When it comes to enemies, President Donald Trump is brutally ruthless. Ask ISIS. Trump unleashed America’s military from his predecessor’s restraints not just to defeat ISIS, but to crush it.
When it comes to friends, Trump can be brutally rude. Ask congressional Republicans. Before and during recent NATO meetings, Trump didn’t just push the other 28 members to increase defense spending. He demanded it.
He exaggerated their shortfalls. He mocked them, chided them. Trump let them wonder if perhaps he’d lead NATO’s primary founding country out of the 69-year-old alliance that was the world’s vital bulwark against the Soviet Union and now, again, a rising Russia.
Its president — Vladimir “Talk About Ruthless” Putin — gives Trump a chance to display his beloved contrary streak. We can work together, Trump maintains, as has every U.S. president for a quarter-century, to no avail.
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When just enough angry Americans in just the right places elected the New York billionaire almost 21 months ago, they wanted the outsider to kick over the furniture and established protocols of the self-serving established powers that prolong the status quo – in Washington.
Now, Trump is doing the same to protocols and establishments abroad especially, it seems, in his dealings with friends in NATO and Britain, who got no say in his elevation to the world’s most powerful office that profoundly affects their lives, too. The impacts for now are uncertain but potentially worrisome.
Remember the presidential leadership style of George H.W. Bush in 1990-91? He spent months talking successfully with, not at, the leadership of 38 nations about joining the First Persian Gulf War coalition to oust Iraq from Kuwait. Twenty-nine of them ultimately also sent troops. That’s an amazing leadership feat.
Every president since has sought, requested, urged NATO members to boost defense spending to the 2 percent of GDP goal and ease the U.S. burden. This year, only eight will, though others are closing the gap.
So, in Trump’s eyes, what harm can some not-so-gentle pushing do, beyond bruised feelings, which this president doesn’t mind giving but doesn’t like getting?
Then, Trump visited Britain, America’s original foe and longest free friend. There, he anticipated a hostile public reception and punched first.
As Trump landed, out came an interview in which the American president criticized the political leadership of his hostess, Prime Minister Theresa May, praised her main party rival and threatened trade relations if she didn’t follow his Brexit advice.
Later, he said very cordial things about her and their countries’ historic relationship. But which, if either, did he mean?
Trump likes unpredictability. It keeps the focus on him. And it keeps foes guessing. But does he want friends worried, too?
It seems unlikely, given what we’ve witnessed in the first 77 weeks of Trump’s 208-week term, but he may have some grand change strategy in mind. A big picture that he’s slowly building, piece by piece, most days.
He seems more focused, however, on this morning’s cable TV shows and grandiose set pieces, such as the Singapore summit and this week’s first formal get-together with Putin.
Such events involve dramatic announcements, substantial buildups, vast media emplacements to capture the moment, and they last one day, maybe two. Then, it’s on to the next episode after these important messages.
Not that Trump seems concerned about this in the least. But it would inspire more confidence in his leadership (and likely improved poll numbers) if, from time to time, he were to share his vision, such as it might be, for where he wants to take the country that trusted him with its highest office, beyond just making it great again.
For instance, what did you hear Trump say were his goals going into this week’s much-hyped summit with Putin? Anyone?
Talking with Putin about Syria, Crimea, election meddling. Talking with Kim Jung-un about denuclearization. Those aren’t goals, folks. Those are agenda items.
The beauty of such agendas for a politician is they glide him through several good news cycles. And they set very low bars to claim success to the watching public. I came. I saw. I talked. That may work, for now.
However, in five months, a very large gang of ambitious Democrat wannabes will start taking the field for the 2020 presidential election. All the challengers need to do is talk a good line, as Trump did in the 2016 cycle when he had no incumbent president to fight back.
Those Democrats start with a majority of Americans disapproving of the incumbent’s job performance, largely as a result of his style and behavior.
To make his case for re-election, Trump can tout significant tax cuts, and he says he wants more. He’s slashing stifling regulations and presiding over a solid stock market, a burgeoning economy, steady job growth, a strengthening military and, so far, no major terrorism events.
It might sound too simple to this president. But if Trump talked more with Americans instead of at them, they’d be more impressed. And he could cut deeply into that disapproval crowd.