Trump lays groundwork for a presidency of confrontation

Patterns of thought

Donald Trump appears to see confrontation as a key way to bolster America's interests. But critics worry about the consequences. 

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    President-elect Donald Trump is interviewed by Chris Wallace of 'Fox News Sunday' at Trump Tower in New York Saturday. Mr. Trump discussed his China policy in the interview.
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Donald Trump has spent his working life in businesses that reward confrontation. High-level real estate development is not for the timid. Casino management? The same.

So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that President-elect Trump is running a confrontational transition. Criticized by a Carrier union official, Trump hit back with all the Twitter force he could muster. Rebuked by China for talking with the president of Taiwan, Trump didn’t apologize. He doubled down with sharp comments about Beijing.

The president-elect of the United States is even using this style against the suggestions that Russia tried to help him get elected. The Central Intelligence Agency’s conclusion that Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed hackers against the Hillary Clinton campaign primarily to put Trump in the White House is “ridiculous,” according to Trump.

“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” said Trump’s transition team in a terse, unsigned slam at the CIA last Friday.

To his core voters, Trump’s tough talk is one of his main appeals. They see it as truth-telling. It’s cathartic, emotional, a means of rebuking the powers that be. Washington is full of overeducated bureaucrats who clutch their chests, fan their faces, and feign astonishment when Trump tells it like it is, in this view.

His critics call it counterproductive. It’s particularly problematic when other countries are involved, they say. In those cases, Trump’s not dealing with development rivals or local zoning boards. As president, he’ll face other nations – some with nuclear weapons – that have more power over events than his rhetoric suggests.

Diplomacy is simply not a zero-sum business negotiation, says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Southern Methodist University Center for Presidential History.

“Unlike in business, the international arena works best when all profit,” says Professor Engel. “Where real-estate deals can be about bravado and bluster, diplomacy is the domain of nuance, of guile, of restraint and patience.”

The power of persuasion

The job of a president is often to persuade, not to order. Persuasion isn’t always accomplished by beginning with aggressive blasts. Trump’s relationship with China promises to be a case in point, according to another expert.

“Taking an extreme opening position in a real estate deal is one thing, but simply alienating an emerging superpower is another – particularly when the president-elect does so at every key level at once: security and North Korea, economics and trade, and Taiwan in a matter of days,” writes Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a commentary issued Monday.

If nothing else, Trump’s confrontations have made his transition period the most newsworthy since Ronald Reagan’s, and perhaps further back than that. In some ways he’s already remaking the presidency, as the Monitor’s Linda Feldmann noted earlier this month.

He’s bypassing the mainstream media with colorful tweets, something he says he’ll continue to do in the Oval Office. He’s running his cabinet search the same way he did his reality television show. He’s traveling the country to hold big rallies, as if he’s still running a campaign.

But there is a fundamental difference between being president-elect and a candidate. The world discounts, somewhat, the rhetoric of someone who’s the latter. The former – well, governments around the world start to sit up and take notice. Domestic opponents take them much more seriously, as well.

In that context some of Trump’s statements might cause him complications once he actually has power.

Taking aim at 'One China'

Take China. Trump’s fans hail his conversation with Taiwan’s president as an indication of American power. Beijing doesn’t want the White House to speak directly with the leader of what they consider a province of their nation? Too bad! They can’t push us around.

And in fact there may be good reasons for the US take a tougher line with China. That’s a call President Trump will get to make. The problem is that he appears to have launched off in this direction with little thought before he is actually responsible for the consequences. It seems Trump might have been pushed into the call by his relationship with former Senator (and GOP presidential candidate) Bob Dole, who has cultivated Trump and recommended some officials to the Trump transition. Mr. Dole’s law firm represents Taiwan’s interests in Washington.

In any case, Trump does not seem to have in place an idea of what he wants to accomplish by confronting China. Without a plan, the only thing to be gained now from slamming Beijing on its trade policies and currency support and so forth is enmity.

“It is one thing [for Trump] to propose specific changes in the US relationship with China and to show that he is actively seeking negotiable changes in China’s behavior and the US-China relationship. It is quite another to simply lay out sweeping criticisms and charges that do not even hint at practical and negotiable changes,” writes Dr. Cordesman.

The Russia hacking claims

Trump’s angry response to the news about alleged Russian interference in the election could be similarly counterproductive.

In one sense, it is understandable. Trump may feel that the resurgence of this issue is a personal slight. He wants to hit back hard and fast lest the infinitesimal chance that it threatens his claim to the White House grows at all.

Yet a touch of humility – a statement along lines of “My coalition was strong and broad, but we need to understand any foreign interference in our affairs” – might benefit Trump at this point. His immediate problem is not so much aggrieved Democrats, or the CIA, or even The Washington Post and The New York Times.

It’s congressional Republicans. They have long been suspicious of Mr. Putin’s intentions, and on Monday they backed congressional investigations into possible Russian cyberwarfare. That could set up a clash with Trump in his first weeks in office.

“The Russians are not our friends,” said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky on Monday.

Secretary of State questions

As is the case with China, there may be a case for changing US attitudes toward Russia. Trump campaigned on that, and so in one sense it’s not surprising that he would act on it. He’s reportedly leaning toward the choice of Exxon Mobil Corp. chairman Rex Tillerson as secretary of State, in part because of Mr. Tillerson’s personal relationship with Putin.

Nor is it out of bounds for a president-elect to have a critical view of intelligence community conclusions. A little skepticism might be healthy in that regard.

What might be disturbing about Trump’s reaction on this subject, though, is again analogous to the China situation: its timing, sharpness, and seeming disregard of the opinions of other important actors in the situation. That will be especially true if he goes through with a Tillerson nomination for Foggy Bottom.

“Trump’s behavior does the opposite of establishing a deterrent to future hacking or election meddling,” write Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes of the national security legal blog Lawfare Monday. “It sends a loud and clear signal that this is a good way to get what you want. It affirmatively rewards the behavior both by denying it took place and by energetically throwing Russia a big bone” with a Tillerson appointment.

 
 
 

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