What do we have to truly fear about President Donald Trump? Last week he pulled off the successful re-negotiation of the North America Free Trade area. Pundits thought, with Canada refusing to bend, it couldn’t happen. Maybe the deal now leans more in America’s direction but Trump has also given something away: the right of Mexico and Canada to sell their trucks and cars more easily in the US. He said he’ s a great “deal-maker,” and so this time he is.
His trade tussle with China, which looks to be a standoff at the moment, has not yet led to a break down in good relations. Trump has been more than careful to keep the direct channels open to President Xi Jinping, even if last week he became more openly critical and personal. He has treated Xi much better than he treated Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada. Nevertheless, the fact is the Chinese have taken advantage of the US, ignoring its copyrights, blatantly reverse engineering expensive US products and subsidizing exports. Trump goes too far with his demands, but he is on firm enough ground to force the Chinese to re-think some of their policies. He’s making progress.
Likewise, while being tough on Russia, ratcheting up sanctions, sending modern arms to Ukraine, increasing defense spending and standing back from the cuts in nuclear weapons that President Vladimir Putin has suggested, he keeps his personal channels open to Putin, unlike President Barack Obama. Later he may reap the harvest of this. Russian politics is very personal under Putin.
With North Korea he appears to have flattered President Kim Jong Un to the point where Kim shows his constructive side to Trump. Progress is being made on nuclear disarmament even if it’s not at the rate the foreign policy establishment wants.
Nevertheless, for all this, the fact is that Trump is a man with an ugly personality, as ugly in its way as Kim. Sometimes one can imagine if he wasn’t constrained by law he would execute some of his enemies as Kim has done.
His staff find he’s impossible to deal with although he gets important things done.
After reading Bob Woodward’s new book Fear, one realizes that Woodward gives little space to Trump’s achievements, and his interviews and re-creations of real life scenes are nearly all orientated in a critical direction.
Woodward has painted a picture of a sordid man, full of quite disgusting profanities and untruths that he aims at his staff and many of those who do business with him with hourly regularity. (If the women in his “base” could hear these many would be shocked.) It’s a fine book, researched in the most intimate and thorough way. One doesn’t doubt his veracity. Quite a bit of it we have read in the newspapers already over the last two years, but even then Woodward gets deeper inside the man, the policy-making, and how it’s implemented. He’s the best fly on the wall anyone could ask for.
There are, too, whole chapters where Woodward writes about startling things we’ve not known about. Again and again, in order to keep the US on a sensible course in its policies for trade, foreign relations and financial affairs, his staff have to secretly remove from his desk papers waiting to be signed. This choleric man is so seized up by the next crisis or what appears as an affront he forgets he asked for them.
Time and time again his staff are courageous, offering the president clever analysis, despite his constant putdowns. He tells them it’s bullshit and that he’s held his views on this or that for over 30 years and he’s not going to change. Amazingly, they argue back, and he lets them—up to a point. In his way he accepts a lot of talk-back and even verbal insubordination, but then gives the staffer hell.
There is insubordination behind his back, too. On one occasion, when discussing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Trump said to General James Mattis, the Defense Secretary, “Let’s go in, let’s fucking kill him.” “Yes”, Mattis said, “I will get right on it.” He hung up the phone. “We’re not going to do any of that,” he told a senior aide. When the North Korea crisis first blew up Mattis made it clear he didn’t want war. His view was that North Korea could be contained.
Ironically, as with North Korea latterly, Trump in some areas of policy can have non-warlike instincts. He argued hard with the military, until they persuaded him otherwise, that the US should totally withdraw from Afghanistan.
Where this story ends nobody knows. Woodward for one doesn’t advocate impeachment but by the end of the book it hangs in the air. Who really wants such a volatile, unhinged and amoral man to have his finger on the nuclear button?