The British comedian Eddie Izzard has a silent stage bit where, nodding, he announces to his audiences some outrageous plan. Pause. Then, he shakes his head. Audience giggles. Pause. He nods again. Audience laughs. Shakes his head. Louder laughter. He nods once more. Guffaws.
President Donald Trump wasn’t going for laughs in recent days. So, his remarks and behavior, jumping from one announced policy decision to another, from one seemingly outrageous plan to abandoning it, generated laughter but also serious concerns among many.
It’s a measure of the confusing and tiring turmoil ascendant in U.S. politics and beyond that such actions simultaneously ignite professed worries about Trump’s mental state among his overeager critics and admiration among determined supporters for his unpredictability and establishment-rattling candor.
Amid a few signs of possible recession, Trump is laser-focused on public perceptions of the economy. With good reason, considering the losing reelection campaigns of Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush over challenging economies.
On the surface, absent context, Trump’s latest brainstorm sounds like a pretty goofy idea. One of those news stories that’s too good to check out because it will fall apart. Media pounced anyway.
Out of the blue, an unpopular president talks about buying Greenland, the world’s largest island, a semi-autonomous Danish territory larger than Alaska with but 56,000 residents that’s 82% covered in ice. Is he nuts?
As it happens, Trump was going to visit Denmark next month. So, reporters asked if the purchase was on the agenda. Maybe, the president said, but the topic was not the most important item.
Naturally, Danish reporters then asked their prime minister, who said bluntly Greenland wasn’t for sale. Trump took offense, canceling the visit.
Here’s how we get into these useless contretemps, which are a toxic mix of arrogance and hate. I suspect such episodes will play an invisible but influential role one way or the other in voters’ minds next year.
Trump likes to be his own spokesman. He certainly doesn’t mind being the center of attention either and relishes setting the media’s agenda around him. OK.
A more deliberate chief executive would have first run the Greenland idea by senior staff to iron out wrinkles and anticipate criticism. Aides would have competed to shoot it down or qualify his thoughts.
His communications people would have prepared a media background sheet. This would have highlighted President Harry Truman’s 1947 postwar offer to buy Greenland for strategic North Atlantic reasons, as well as the fact that the last foreign territory the United States did purchase was the Virgin Islands in 1917 — from Denmark.
That transaction was driven by growing strategic concerns in Washington over Germany’s developing interest in those vulnerable nearby Caribbean islands during World War I.
And the sheet also would have explicitly detailed China’s disturbing modern-day interest in building airfield infrastructure on the island of Greenland, atop North Atlantic shipping lanes and only 2,000 miles from the northeastern United States. Much like the island airfields it’s built in the heavily-trafficked South China Sea.
But as you may have noticed these past 32 months, deliberate is not Trump’s public style. In fact, much of what he says or tweets in public often seems to be mere thinking out loud.
Fans like that. It gives Trump an aura of candor, openness and accessibility, not the carefully calculated theatrics of recent presidents, especially his predecessor.
And if such unorthodox presidential behavior causes gastric distress for establishment types on both sides, so much the better. Days later, Trump, in fact, had a pleasant phone conversation with Denmark’s prime minister. But that doesn’t fit a narrative of conflict, so you didn’t see much coverage.
On Aug. 1, for instance, Trump announced he was placing new tariffs on Chinese imports. On Aug. 13, he delayed most of them, professing concern for holiday shopping. On Aug. 23, he slapped on tariffs in retaliation for new Chinese trade levies.
On Aug. 20, Trump allowed as how he was considering a payroll tax cut.
Key word “considering.” Next day he said no, adding, “We don’t need it. We have a strong economy.”
This was generally portrayed not as having firmly decided no, but as having changed his mind again. Neither Trump nor aides disputed that twisted interpretation. Trump also appeared to order U.S. companies to leave their China businesses.
Markets bounced around. Reporters asked if Trump felt responsible. “Not at all,” he said, noting overall stock growth since his inauguration.
Trump’s style can also cause lasting damage. He’s been talking since 2015 about extricating the U.S. military from so many foreign entanglements. Last year, with the successful destruction of ISIS’ territorial caliphate and with no staff consultation, Trump tweeted that he was pulling all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria.
That was big news, very big. That peremptory announcement and lack of command structure consultation cost Trump his most valuable Cabinet member, General James Mattis.
Guess what? While some U.S. troops have left Syria, others have entered. So, numbers are vague, and plans for that total troop withdrawal are on indefinite hold. You probably won’t see that in a tweet.