Dispatches from the Potomac#20 | Three Suggestions for Understanding President Trump

The world today is paying attention to the pronouncements of President Trump of the United States; or rather, is on the alert. As a close observer who has been studying President Trump since his inauguration, I would like to present three suggestions that I believe will be helpful for understanding President Trump and his administration more accurately.

This is a translation of an article originally written in May for publication in the June 2017 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Takashi Imamura

No Need to Follow the Tweets

No Need to Follow the Tweets

The first recommendation is not to read President Trump's tweets. I suppose many will object to this. Even now, President Trump makes Twitter posts whenever he has a thought, even at 3 AM. Since he rarely holds press conferences, these tweets are regarded as precious opportunities to obtain comments in the President’s own words. There are many cases of the international community and financial markets being shaken by his sudden tweets.

However, there are only a few instances in which a tweet has been linked to any significant results of the Trump regime. The main ones were the withdrawal of the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the Senate approval of the Trump nominee for Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch; and, in both these cases the information in the tweets was nothing that could not be learned from other sources. Meanwhile, there are very few meaningful tweets that mention the many failures of this administration, including the Presidential decree to restrict entry into the country from the Islamic sphere that was struck down by the courts, the bill to replace Obama Care (medical insurance system reform) that failed to reach consensus within the divided Republican party, and the wall on the border with Mexico that shows no signs of being constructed. The only related tweets are complaints about what (or who) seems to be hindering these measures. Furthermore, if major media points out the turmoil in this administration, such as the large number of vacancies in high-level posts, or the violent power struggles among his aides, President Trump attacks the media as “fake news,” even though the reports are factual. In the huge volume of tweets, there does not seem to be any exclusive or important information related to policy.

Ignore His Adjectives

The next suggestion is to ignore the adjectives, like “great,” “beautiful,” and “historic,” in the comments made by President Trump. When he says “build a big and beautiful wall” on the Mexican border, he just means “build a wall.” In fact, the meaningless adjectives seem to appear when the subject itself is insignificant, or are actually incorrect. His speech to mark his 100th day in office is a typical example. President Trump touted his administration’s “historic progress”; but, the only concrete results have been those mentioned in the two tweets described above. No tax reform, no infrastructure investment and no bill to replace Obama care is hardly a “historic” result.

Accept That President Trump Has No Strategy, and Prepare for Aimless Wandering

Accept That President Trump Has No Strategy, and Prepare for Aimless Wandering

The final suggestion is to recognize that President Trump has no doctrine or strategy for his administration. President Trump won the presidential election last autumn based on the support of the white working class, and setting up camp with Steven Bannon, the current Chief of Strategy, and proponent of “economic nationalism.” After taking office, President Trump initially gave priority to the protectionist trade policies and immigration restrictions favored by his support base, but hit a wall and stumbled due to the ineptitude of the politically-inexperienced Bannon, and the inherent limitations on the authority of the President. Unexpectedly, President Trump simply decided to switch to a more practical approach for his main policies, from foreign affairs and security to the economy. The influence of experts has expanded, such as that of Secretary of Defense Mattis on foreign affairs and security. For the economy as well, attention is being paid to mainstream, realist proponents, such as Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the Director of the National Economic Council, Gary Cohn. The influence of the Bannon team is clearly on the wane. In the area of foreign affairs and security, there is a switch underway from the isolationist stance that worried the world, to a stance of international cooperation, and a return to the role as the world’s policeman. The policy toward Syria has undergone a drastic change, with a missile attack on the Assad regime that had been tolerated previously. With regard to North Korea as well, an international coalition has been formed while making demonstrations of military force to halt nuclear development. As part of this, the policy toward China has been revised to focus on friendly relations, and the election promise to declare China a currency manipulator has been shelved.

Just as we thought the administration was settling down with a practical approach, President Trump shocks the world by suddenly firing FBI Director James Comey. Such great changes in policy are repeated because there is no strategy, and the future is inevitably unclear. If a realistic approach is promoted for the economy, including a retreat from protectionism, a betrayal of his support base lies ahead. If the goal is to be reelected in 2020, however, this support base and Mr. Bannon are very important to President Trump, who has a low approval rating. It is probably wise to be aware that President Trump taking a practical approach without any fundamental strategy is quite likely to return to a protectionist stance without any hesitation as the election approaches.

Based on my observations of President Trump so far, I have come to believe that it is a mistake to try to predict the direction of this strategy-less administration. There are experienced professionals on foreign affairs, security and the economy among his aides and in the cabinet, but the final decisions are made by President Trump, who has no guiding strategy and no complementary aide to provide balance, so it is inevitable that this administration will wander without direction. This is what the US voters chose in the presidential election last autumn. If the voters do not move to impeach President Trump, it is best to assume that this aimless wandering will continue. Upon that basis, the three suggestions above are advice to help widen the field of view even more.