President Donald Trump is widely reported, after 16 months on the job, to feel unleashed. Naysayers like economic adviser Gary Cohn and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have been banished. White House chief of staff John Kelly has, to a large extent, been sidelined. Trump is listening to Sean Hannity and doing what he wants.
And how’s that working out? To judge by the evidence of Trump’s dealings with China and North Korea this week, it’s been a disaster. The Trump Train just jumped the tracks.
Trump marched into a confrontation with China - America’s top trade partner - in the serene confidence that “trade wars are good and easy to win.” As recently as Tuesday, he was claiming: “When you’re losing $500 billion a year, you can’t lose in terms of a negotiation.” (The U.S. trade deficit with China is actually $375 billion; $506 billion is the amount of goods the U.S. imports from China - and we’re not losing that money, we are getting sneakers and LED displays in return. But then this president traffics in attitudes, not facts.)
Trump evidently thought he would threaten China with tariffs, and Beijing would fold as quickly as one of the vendors he has made a practice of stiffing. Not so fast. China retaliated by stopping purchases of U.S. soybeans, hurting the farm states whose votes Trump needs. China also made plain it wasn’t going to pressure North Korea into concessions as long as Trump was threatening its trade.
Lo and behold, Trump caved. First he tweeted that he would lift sanctions on Chinese telecom giant ZTE before kind of, sort of, walking it back. And then this week he ran up the white flag altogether, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin saying that the trade war is “on hold.” (Who knew that wars, like phone calls, could be put “on hold”?)
Trump’s trade negotiators had been pushing for China to buy $200 billion more from the U.S. annually - a fantastical figure that U.S. factories and farms could not produce even if they wanted to. China refused, and the administration settled for a vague commitment to buy an unspecified amount of U.S. goods. Trump supporters such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.) correctly labeled this a “surrender,” because it did nothing to address China’s theft of U.S. intellectual property. Trump responded with an incomprehensible tweet: “Our Trade Deal with China is moving along nicely, but in the end we will probably have to use a different structure in that this will be too hard to get done and to verify results after completion.”
No one knows what that means, aside from the obvious: Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing and what he’s talking about, and therefore he can’t get a “great deal” from China or anyone else.
The experience of North Korea confirms that thesis. Back in March, Trump rushed into a meeting with Kim Jong Un with, as I wrote, “all the forethought that he might give to deciding between a Big Mac and a Quarter Pounder.” Normally summits with world leaders do not occur without a long process of quiet negotiations of the kind that preceded Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972. Trump, ignorant of history and disdainful of established procedures, decided he would meet Kim without the necessary preparation.
As the hype intensified, Trump started talking as if North Korea had already agreed to give up a nuclear program it had spent decades and billions of dollars developing. “Wow,” he tweeted a month ago, “we haven’t given up anything & they have agreed to denuclearization (so great for World), site closure, & no more testing!” The White House military office minted a coin to mark the historic “peace talks” between Trump and “Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un,” while Trump’s toadies in Congress nominated him for a preemptive Nobel Peace Prize.
Good news for the White House speechwriting office: You can stop struggling over your drafts of the Nobel acceptance speech. Trump just called off the summit, apparently without notifying U.S. allies in South Korea, employing the kind of letter that he might have written to a high school crush with whom he was breaking up. (“I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me…,” he wrote wistfully. “Some day, I look very much forward to meeting you.”) Heartbreaking, but a good call after two weeks of rhetoric making clear that the North Koreans just aren’t that into “denuclearization” - something that Trump could have learned by talking to anyone who knows anything about North Korea.
The North Koreans were particularly perturbed by national security adviser John Bolton, followed by President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, citing the “Libya model,” since Moammar Gadhafi was killed eight years after agreeing to give up his weapons of mass destruction. It was entirely predictable that invoking Gadhafi’s fate was not the way to wring concessions from Pyongyang. Rather, it only reinforced Kim’s desire to keep his nuclear arsenal, because he knows that the United States has never attacked a nuclear-armed state.
So this is what Trump has gotten by trusting his fabled “gut”: two humiliating diplomatic defeats in the course of one week. The only surprise is that anyone is surprised, given that his infallible instincts had previously led him into six corporate bankruptcies. If Trump writes a book about his White House years it should be called “The Art of the Debacle.”
Max Boot is a columnist with The Washington Post.