Editorial: The education of Donald J. Trump

Reality appears to be changing Donald Trump’s outlook on the presidency.
Reality appears to be changing Donald Trump’s outlook on the presidency. cliddy@newsobserver.com

There is no learning curve like the presidential learning curve. As Barack Obama said at last summer’s Democratic National Convention, “You know, nothing truly prepares you for the demands of the Oval Office.”

That our current president was a businessman with no previous experience in either politics or policy is what many voters found so attractive about him.

But as a result, the education of Donald J. Trump has been a steeper climb than others have had to make in the early months of a new administration.

It has been a more public process, too, because he has been so frank about his astonishment on a number of fronts, declaring for instance that health care is “an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”

On the stump, he promised that virtually everything he wanted to do could be accomplished on Day 1 with a quick phone call.

Now reality is dawning, and none too soon.

He no longer sees NATO as “obsolete,” recently describing the crucial partnership as a “great alliance.”

China’s history with North Korea is also, as it turns out, far more complicated than he knew: Trump told The Wall Street Journal that he’d assumed Beijing could get the world’s most brutal regime to fall in line without much trouble. In fact, he offered Chinese President Xi Jinping a favorable trade deal in exchange for a hand with the threat from Pyongyang. “(Y)ou want to make a great deal? Solve the problem in North Korea.” Then, however, Xi walked him through some of the history of China and Korea.

Before you could say “DMZ” another illusion was history, too: “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy. I felt pretty strongly that they had tremendous power” over North Korea. “But it’s not what you would think,” Trump said.

It’s a relief to see him taking at least some of what he has learned so far seriously and openly shifting course.

On the campaign trail, he constantly accused China of manipulating its currency. Now he acknowledges that they are not, and he is taking a far less aggressive line, even remarking that the U.S. dollar may be getting too strong.

He no longer wants to torch the Export-Import Bank and has mellowed considerably on Janet Yellen as chairman of the Federal Reserve. Suddenly, he likes and respects her, might reappoint her and thinks she’s doing the right thing keeping interest rates low: “I do like a low-interest rate policy, I must be honest with you.”

Trump has certainly evolved in his view of Syria’s Bashar Assad since the Assad regime’s chemical attack on civilians, including children.

Unfortunately, Trump’s decision to bomb a Syrian airstrip in retaliation hasn’t yet translated into a decision to accept Syrian refugees, but on this Easter weekend, we dare to walk in hope that he’ll come to see they’re the same innocent civilians whose brutal deaths he answered with cruise missiles.

The most promising shift of all is what sure sounds like his growing disenchantment with adviser Steve Bannon, who believes that we’re at war with Islam itself, and who has demonized even legal immigrants. Reportedly, Bannon is on the outs with both Trump’s adored daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, both of whom have major roles in his administration.

“I like Steve,” Trump told the New York Post, “but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late. I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve. I’m my own strategist.” (Steve who?)

One shift we’re skeptical about is the president’s claim that our relationship with Russia is suddenly at its lowest point, and we have to wonder whether that claim has anything to do with ongoing investigations into whether anyone in his campaign colluded with Russia in efforts to meddle in our election.

Other lessons he seems to have learned are concerning.

He remains awfully focused on his ratings, and when his proportional response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons was rightly praised, we hope he didn’t conclude that even bigger bombs, like the one dropped out of a cargo plane in Afghanistan, and even wider military involvement would get him even more accolades.

On Thursday, Trump suggested that he hopes our use of the “mother of all bombs” on ISIS fighters in caves in Afghanistan could also send a message to North Korea, but it “doesn’t make any difference if it does or not. North Korea is a problem. The problem will be taken care of.” With the greatest possible care, right?

All of these shifts have of course brought him both praise and opprobrium — and gotten him tagged “Donald Rodham Clinton” as both a compliment and a slur. Conservative pundit Bill Kristol tweeted, “They said if I didn’t vote for Trump we’d have a warmongering, trying-to-prove-she’s tough POTUS who’d drop a GBU-43 bomb in Afghanistan.” And “(t)hey said if I didn’t vote for Trump we’d get a president who’d be pro-China and pro-Ex-Im. And whose family would be meddling in everything.”

Trump himself had this to say about his on-the-job training: “The magnitude of everything is so big, and also the decisions are so big. You know, you’re talking about life and death. You’re not talking about, ‘You’re going to make a good deal.’ 

Late as he is in realizing that, we’ll take it and hope it’s just the beginning.