Written by Peter Baker
Remember when President Xi Jinping of China was the “enemy”? That was so Friday. As of Monday, according to President Donald Trump, Xi was “a great leader” and a “brilliant man.”
What about that edict by Trump, who “hereby ordered” American companies to leave China? Three days later, he was positive he would get a trade deal and, if so, then firms should “stay there and do a great job.”
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) August 27, 2019
Trump spent the weekend in France insisting that he was not having a debate with his fellow world leaders, but at times it seemed like he was having a debate with himself. Day by day, even hour by hour, his approach to the trade war with China, the most consequential economic conflict on the planet, veered back and forth, leaving much of the world with geopolitical whiplash.
If he seemed all over the map, he made clear on Monday, as he wrapped up days of diplomacy, that the world would just have to get used to it. He likes leaving negotiating partners, adversaries, observers and even allies off balance.
“Sorry!” he told reporters, sounding anything but apologetic. “It’s the way I negotiate. It’s the way I negotiate. It’s done very well for me over the years, and it’s doing even better for the country.”
The way he negotiates at times involves facts that may not be facts, statements that may not have been said and episodes that may not have occurred. And at times, he denied saying what he had said.
On Sunday, he said he had “second thoughts” about escalating the trade war with China, only to have staff members later insist that his only regret was not escalating it more. By Monday morning, he was ratcheting back the rhetoric and predicting a deal with Xi, whom he pronounced a “great leader” four times.
To explain his renewed optimism, he cited two phone calls he said the Americans had received from the Chinese seeking to resume official negotiations. China, however, failed to confirm any phone calls, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin then said the administration had been communicating with Beijing’s top negotiator “through intermediaries.”
But within a few hours, Trump, who when challenged prefers to double down rather than back down, was insisting that not only were there phone calls but “numerous calls.”
Investors placed bets collectively worth billions of dollars based in part on their analysis of his comments, which came shortly before world markets began reopening after the weekend. That may have been the point, to calm the waters.
And yet even some policy veterans who are generally supportive of the president find his scattershot approach off-putting and counterproductive.
“There can be virtue in playing your cards close to your chest and in keeping adversaries guessing, but the problem with the Trump model is that he takes those tactics to an extreme,” said Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. “You never know when to believe him.”
Doran and others attribute that to Trump’s history in real estate, when negotiations could be full of bluff or intimidation without much consequence beyond the immediate players.
“When you are a solo operator negotiating real estate deals, all that matters in the end is the contract — the signature on the deal,” Doran said. “In politics and diplomacy, there is much that is important that is never in the formal deal.”
Credibility, among others. Trump, who in business sometimes impersonated a spokesman for himself, has a way of putting words in the mouths of other leaders in a way that serves his interests and that happen to sound more like him than them.
“The question I was asked most today by fellow World Leaders, who think the USA is doing so well and is stronger than ever before, happens to be, ‘Mr. President, why does the American media hate your Country so much? Why are they rooting for it to fail?’ ” he wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
No leader expressed anything like that in public, although it would be impossible to know for sure what was said in private. Trump likewise insisted that some of the leaders secretly agreed with him behind the scenes that Russia should be welcomed back into the Group of 7, despite their public comments saying the opposite.
At one point on Monday, the president went so far as to mischaracterize his own wife’s involvement in his diplomacy. “The first lady has gotten to know Kim Jong Un and I think she’d agree with me, he is a man with a country that has tremendous potential,” he said, referring to North Korea’s leader.
But Melania Trump has never met Kim, much less gotten to know him. Within a few hours, the White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, was forced to release a “clarification” acknowledging that. “While the first lady hasn’t met him,” she said, “the president feels like she’s gotten to know him, too.”
Never burdened with excess devotion to precision, Trump has a way of just saying whatever comes into his head. At one point on Monday, he said offhandedly that he might release his Middle East peace proposal before Israel’s election next month, completely contrary to the White House plan. That sparked immediate headlines in Israel, even though it seemed like more of a maybe-I-will, maybe-I-won’t throwaway line rather than a serious forecast.
Or maybe it wasn’t. He has in recent weeks reversed himself so many times that it can be hard to tell. He switched positions on new tax cuts and enhanced background checks for gun purchases. He denied that a planned trip to Denmark was to pursue his ambition of buying Greenland, then when the prime minister said it was not for sale, he canceled the trip, saying there was no point in going.
That can leave even his supporters unsure how to respond. When Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, made a surprise visit to Biarritz on Sunday for discussions with the French on the sidelines of the Group of 7 meeting, U.S. officials would not say whether they had advance notice. “No comment,” Trump said, uncharacteristically.
That led many to assume he had been ambushed and his allies lashed out on his behalf. Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, called it “completely disrespectful” and “manipulative of Macron,” referring to President Emmanuel Macron of France. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, added, “Why would Macron suck up to stone cold killers?”
But then a day later, Trump insisted that no, he had not been ambushed, he had known all along and given it his blessing. In fact, he went even further, declaring himself willing to meet with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran in the next few weeks if Macron could set up an encounter under the right circumstances.
In part, Trump’s various contradictions owe to the fact that he is far more open and far less guarded with the news media than any of his modern predecessors. For all of his antipathy toward “fake news,” he talks with reporters almost constantly, creating many opportunities for off-script remarks. On Monday alone, he took questions from reporters in free-flowing sessions four different times.
Journalists never complain but even Trump seemed to think maybe he had talked too much. “I don’t know why we need to have a press conference,” he was overheard griping to Mick Mulvaney, his acting chief of staff, before his last encounter with journalists.
“You wear them down after a while,” Mulvaney replied.