The whims and last minute reversals of President Donald Trump’s impulsive leadership style are sending America and the rest of the world on a wild and sometimes dangerous ride.
From Iran to immigration policy and North Korea to trade wars, Trump’s tactic of escalating confrontations before backing off from the brink is leaving everyone unsure of where the US government stands.
In key shifts in recent days, Trump has backed off a retaliatory attack abroad on Iran after its forces shot down a US drone and postponed a plan at home to launch coordinated arrests and deportations in 10 cities.
Trump’s U-turns come just as he embarks on his 2020 reelection campaign, beset by polls that show him losing to most Democrats. It’s that political context that might explain these latest examples of erratic presidential behavior.
Often as crises build, Trump seems caught between competing instincts as he pursues approaches – even toward national security emergencies – that seem mostly designed to satisfy his domestic political goals.
On the one hand, Trump relishes the strongman persona around which he built his political brand. He’s the man who will chase down undocumented migrants and reverse what he sees as his predecessor President Barack Obama’s capitulation to Iran.
Yet over the last week, the President, giving Washington whiplash, has seemed to shy away from the potential political consequences of his planned actions.
This is how the United States came to be just 10 minutes from a conflict with Iran last week, which could have consumed much of the Middle East but for a last minute call by the President that stood down his own administration’s military machine.
Such a conflict – sparked by Iran’s downing of a US drone and a planned US retaliatory strike on missile batteries and radar stations – would have trashed Trump’s campaign vow to stop the United States getting pulled into endless foreign wars.
Trump’s change of heart on Iran was mirrored earlier in his presidency when he threatened to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea – yet then buddied up to the country’s brutal leader Kim Jong Un on the grounds that he wanted to avoid another foreign war.
The President threatens dire consequences to get foes to the table. But though he opened talks with Kim, he’s nowhere in persuading him to give up his nuclear weapons. And as a negotiating tactic, Trump’s similar approach toward Iran seems even less promising.
US leadership, for decades a force of global stability, is coming to mirror the bullying outbursts, illogical leaps and shock course changes of Trump’s own untamed personality. And the President appears to be operating increasingly without the safety nets provided by long-term strategies or a coherent policy process.
At home, immigration agents were poised to launch a sweep against migrant families on Sunday— after a directive from Trump last week that surprised his own officials and looked a lot like an effort to fire up his base before his election launch rally.
But the President suddenly countermanded his order for mass deportations in a weekend tweet. CNN’s Jake Tapper reported that Trump relented after a phone call with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“At the request of Democrats, I have delayed the Illegal Immigration Removal Process (Deportation) for two weeks to see if the Democrats and Republicans can get together and work out a solution to the Asylum and Loophole problems at the Southern Border. If not, Deportations start!” Trump tweeted.
While Trump made his name on harsh immigration rhetoric – from his first moments as a presidential candidate – footage of raids in 10 cities might tip the issue into a net negative for him given that many Republicans blame his scorched earth talk for helping to hand the House to Democrats last fall.
Maybe Trump never planned for the arrest and deportation raids to go ahead. Often the President has used such threats to try to win leverage from Democrats in immigration talks — though he’s never been ready when it really matters to compromise, fearing a backlash from his base and the conservative media.
And while he has stepped back on the raids for now, Trump always has the option to crank the immigration rhetoric, as he often does, when the political need arises.
Not ready to lose
The President hinted at one possible explanation for his sudden course corrections in his interview with “Meet the Press,” broadcast on Sunday.
“I’m probably not too prepared to lose. I don’t like losing. I haven’t lost very much in my life,” Trump said, referring to his 2020 campaign.
Democrats hoping to impose that shattering personal defeat on the President will be sure to seize on his unpredictable leadership and an immigration policy that critics regard as inhumane when they gather for their first campaign debates Wednesday and Thursday.
They are particularly likely to drill down on the chaotic national security process that apparently brought the US to the verge of conflict with Iran – after Tehran shot down a US drone over the Gulf of Oman.
And they will make the case that it is Trump’s own hardline policies – including his decision to pull out of an international nuclear deal with Iran – that caused the crisis he is now struggling to cool.
Trump’s claim that he only found out 10 minutes before he was due to give the final go-ahead for the operation that 150 Iranians could die seems unlikely to be the whole story. It will give an opening to Democrats to argue that he has proven himself unfit to serve as commander in chief.
The President is likely to seek to insert himself into the debates – probably with a volley of tweet storms. He may have deprived Democrats of one key talking point by suspending the immigration raids – though candidates are sure to highlight accounts this week of barely believable conditions at detention centers holding undocumented migrant children.
Trump is also taking his anarchic political show on the road this week — to the G20 summit in Japan, that is expected to feature high stakes encounters with the presidents of Russia and China.
Given his impulsive and self-contradictory mood, it’s anybody’s guess how those could turn out. But he is under intense pressure to extract a win against President Xi Jinping from his trade war with China.
The confrontation is another example of how Trump’s dueling political priorities often seem to clash – as they also do in his approach to Iran and immigration.
On the one hand, Trump put standing up to China at the center of his 2016 campaign, accusing the rising Asian giant of “raping” the American economy and stealing US jobs.
Yet by waging war with hundreds of millions of dollars in tariffs he has imposed higher prices on US consumers. And China’s response – targeting sensitive political battlegrounds in the Midwest – is also now threatening to exert a painful price on many of Trump’s core voters.
So Trump will again face the choice between escalating his showdown when he meets Xi at the G20 — or stepping back from the brink to shield himself from further political damage.
A promise kept
Trump’s supporters would argue that his wrecking ball presidential demeanor is exactly what they hoped for when he was elected to shake up Washington and the world.
And he has the luxury of a friendly conservative media to ensure that his reversals and unpredictable nature do him no harm with his loyal political base.
Conservative lawmakers and commentators who pounced on Obama and called him weak after he called off military action to enforce his Syria red line in 2013, were quick to praise Trump for doing something similar. They painted his move as a shrewd counterpoint to hawkish members of his administration who want war – an impression Trump sought to solidify on “Meet the Press.”
Referring to his national security adviser John Bolton, Trump said: “He is absolutely a hawk. If it was up to him he’d take on the whole world at one time.”
The President however portrayed himself as a voice of moderation – far from the unstable neophyte who Hillary Clinton and other critics said should be kept from the nuclear codes because he could be baited with a tweet.
“You know, a lot of them said, “We’re going to be in World War III the first week.” Didn’t work out that way,” Trump said.