It is hard to predict what will happen in the Trump White House. A senior diplomat tells me that he would prefer to watch old episodes of House of Cards rather than watch news programmes. A veteran of the Barack Obama administration predicts that President Donald Trump will not last even a few months. The rigours of the actual presidency will wear him out. Trump likes the theatre, but he will not have the stomach for the grind. Speaking to a woman in the State Department is amusing. She says that the analysts suffer from whiplash. The political direction comes from Twitter in the rush of messages dispatched from the President early in the morning but then is modulated and shaped by his advisers later in the day. “We don’t know what is going on,” she said. These are all seasoned Washington, D.C., insiders. None of them sees anything normal about the Trump White House.
It would be easier to report on the Trump presidency if it were plagued by scandals. That is familiar territory. What you have instead is a power battle inside the Trump administration that does not seem capable of being controlled. This is more Game of Thrones than House of Cards. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus is at loggerheads with Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway says things that are at odds with what is reported by White House press secretary Sean Spicer. Rumours flood Washington that various factions inside the Trump administration are leaking stories in order to damage their competitors. Trump, says one insider, is content being the emperor above them, a Mortal God who allows his underlings to wage a war of all against all. Trump, in his bathrobe, eating his Big Mac on a silver plate, watching television in the dark—he is a cross between the overestimated Wizard of Oz and the omnipotent Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes.
Meanwhile, Trump’s nominees for his Cabinet to run the major Ministries of the federal government idle their time. He has sent so many billionaires with such thin resumes and such thick ideological dispositions that the Senate, which has the right to oversee these appointments, simply cannot digest the information fast enough. The people who have taken their seats are stunningly incompetent or adversarial to their own posts. Betsy DeVos, the Education Secretary, is a billionaire who has financed campaigns against public education. Tom Price, the Health and Human Services Secretary, was a former Congressman who fought Obama’s health care plan as if it were the greatest threat to the United States. These are people with little broad credibility.
No wonder that James Mattis, the Defence Secretary, and Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, seem stable. Mattis believes against all evidence that Iran and the Islamic State—fundamental adversaries—are somehow allied. Tillerson, as head of Exxon, has shown little capacity for statesmanship outside corporate interest. Nonetheless, in comparison to the others, these men seem the epitome of distinction. As the ship of state splutters, these men struggle to control the tiller.
To Russia with love
It sometimes seems as if Russia, not the U.S., won the Cold War. Democratic Party politicians continue to suggest that Russia was able to sufficiently influence the election to prevent Hillary Clinton from winning. Suggestions of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence bedevil the political discourse. The “deep state” in the U.S.—namely the intelligence agencies—has perhaps leaked sufficient information to damage quite seriously any possibility for Trump to ease the tension between the U.S. and Russia. The resignation of Trump’s National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, was the first casualty of these leaks. Others will follow. The “deep state”, abused in public by Trump, will not be taken lightly. He made a grave error in crossing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its more mysterious cousins. They will make Trump pay.
Meanwhile, the National Security Council is in serious disarray. Trump’s closest ideological ally, Steve Bannon, has brought politics into the heart of what is often considered as a sanctum for intelligence and military analysts. They do not want domestic politics to intervene in their decision-making. This is their conceit. Bannon’s presence brings American political considerations into discussions of national security. Sitting near Bannon is an art historian with no experience in the world of intelligence or security. Professor Victoria Coates writes a blog at the RedState website and helped former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on his book. Perhaps she is there because she will help Trump digest the conversations. He likes one-page presentations “with lots of graphics and maps”, according to The New York Times. One official in the White House told the newspaper: “The President likes maps.” He is a deeply visual person. Reading irritates him. His ex-wife Ivana Trump once said that beside his bed, Trump kept a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. One should rest assured that he most likely never read it.
It was perhaps reasonable for Trump to consider what the Americans call a “reset” on its policy with Russia. Tensions between the U.S. and Russia have damaged U.S. power both in Europe and in West Asia. Threats over the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) expansion eastward have pushed countries inside Europe to either become more belligerent against Russia—and thereby damage relations with a major supplier of natural gas—or to move closer to Russia—and thereby threaten the unity of Europe. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union lost much of its toehold in North Africa and West Asia, particularly when the Egyptian government pivoted from the Soviet Union to the U.S. around 1979-80. Now, with U.S. policy in the region in disarray, the Russians have strengthened their position in Syria, Iran, Egypt and Libya. Trump’s theory of a reset was logical from the standpoint of U.S. power. It would have served to rein in Russian ambitions. But that is now in the past. It would be too suspicious for Trump to make a deal with the Russians. The “deep state” will insist that the bellicosity be maintained. Trump will preside over the further decline of American power.
Bibi and Donald
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sarah, are in deep trouble inside Israel. They face charges of corruption and might very well see the inside of a prison cell before Netanyahu, also known as Bibi, leaves office. This was the context of their visit to the U.S., where Trump gave them a royal welcome. They were photographed inside the Oval Office, sitting on the cream coloured chairs with Trump and his wife, Melania. It was as if the Trumps and the Netanyahus had not a care in the world.
At their joint press conference, Netanyahu seemed deeply enamoured of Trump. Bibi spoke in his customary baritone voice, but he laughed in a totally uncharacteristic way—almost flirtatiously. Trump fumbled his way through a discussion about Israel’s occupation of Palestine. He offered, with no real assessment, that the two-state solution was no longer U.S. policy. Netanyahu seemed to revel in this new period, with the idea that the Palestinian state was no longer on the table an appealing one for him. But this idea of the one-state solution should trouble all parties. What would it mean? No journalist was permitted to ask a question about this new reality. Would Israel annex the West Bank and East Jerusalem, both areas now treated as occupied territories under international law? If Israel does annex these areas, would the Palestinians who live there be granted full citizenship of Israel? If this happens, it is likely that the Palestinians in Israel would be in the demographic majority. The idea of the “Jewish State” would be annulled by the new facts on the ground. If Israel does not give the Palestinians full citizenship, then will the Palestinians of the annexed regions have to live in a permanent apartheid situation? Would the international community tolerate such apartheid rules? None of this was raised in the press conference, nor did the leaders explain it.
Trump was happy to be there with a man who fawned upon him. It made the press conference palatable. Facts are intolerable to Trump. He likes spin and perception. Adulation is what he requires. In a testy exchange with CNN’s Jim Acosta, Trump said: “I would be your biggest fan in the world if you treated me right.”