Warning: Severe Political Weather Alert.
Reality is raining down like baseball-sized hail on the Trump administration, with the wind gusts twirling the president about as though he were a tumbleweed.
Indeed, the flips and flops have been so pronounced that a redefining moment has arrived in what might be dubbed, with apologies to Ernest Hemingway, the short unhappy life of frantic team blunder.
Once a firm noninterventionist when it comes to Syria, President Trump has now sent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a sharp military message, delivered via cruise missile. The president now smiles benevolently upon China, a country he has decided actually isn’t the conniving currency manipulator that Candidate Trump charged. No indeed. In fact, Chinese President Xi Jinping is a new Trump friend, a leader who “wants to do the right thing.” It’s Vladimir Putin, the authoritarian apple of candidate Trump’s eye, who currently draws baleful stares from the White House.
NATO, meanwhile, is suddenly in favor. “I said it was obsolete. It is no longer obsolete,” Trump declared in a Wednesday appearance with Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance’s secretary general. Those schooled in Trumpery know what he is really saying: I am now officially orphaning a clueless campaign comment, though without acknowledging I was mistaken.
It was Assad’s barbarous gas attack that was principally responsible for shocking Trump out of his dogmatic foreign policy slumber. It would be a mistake, however, to think that Trump and his team have settled on a strategy. Or even a unified message.
Trump says he had to retaliate against Assad for the gas attack, but that the United States won’t become further involved there. Similarly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis says the US strike was simply to punish Syria for the use of chemical weapons. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, however, has been advocating regime change, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says that “the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end.” Still, even if the administration isn’t speaking with one voice, Trump has at least begun to wheel around from his myopic America First foreign policy and consider the need for US leadership in the world.
Domestically, reality’s intercession has been just as stark. Version two of Trump’s please-the-base travel ban is stalled in court. Two efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act have now foundered, bad tidings for the administration but good news for those who believe all Americans deserve decent health care. For complex congressional accounting reasons, “tax reform” has been put on a back burner. No minimally perceptive observer any longer believes that Trump can force Mexico to pay for his wall; the question now is whether he can persuade Congress to foot that bill.
Even his well-honed powers of misdirection are deserting the president. His attempt to distract the nation by accusing former national security adviser Susan Rice of wiretapping misdeeds seems to have fooled few but the faithful. He’s simply cried Fox one too many times.
Trump now faces a choice: Double down on failure or find a rational path forward. Remarkably enough, there’s some evidence he might just choose the smart course.
Exhibit A: the zombie status Trump’s public rebukes have bestowed upon Steve Bannon, architect of such notable failures as the dismal inaugural address and the first failed travel ban. Bannon’s twin blunders: nurturing the notion that he was the power behind the Trump throne and feuding with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.
It’s hard to imagine Bannon in his job six months from now. His departure, certainly, would be a victory for fact-based policy-making. But if Trump is to float his presidency free of the swamp, Bannon isn’t the only problem presence he needs to address. He’ll have to put even more distance between himself and Candidate Trump — and the many absurdities on which he campaigned.