Any remaining thoughts that President Donald Trump has been playing three-dimensional chess while everyone else around him is engaged in less sophisticated pursuits should perish with his sudden abandonment of tariff threats against Mexico.
The only thing Trump got from this stunt was yet another round of abundant attention as everyone tried to decipher the riddle of "what-is-this-unusual-and-loopy-man-up to-this-time-because-he's-breaking-the-norms-of-generally-accepted-presidential-behavior?" For Trump personally, the opportunity to generate and then bask in that kind of media buzz is, of course, far from nothing. Self-aggrandizement and self-preservation have motivated almost all of his thinking for decades; first as an unknown outer-borough tyro, then as a closely-watched developer and carnival barker, finally during his years as TV celebrity and now president.
Trump certainly grabbed the spotlight last week. After all, by unexpectedly threatening, via Twitter, to impose onerous tariffs on Mexico if it failed to help solve the immigration and humanitarian crisis spilling over from Central America and into the U.S., Trump set the global business and political communities on edge.
And how many of us get a chance to pull off something that cool ourselves? Not just anybody can look and act the part of a Bond villain. Trump once told me, while driving together to one of his golf courses, that his favorite Bond villain was Auric Goldfinger, the chunky thug who wanted to wreck the global economy and help China and his own fortunes by tainting the U.S.'s gold supply at Fort Knox. "I thought Goldfinger was just a great character," Trump said. "To me, he was the best of all the characters. Semi-believable."
So over the course of a week, Trump got into character and played chicken with global trade, the economy, the southern border of the U.S., the lives of migrants and the financial security of tens of millions of people - before having to cave once the costs and peril of all of this became apparent. Trump's enablers in Congress helped put an end to the madness because something more important (to them) than the rule of law, civility, ethics, equality, global stability, mature policymaking, and the environment was at stake: Money.
By Friday evening, Trump had to close down his show, taking comfort on Twitter the following day that "reviews" of his role-playing "have been very good" - with the exception, he said, of the movie critics populating the "Fake and Corrupt News Media" at NBC, CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
The truth of the matter is that Mexico, other than stepping up its own role policing the southern border in accordance with an earlier agreement, has conceded nothing - as Michael Shear and Maggie Haberman pointed out in The New York Times. After so much noise and distress, the author of "The Art of the Deal" was left empty-handed. "The decision marks a victory for Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whose administration had been pressing Trump to drop the tariff threat," noted Bloomberg News reporters Josh Wingrove, Nick Wadhams, and Shannon Pettypiece.
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But let's not kid ourselves that this is an end to the White House play-acting. This has happened before and will happen again. Trade negotiations with Japan and the European Union are coming and tortuous head-butting on trade and tariffs is already underway with China. There's lots of room for Trump to turn incendiary in all of that. He knows little about policy but a lot about how to stoke the passions and resentments of his base. And he's content to fabricate things to seduce his supporters into accepting the idea that he never loses and that he always has a secret card to play.
"We have been trying to get some of these Border Actions for a long time, as have other administrations, but were not able to get them, or get them in full, until our signed agreement with Mexico," he wrote on Twitter on Sunday. "Importantly, some things not mentioned in yesterday press release, one in particular, were agreed upon. That will be announced at the appropriate time."
Aha. There's a "not-mentioned" that can be uncorked "at the appropriate time." Hmmm. While nobody other than the president seems to know what that secret agreement might be, he also warned that should Mexico not play ball the way he wants in the future, there will be hell - and tariffs - to pay. In the meantime, everyone should remain off-balance. "We can always go back to our previous, and very profitable, position of Tariffs," he concluded on Twitter. "But I don't believe that will be necessary."
This is a man flailing, much as he did several months ago after threatening to keep the U.S. government shut down unless he got the funding to build a wall along the southern border. More experienced and deft politicians than him torpedoed that gambit and the government reopened.
Trying to govern by threat and blunt force isn't really governing at all, and if enough bluffs get called, the players on the other side of the table tend to stiffen their spines. That's not a good scenario for anyone involved, because a predictably unpredictable person lacking self-confidence, restraint and principled, courageous advisers may eventually try burning things down just to prove his point.
The president of the United States isn't playing chess. But, like a kid with matches, he's only too happy to play with fire.