Amid the furor over Donald Trump’s struggle to explain his seemingly subservient performance with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, the president gave a revealing insight into his mindset during another unusual move: jawboning the Federal Reserve against raising interest rates.
“Now I’m just saying the same thing that I would have said as a private citizen,” Trump said in an interview with CNBC’s Joe Kernan. “So somebody would say, ‘Oh, maybe you shouldn’t say that as a president.’ I couldn’t care less what they say, because my views haven’t changed.”
A standard political maxim is that the presidency and individual presidents change one another, both in their operational styles and policies. Inevitably, the world looks different both substantively and politically from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
George H. W. Bush took a skeptical stance toward Ronald Reagan’s outreach to the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988, only to embrace it once in the White House. Bill Clinton modified his prior stress on human rights in presidential dealings with China. Barack Obama altered his approach on health care policy after his election.
But not Donald Trump. After being persuaded initially to try more traditional paths both organizationally and substantively — initially keeping the Iran nuclear agreement was one — the 45th president has very much reverted to the operational style and policy positions he embraced as a private citizen, often for decades.
As a result, which has been painfully evident over the last week, he is creating problems for himself in both aspects.
From an organizational viewpoint, Trump’s unilateral dealings with the leaders of North Korea and Russia are reminiscent of how he ran his real estate organization as a one-man show with neither formal structure nor nonfamily advisers. Trump has seemingly abandoned the staff structure he reluctantly accepted in 2017, all but ignoring Gen. John Kelly, who remains the nominal chief of staff but with clearly decreasing influence.
(The last president who tried to operate without a chief of staff was Jimmy Carter, who soon realized his error and reverted to a more structured setup.)
Before Helsinki, Trump pointedly disdained both preparatory sessions and pages of briefing materials, spending the weekend playing golf at his club in Scotland and issuing periodic tweets. The meeting had no formal agenda, enabling the more organized Putin to control the discussion both substantively and atmospherically.
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They talked for two hours without advisers, so only Trump, Putin and their translators know what happened. Afterwards, Putin appears to have briefed some advisers, but Trump made no formal effort either to inform the public or brief top American officials. That led to the embarrassing public acknowledgement by director of intelligence Dan Coats that he did not know what had transpired.
Trump further confused matters with his contradictory comments on what he said — or meant to say — about Russian interference in the 2016 election. That prompted some congressional Democrats to make the dubious suggestion that lawmakers interview the translator to learn what happened.
Trump’s policy of pursuing closer relations with Putin and minimizing efforts to force Russia to pay a price for attacking American democracy is very much his own policy. Despite suggestions that Putin holds some sort of influence over him, it reflects views Trump has expressed for more than three decades.
Similarly, his denigration and misunderstanding of the world’s single most successful peacekeeping instrument since the Romans’ Pax Romana, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, reflects Trump’s long-held misunderstanding of its underlying goal. NATO doesn’t just protect European nations, it also binds them with the United States in a way that provides a more powerful deterrent to potential aggressors, whether from the east (i.e. Russia) or beyond (Islamic terrorists).
Similarly, the divisive positions Trump is implementing on trade and immigration are ones he has held for decades. His America First attitude on trade dates from the 1980s though his chief target has changed from Japan to China.
One irony is that Trump’s declaration the Federal Reserve should hold down interest rates is a rare exception. Three years ago, during the Obama administration, he accused then Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen of keeping interest rates artificially low to benefit the Democrats and urged her to raise them.
Still, the fact that the developing trade war is already threatening the domestic economy and the rift with traditional U.S. allies is encouraging Putin underscores the need for Trump to reconsider how he is running the presidency and making policy decisions. More consultation with his advisers might be a useful first step.
Unfortunately, the unlikelihood of much presidential introspection and self-examination makes that unlikely, for now. Perhaps only a damaging defeat in November’s elections can persuade Trump his current course does no one any good, especially himself.