Politics & Policy

Trump: ‘Normalized’ but Still Scary

President Trump exits Marine One at the White House, April 28, 2017. (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
What happens when the red phone rings at three in the morning? Forward the call to Defense Secretary Mattis.

With near unanimity, my Never Trump friends confess a sense of relief. It could have been worse. They thought it would be worse. A deep apprehension still endures but the international order remains intact, the republic still stands, and no “enemy of the people” has (yet) been arrested.

Admittedly, this is a low bar. And this is not to deny the insanity, incoherence, and sheer weirdness emanating daily from the White House, for which we’ve all come up with our own coping technique. Here’s mine: I simply view President Trump as the Wizard of Oz.

Loud and bombastic. A charlatan. Nothing behind the screen — other than the institutional chaos that defines his White House and the psychic chaos that governs his ever-changing mind. What to do? Ignore what’s behind the curtain. Deal with what comes out in front: the policy, the pronouncements, the actions.

And so far they hang together enough — Neil Gorsuch, Keystone XL, NATO reassurances, Syria strike, cabinet appointments — that one can begin to talk plausibly about the normalization of this presidency.

Hence the relief. But there are limitations to the Wizard of Oz approach. Some things do extrude from behind the curtain that are hard to ignore. And here I am not counting the gratuitous idiocies that can, despite their entertainment value, be safely ignored — for example, Trump’s puzzlement as to why the Civil War was not avoided and how Andrew Jackson, who’d been dead 16 years, was so upset by its outbreak.

These are embarrassments, but they don’t materially affect the course of his presidency or of the country. Some weirdnesses, however, do.

Such as Trump’s late-April pronouncements on South Korea. Being less entertaining, they were vastly underreported. Here’s the context:

What is it with this president insisting that other people pay for things we want?

Trump is orchestrating a worldwide campaign to pressure North Korea on its nukes and missiles. He dispatches (finally) the USS Carl Vinson strike group to Korean waters and raises the possibility of a “major, major conflict” with Pyongyang. Meanwhile, we are working furiously to complete a THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea to intercept North Korean rockets.

At which point, out of the blue, Trump tells Reuters that Seoul will have to pay for the THAAD system. And by the way, that five-year-old U.S.–South Korea free-trade agreement is a disaster and needs to be torn up.

Now, South Korea is in the middle of a highly charged presidential campaign. The pro-American president was recently impeached and is now under indictment. The opposition party is ahead. It is wary of the U.S., accommodating to North Korea, and highly negative about installing that THAAD system on its soil.

We had agreed with Seoul that they would provide the land and the infrastructure, and we would pay the $1 billion cost. Without warning, Trump reneges on the deal, saying South Korea will have to foot the bill. This stirs anti-American feeling and gives opposition candidate Moon Jae-in the perfect campaign issue.

What is it with this president insisting that other people pay for things we want? And for what? In a $4 trillion budget, $1 billion is a rounding error.

So self-defeating was the idea that within three days, national-security adviser H. R. McMaster had to walk it all back, assuring the South Koreans that we would indeed honor our agreement and send no $1 billion invoice.

But the damage was done. Moon’s campaign feasted. The pro-American party was thrown on its heels. And the very future of THAAD — and a continued united front against Pyongyang under a likely Moon administration — is in doubt.

As for the trade deal, the installation of THAAD has so angered China that it has already initiated an economic squeeze on South Korea. To which Trump would add a trade rupture with the United States.

The South Korean blunder reinforces lingering fears about Trump. Especially because it was an unforced error. What happens in an externally caused crisis? Then, there is no hiding, no guardrails, no cushioning. It’s the wisdom and understanding of one man versus whatever the world has thrown up against us. However normalized this presidency may be day to day, in such a moment all bets are off.

What happens when the red phone rings at three in the morning?

I’d say: Let it ring. Let the wizard sleep. Forward the call to Defense Secretary Mattis.

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