be "fake", but all those media people are telling their outlets around the globe about his adventures on the world stage.

What he said during the press conference with Putin following their private tête-à-tête caused eyes to roll, jaws to drop and heads to spin. Referring to the Mueller investigation at one point, Trump said: "I think that the probe is a disaster for our country... It's ridiculous what's going on with the probe."

In the same response, he added: "That was a clean campaign. I beat Hillary Clinton easily. And, frankly, we beat her... we won that race. And it's a shame that there could even be a little bit of a cloud over it."

Though the next question was directed at Putin, Trump quickly intervened to continue his explanation of the 2016 campaign, how he won the Electoral College by a large margin, and swearing (as he had in his previous answer) that "there was no collusion". He concluded his defence with a flourish: "We ran a brilliant campaign, and that's why I'm president."

Rather than pivoting to contemporary world problems and the future of relations between the US and the Russian Federation, the president kept retreating to the way he arrived at the podium next to Putin. After several more excursions back in time later in the news conference, amateur psychologists had a field day providing analysis about what seems an obsession.

So, what about Russian interference in the American election, which US intelligence agencies know involved a sustained and sophisticated pattern of hacking, social media involvement (real "fake news") and attempts to manipulate voting machines across the country?

Here Trump tried to have it both ways: "I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today."

That last statement shook Washington with the force of a magnitude 8 earthquake. Comparing the "strong and powerful" denial of a former KGB officer to detailed evidence from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency was too much, even for Trump loyalists in the Congress and at Fox News, his favourite journalistic outlet.

Coats even rushed to release an official but veiled rebuke: "We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy. We will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security."

After the earthquake became a firestorm, Trump read a scripted clarification on Tuesday afternoon following his return to the White House, and on Wednesday he sat down with CBS for a one-on-one television interview to reiterate that he trusted the work of the American intelligence agencies and held Putin personally responsible for the election meddling.

Yet, when criticism of the Monday news conference arose, Trump pushed back.

"I totally disagree," he asserted. "I think I did great at the news conference. I think it was a strong news conference."

As if on cue, he levelled the charge of "fake news", adding: "I have to say this, some of the most honourable people I know, some great people, are reporters, journalists, et cetera. But the level of dishonesty in your profession is extremely high."

No doubt the damage control and vigorous blaming of the media will continue because what's been called "the Finnish fiasco" is the most serious international blunder since Trump took office. Indeed, the president's harshest critics were heard using the word "treason", and the usually pro-Trump editorial page of The Wall Street Journal branded the Helsinki performance "a personal and national embarrassment."

What's been the Donald Trump reality show has now become a real-life political drama.

Robert Schmuhl is professor emeritus of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame and an adjunct professor in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

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