WASHINGTON ― As Donald Trump has flipped and flopped on major foreign policy issues in recent days, America’s allies and enemies have likely been reminded yet again of a simple rule of his presidency: Pay little attention to the orange-hued man in the big white house.
The president’s unscripted statements, particularly his tweets, probably do not reflect reality, have not necessarily been thought through, and are subject to change almost immediately, say Trump critics as well as those close to the White House.
“The most important instrument the president of the United States has is his credibility. In the grand scheme of things, it’s more important than the awesome power of our military, intelligence community, and diplomatic corps,” said Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and a National Security Council spokesman under President Barack Obama. “And President Trump has squandered any credibility he once had, both at home and abroad.”
Nicholas Burns, a top State Department official under President George W. Bush, said Trump’s careless talk is actively damaging the nation. “We’re living through a chaos presidency,” he said. “It’s destabilizing the country, and it’s hurting our foreign and military policy.”
White House officials did not respond to HuffPost’s queries on this topic. In the past, they have denied that Trump changes positions or, alternatively, have argued that his unpredictability makes him effective.
For an administration notorious for its inconstant policy choices, the reversals of the past week and a half have been noteworthy nevertheless:
On April 9, Trump vowed that Russia, Iran and anyone else involved with the Syrian government’s suspected use of chemical weapons days earlier would “pay a price.” In an April 11 tweet, Trump even taunted Russia: “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’” Yet when U.S. missiles flew last Friday, the strike was similar to those launched a year ago in response to an earlier chemical weapons attack. Russian and Iranian troops and equipment were not targeted.
On Sunday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced that the United States would be unveiling new sanctions against Russia because of its alliance with Syrian leader Bashar Assad. On Monday, Trump’s new economic adviser said that was not the case and claimed Haley was confused, to Haley’s consternation. The adviser later backtracked, saying Haley “was certainly not confused” but that “the policy was changed and she wasn’t told about it.”
Last Thursday, Trump declared at a meeting with farm state senators that he wanted to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement among North American, Latin American and East Asian nations that Trump campaigned against and withdrew from in his first days in office. On Tuesday morning ― just prior to hosting meetings with the leader of one of those nations, Japan ― Trump declared on Twitter that the U.S. wouldn’t be entering the TPP after all. “While Japan and South Korea would like us to go back into TPP, I don’t like the deal for the United States,” he wrote.
Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and retiring chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he has become desensitized to Trump’s frequent reversals and zigzags. “Forget sanctions on Russia, I can name probably 10 other things where if one day we’re doing one thing, the next day we’re doing another,” he said Wednesday at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor.
The reason for the chaos, say those close to the White House, is Trump himself. He has little knowledge of issues important to the running of the nation, and little interest in acquiring it, they said. Despite this, he often has strong opinions on a variety of issues, which are prone to change with regularity.
“Just another day at the White House,” said one official on condition of anonymity.
On top of the ignorance, they add, is the mendacity ― the president’s willingness to say false things when he believes it suits his purpose.
“He lies as often as he breathes,” laughed one Republican close to the White House, also on condition of anonymity.
Trump last month bragged about his willingness to lie at a fundraising dinner. During a conversation with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trump told Republican donors, he challenged one of Trudeau’s statements about the two countries’ trade balance. “I didn’t even know... I had no idea. I just said, ‘You’re wrong,’” he boasted.
Burns said that foreign officials who speak with him continue to express dismay about Trump’s behavior.
“People, even 15 months in, are still stunned that someone of such low character could have been elected president of the United States,” he said, adding that Trump seems not to understand or care that the entire planet, not just his voting base, is listening to and reading his words.
“His audience is not just his supporters. His audience is the Russian foreign minister. It’s the Chinese government,” Burns said. “He’s firing off tweets right and left, with little regard for facts and context.”
The result, for foreign policy officials both inside and outside the United States, is likely to be ongoing confusion about the country’s positions on a variety of issues, from trade to Syria.
Corker said the problem is not as bad as it might be, because actual U.S. policy is carried out by officials at the State Department and the Pentagon, in accordance with direction from Congress and in line with previous policy. Regarding sanctions against Russia, for instance, U.S. policy has been tougher than Trump seems to want. “I see the things we’re actually doing, and they’re pretty strong,” Corker said.
But Tom Nichols, a Russia scholar at the Naval War College, said the chasm between Trump and the rest of the U.S. government in so many areas is not healthy.
“In this administration, our allies can’t rely on the messages from the people they usually deal with, because they have no idea what will come out of the White House,” he said. “Usually, it doesn’t get as far as the split on Russian sanctions between Haley and the White House. That was pretty dramatic. Our allies, unfortunately, are now trying to navigate a world that is effectively devoid of American leadership.”
Akbar Shahid Ahmed contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the date of Trump’s tweet on the TPP and the date of the Christian Science Monitor breakfast.