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What the President Really Meant to Say






Antony J. BlinkenAUG. 31, 2017


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President Trump at the White House this week.Credit Al Drago for The New York Times
Vice President Mike Pence’s recent swing through Latin America quickly acquired an unwanted label: the cleanup tour. Almost everywhere Mr. Pence went, one question followed: Did President Trump really mean it when he spontaneously threatened a United States military intervention in Venezuela? Mr. Pence did his best to disavow Mr. Trump’s words without actually saying that was his intent.

Every administration suffers its share of “what the president meant to say” moments. Even the most disciplined commander-in-chief misspeaks from time to time. Take one last question at a news conference, tackle an unfamiliar issue, talk too loosely at a fund-raiser, and the damage is done. Aides quickly deny the plain meaning of the president’s words, contort them to conform to policy, or feign outrage that anyone could have failed to grasp what the president meant.

This, however, is not just any administration. Just listen, and Mr. Trump’s discordant policy notes sour nearly every foreign policy tune.

Mr. Trump threatens to make South Korea pay for missile defense and seems to invite Seoul and Tokyo to build their own nuclear arsenals; Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis jumps in to say never mind. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seeks to calm the crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar; Mr. Trump’s tweets embolden the Saudis to double down in the feud. Mr. Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Mr. Mattis and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., advocate preserving the nuclear agreement with Iran; Mr. Trump scolds, “If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago.” Mr. Trump calls for banning transgender people from the military; an array of senior Pentagon officials, including General Dunford, say the policy remains unchanged. When Mr. Trump finally issues a formal order weeks later, Mr. Mattis says it will require further study to implement.

And on Russia, the administration speaks with one voice — except Mr. Trump’s. Mr. Pence, in the Baltics, praises tough new congressionally mandated sanctions; Mr. Trump tweets that the sanctions will send United States-Russia relations to “an all-time & very dangerous low.”
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Moscow’s meddling in the presidential election? Thomas Bossert, the president’s chief counterterrorism adviser, and other senior national security advisers back the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia sought to influence the election in Mr. Trump’s favor. Mr. Trump equivocates: “Well I think it was Russia, and I think it could have been other people and other countries. It could have been a lot of people interfered.”

Some read into these disconnects an elaborate good-cop, bad-cop routine. But the evidence suggests that Mr. Trump is actually a rogue cop, ignoring or remaining ignorant of his administration’s policies. Usually, his itchy Twitter finger spells trouble, furiously tapping out missives unmoored from policy deliberation. Other times, it’s an off-the-cuff statement — like his recent vow to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea — that inflames an existing geopolitical crisis. White House aides confirmed that Mr. Trump did not vet the Korea language with his foreign policy team. Mr. Tillerson effectively told Americans to ignore the president: “I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days.”


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Mr. Trump’s off-his-own-reservation moments matter. The National Security Act of 1947 — which established the National Security Council — laid the foundation for a deliberate, multitiered process, managed by the national security adviser, to bring government agencies together to debate and decide policy. These sessions typically culminate in a meeting of the National Security Council itself, chaired by the president. There, the commander-in-chief can choose among the options his advisers present or make his own prescriptions. Senior officials and diplomats then enunciate and carry out the administration’s policy.

Mr. Trump’s disdain for this process is sowing confusion around the world. Even the most respected members of the administration never know for sure if they are speaking for the president — and neither do our allies or adversaries. This means the building blocks of a solid strategy — deliberation, clarity, predictability — are being pulled out from under the national security edifice.

Worse still, this cacophony could cause close friends to hedge and look elsewhere for more reliable partners, as Germany’s chancellor, France’s president and Canada’s foreign minister all suggested might be necessary. It could also cause enemies to miscalculate.

The recent episode with North Korea is especially illustrative. It would be one thing if Mr. Trump’s ad-lib had put its leader, Kim Jong-un, on notice that Pyongyang’s actual use of a nuclear weapon would provoke an overwhelming American response. That’s Deterrence 101 and the right message to send, albeit without the rhetorical excess.

It is another thing entirely to say, as Mr. Trump did, that any more threats to the United States from Pyongyang would result in America’s fire and fury. Predictably, Mr. Kim immediately called his bluff, threatening to unleash “an enveloping fire” around Guam, the United States territory in the western Pacific Ocean. And this week he launched a missile over Japan.



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So where is the fire and fury?

We are left with equally bad consequences. On the one hand, losing face in a verbal exchange with North Korea’s dictator undercuts the United States’ credibility with both our allies and adversaries. Each time Mr. Trump blusters without backing it up, he weakens his rhetorical punch, to the point where enemies will dismiss every utterance as hot air. The result may be to talk himself into a corner where the only way out is to lash out with force.

On the other hand, Mr. Trump’s overheated, loose language could accidentally propel us into war on the Korean Peninsula. It feeds Mr. Kim’s paranoia that the United States seeks to end his regime, and not just his missile and nuclear programs. Mr. Kim is highly unlikely to strike first, knowing that doing so would result in his annihilation. But by rhetorically lowering the bar to American action, Mr. Trump could cause Mr. Kim to misinterpret carefully limited United States military moves — like flying B-1 bombers over the Korean Peninsula — as the start of a regime-ending attack. Mr. Kim might then cash in his failed nuclear insurance policy and try to take his enemies down with him.

Maybe Mr. Trump’s unbridled bravado is aimed at his domestic political base. But what worked during a campaign is the height of irresponsibility in office, when people around the world hang on an American president’s every utterance. Especially when it comes to national security, there is a premium on an administration speaking clearly, consistently and precisely, starting with the president. Loose lips really can sink ships — and because Mr. Trump cannot control his, this administration’s foreign policy is taking on water.



Antony J. Blinken (@ABlinken), a managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, was a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration and is a contributing opinion writer.


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Charles M. BlowAUG. 31, 2017


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President Trump promoting tax cuts in Springfield, Mo., on Wednesday.Credit Tom Brenner/The New York Times
I know that Harvey is heavy on America’s heart.

It is certainly heavy on mine. My oldest brother lives in the hard-hit suburban Houston town of Humble, just outside of George Bush Intercontinental Airport and on the shores of the Spring Creek and the west fork of the San Jacinto River.

And now the storm is barreling toward my hometown in North Louisiana where my mother and two of my brothers live.

I’m anxious. I wish that I could take a reprieve from politics and simply focus on the human suffering and human altruism on display in the affected areas. But, alas, I cannot. Politics keep creeping in. Politics keep occurring concurrently.

Set aside for a moment that Donald Trump is the person who pulled America out of the Paris climate accords, even though models suggest that climate change makes severe weather more severe, and as Politico reports, “Harvey is the third 500-year flood to hit the Houston area in the past three years.” Forget for a moment that, according to Slate, just 10 days before Harvey made landfall Trump signed an executive order that included “eliminating an Obama-era rule called the federal flood risk management standard that asked agencies to account for climate change projections when they approved projects.”

The final assessment on how this administration handles the storm can’t be made while it still rages, but what Trump says and does now is open to analysis. In that vein, a line from Trump’s joint press conference with the president of Finland stood out. When asked about pardoning former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio as Harvey was making landfall, Trump responded:

“Actually, in the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally.”
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Consider what this man is saying: He used the horror and anxious anticipation of a monster storm menacing millions of Americans — particularly in Houston whose population is 44 percent Hispanic — in a political calculation to get more ratings and more eyeballs on the fact that he was using the power of the presidency to forgive, and thereby condone, Arpaio’s racism.

Why does Trump continue to do things that are so divisive and alienating to the majority of Americans? Why does he keep fueling the white-hot fire of his base to the exclusion of the other segments of the country?

I have a theory: Trump and the people who either shield or support him are locked in a relationship of reciprocation, like a ball of snakes. Everyone is using everyone else.

The oligarchs see Trump as a pathway to slashing regulations and cutting taxes for the rich. According to a July analysis by the Tax Policy Center, “Nearly 40 percent of the tax cut would flow to households in the top 1 percent of the income distribution, giving those earners an average annual tax cut of around $270,000.”

Establishment Republicans see him as a path to reversing the New Deal.

Steve Bannon-ists see him as a path to the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” All Republicans, but particularly the religious right, see him as a securer of conservative Supreme Court justices. The blue-collar Trump voters view him as a last chance to breathe life into the dying dream that waning industries and government-supported white cultural assurances can be revived. And the white nationalists, white supremacists, racists and Nazis — to the degree that they can be separated from the others — see him as a tool of vengeance and as an instrument of their defense.

Trump sees all these people who want to use him, and he’s using them right back. Trump made an industry out of selling conspicuous consumption. He sold the ideas that greed was good, luxury was aspirational and indulgence was innocent.

Trump’s supporters see him as vector; he sees them as market.

Marketing is how he has made his money and attained his infamy. That is why he is so obsessed with the media and crowds and polls (at least when he was doing well in them): He sees people, in his die-hard base at least, who have thoroughly bought into the product of Trumpism and he is doing everything to please them and make them repeat customers.


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But in addition, and perhaps more sinisterly, I think that Trump is raising an army, whether or not he would describe it as such, and whether or not those being involved recognize their own conscription. This is not a traditional army, but it is an army no less.



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And, when I say army, I’m not speaking solely of armed militia, although there is a staggering number of guns continuously being put into circulation. As the N.R.A.’s Institute for Legislative Action wrote in June: “Each month of Trump’s presidency has seen over two million firearm-related background checks. Only in 2016, when Americans faced losing their Second Amendment rights forever, did the F.B.I. run more checks during a January to April period.” I’m also talking about the unarmed, but unwavering: the army of zombie zealots.

How do you raise an army?

You do that by dividing America into tribes and, as “president,” aligning yourself with the most extreme tribe, all the while promoting militarization among people who support you.

You do it by worshiping military figures and talking in militaristic terms.

You reverse Barack Obama’s executive order on gun control. As PolitiFact put it: “Obama’s order made it mandatory for the Social Security Administration to release information about mentally ill recipients of Social Security benefits. This information would then be included in background checks, essentially prohibiting people with mental illnesses to buy guns.”

You cozy up to police unions and encourage police brutality.

You do this by rescinding Obama-era limits on the militarization of police departments; a move that, according to The New York Times, allows these departments “access to military surplus equipment typically used in warfare, including grenade launchers, armored vehicles and bayonets.”

You do this by defending armed white nationalists and Nazis in Charlottesville.

You do this by defending monuments of Confederates who fought to preserve the noxious institution of slavery, and you do it by tweeting the coded language of white supremacists: “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”

You do this by pardoning Arpaio, a man who joked about an Arizona jail being a “concentration camp,” signaling to people that racist brutality is permissible.

You also do this by attempting to reduce or marginalize populations of people opposed to you: Build a wall, return to failed drug policies that helped fuel mass incarceration, ban Muslims, curb even legal immigration, increase immigration arrests.



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And why raise this army? Again, I have a theory.

Should something emerge from the Robert Mueller investigation — an investigation that is continuing unabated even as Harvey rages — that should implicate Trump and pose a threat to the continuation of his tenure, Trump wants to position any attempt to remove him as a political coup. His efforts to delegitimize the press are all part of this because one day the press may have to deliver ruinous news.

In that scenario, Trump knows that the oligarchs and establishment Republicans would be quick to abandon him. Their support isn’t intrinsic; it’s transactional. But the base — the market — the ones with guns as well as those who are simply excited, the die-hards, the ones he keeps appealing to and applauding, will not forsake him. They see attacks on Trump as attacks on themselves.

Trump is playing an endgame. In the best-case scenario, these die-hards are future customers; in the worst, they are future confederates.
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If these people should come to believe — as Trump would have them believe — that establishment systems have unfairly and conspiratorially acted to remove from office their last and only champion — another thing Trump would have them believe — what will they do?

What would Trump’s army do if he were compelled to leave but refused to graciously comply?



I invite you to join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter (@CharlesMBlow), or email me at chblow@nytimes.com.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter (@NYTopinion), and sign






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