Trump: As the world turns
2 Aug 2017|

If you are having trouble keeping up with the story, here’s what happened since the last episode of White House Days of Our Lives: The Mooch lasted barely 10 days as White House communications director and, after a spectacular flame-out interview with the New Yorker, he returned to the Big Apple jobless, wifeless and with a new baby. Meanwhile, a grim and crew-cut General John F. Kelly takes over as White House chief of staff replacing Reince Priebus, who lost a scarifying death-stare bout with the Mooch and fell out of favour with the president’s family. With Reince goes most of the respectable bits of the GOP, spectacularly spearheaded by a scarred John McCain, rising from his hospital bed to vote down Trump’s healthcare legislation. Holed up in the Oval Office, the president takes to Twitter: ‘I am very disappointed with China.’ So, the bromance is over. No red rose for President Xi, who failed ‘to put a heavy move on North Korea’.

There’s so much more, dear readers: Jeff Sessions; Jared and Ivanka; the Russians; the FBI investigations; the leaks. When Trump tweeted ‘A great day at the White House!’ early Tuesday morning (Canberra time) one can only wonder what delusional parallel universe he occupies. Fifteen weeks ago, I argued in ASPI’s Strategist that the administration’s prospects would be shaped by the degree to which Trump could stabilise his flaky government and the extent to which America would engage or isolate itself in world affairs. Now we know the answer: The White House, with its weird collection of spivs, neophytes, generals attempting to do politics, bug-eyed ideologues and family retainers, is more dysfunctional than a pack of preschoolers gone hyper on red snakes. As for America’s role in the world, it doesn’t matter that the adults in Cabinet try to assure allies that everything is okay, because the president has shown a daily ability to sow doubt and despair into the hearts of friends and foes alike.

Pity the poor Chinese intelligence analysts trying to find meaning in the Donald’s twittering. There is no consistency from one crazed thought bubble to the next. Here, I offer seven lessons from the past few weeks of the drama.

  1. The president’s authority is rapidly diminishing. Trump openly buckets Attorney General Jeff Sessions but Sessions doesn’t resign. Trump says that transgender people are out of the military and the Pentagon says that it wants the direction in writing. Congress ignores his protests and slaps harder sanctions on Russia. He appoints the Mooch and then General Kelly reverses that decision. People are learning they can take Trump less seriously.
  2. General Kelly is probably Trump’s last hope. If this respected Marine Corps veteran can’t stabilise the White House then no-one can. One imagines that Kelly extracted a high price for stepping into this morass—the right to assert complete authority in the West Wing. Will Steve Bannon be sacked next? But don’t even think of sacking the family, General.
  3. Winging it is no substitute for policy. Trump the businessman made and lost money with a seat-of-the-pants improvisation that simply doesn’t translate into making policy. The failure to appoint many thousands of administration positions is showing up in the amateur drafting of presidential directives and in legislative fumbling on the Hill. Trump’s ‘Now hear this’ tweeting doesn’t make up for what Kevin Rudd called programmatic specificity. It turns out this business of government is more complicated than the Donald thought.
  4. The GOP is getting ready to walk from the president. McCain’s dramatic intervention on the floor of the Senate to kill the so-called skinny repeal of Obamacare is symbolic. Many Republicans have grimly stuck with the president if only to try and push through the repeal of Obamacare and other cherished campaign objectives. They have failed. GOP members will surely be looking to cut their losses and put some distance between themselves and Trump before the mid-terms of 2018. Priebus was the last of the Republican machine in the White House, and with his departure the Trump team is to the GOP what the Visigoths were to Rome.
  5. You can’t survive by just focusing on the base. Trump’s campaign visits to the inland states and attacks on the ‘FAKE NEWS’ media is all narrow casting to his voter base. The problem is that’s not a large enough group to get him a second term. At the least he needed to sustain his appeal to Evangelicals and Republican national security types, but both groups have been largely lost. Republican nomination for a second term is surely out.
  6. There is no strategy on North Korea. Sanctions are unlikely to work because China’s heart isn’t in this fight. Even if more economic pressure is successfully put on the Pyongyang regime it won’t slow Kim Jong-un’s fast sprint to a weaponised ICBM. That leaves the US with two deeply unlovely options: learn to love Kim and his bomb and strengthen the mechanics of deterrence, or stage a pre-emptive strike. It’s hard to see clear preparations to do either, so we will drift on like this for the rest of 2017 and then be surprised by a hard crisis in 2018.
  7. It’s hard to lead the free world when you are a figure of fun. Putin’s public sniggering about Trump is deeply stomach churning, but Vlad is right, the man is a laughing stock. Saturday Night Live has set the tone for global reaction to the president. When a serious ally like Malcolm Turnbull starts mimicking Trump’s delivery, America must know it has a problem.

For people like me, who believe that the US remains the world’s indispensable power and a bastion of the right values, watching the White House is agonising. Please, somebody, make it stop!