Trials and Tribulations of Trump the Paradox

Trials and Tribulations of Trump the Paradox

Wednesday, 3 October, 2018 - 08:30
US President Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House upon his return from Bedminster, New Jersey, to Washington, US, August 19, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
London- Amir Taheri
Bob Woodward’s new best-seller ”FEAR: Trump in the White House” is a strange book. At one level it is closer to fiction in the form of highly dramatized narrative seasoned with theatrical dialogue even when two protagonists are all alone in a supposedly confidential conversation. At another level, it offers succinct summaries of policy debates within the Trump administration in a highly readable style that only experienced reporters like Woodward are capable of producing.

Woodward first made his name as part of a two-man reporting team during the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. Almost half a century later he is still suffering from what one might call “the Watergate syndrome”, aka “investigative journalism”, which is based on the belief that the ultimate task of a reporter is to reveal some secrets that could bring down the powerful.

During the Watergate episode, Woodward didn’t realize that he and his colleague were being used by an anonymous source with a personal, hidden agenda. The “secrets” they revealed in their reporting had been fed to them morsel by morsel to destroy the Richard Nixon presidency. Without that source of nourishment their “investigative journalism” wouldn’t have gone very far.

Over the decades, Woodward has used the same method, that is to say, finding “sources” to feed him stuff in order to produce more than a dozen books that supposedly revealed secret aspects of this or that segment of American political life.

However, finding “sources” ready or able to produce what you want for your book isn’t always easy. No everyone wants to a Watergate-style “deep throat” possessing and generously distilling juicy secrets. So, what do you do? One way is to invent secrets even if that means taking anecdotes known to the public and giving them an aura of mystery. Another is to count on the reader’s suspension of disbelief and write straight fiction based on facts.

In the case of Woodward, a really good reporter when he is dealing with actual facts, that is all a pity. He can produce excellent journalism without real or imagined secrets and real or non-existent “sources.” One is only embarrassed when Woodward writes “This info is based on deep background interviews” or uses phrases such as “according to first-hand sources” or “a source close to the issue” or, worse still, "an associate who obtained knowledge of the matter.”

Sometimes, no measure of suspension of disbelief could prevent a reader from succumbing to doubt. One example is when Woodward relates a confidential conversation between James Clapper, the US National Intelligence Director, and Alexander Bortnikov, head of the Russian secret service the FSB.

The 420-page book is divided into 42 chapters in the form of vignettes each of which is structured around a single issue. These issues range from personal relations in the administration to issues of foreign, economic, and social policies.

The overall title “Fear” is never backed by any of the vignettes and Donald J Trump is portrayed as an almost child-like figure, tantrums and all, rather than a medieval despotic figure terrorizing his entourage. The book also tries to portray the Trump White House as chaotic, faction-ridden and inconsistent. However, Woodward ends up demonstrating the opposite of those things.

We see Trump consistently sticking to his campaign promises, often in the face of stiff opposition from some of his closest aides. On denouncing the Obama-made “nuke deal with Iran”, for example, he overrules his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and National Security Adviser HR Macmaster. On taking on the Chinese over their trade imbalance with the US, Trump ignores his Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his top economic adviser Gary Cohn.

Interestingly, Woodward portrays the Trump administration as unusually open to debate and policy disputes in contrast with the Obama administration in which the president took decisions first and consulted his aides afterward. The downside of that openness to debate and policy disputes has been the high rate of turnover in the White House. Even before reaching his half-term Trump had changed his Secretary of State, his National Security Adviser, his Chief of Staff and his Chief Strategist.

Woodward opens his book with a sensational prologue in which he claims that some of Trump’s aides use a variety of subterfuges to prevent the president from pushing through his “most dangerous ideas.”

Woodward sites one example with the economic adviser Cohn “stealing” a letter from the president’s desk at the Oval Office and hiding it to prevent the cancellation of a free trade agreement with South Korea, something that could have been “dangerous” for US national security. Woodward quotes Cohn as saying: "The president never noticed the missed letter.”

The trouble is that almost 100 pages later, that is to say on page 107, Woodward forgets his own prologue and tells us that there were several other copies of the purloined letter and that the US and South Korea did start negotiating about a new trade agreement. In other words, the dramatic prologue was either false or irrelevant. And, yet, Woodward claims that Bob Porter, another trump aide, and other aides also stole documents and “told associates” they had done so to stop Trump’s “dangerous ideas.”

Woodward says his book is based on “hundreds of interviews” but almost the only White House official he directly quotes is Michael Flynn who was dismissed as National Security Adviser early on. In journalistic style books “hundreds” means anything between 200 and 1000. If one takes the median figure of 500 and allocates two hours to each interview one would get 1000 hours of interviews. That is a heck of a number of interviews to conduct before Trump had entered his second year in office. Even then, the first five chapters of the book deal with the Trump campaign while two other chapters deal with a visit that Trump supposedly made to Moscow in 2013 during which he rented a hotel suite once occupied by Obama and his wife Michelle. In his book “A Higher Loyalty”, former FBI chief James Comey, fired by Obama, sites sources claiming that Trump used the hotel suite to organize an orgy and sully the bed in which the Obamas had once slept on during an official visit to Moscow. However, Woodward dismisses the whole story as “garbage”, leaving the reader to wonder why he bothered to give it so much space.

Woodward is incomparable when he relates how many of Trump's aides tried to make him “manageable”, meaning, in effect, persuading him to continue a tradition under which the president simply presided over a well-established routine and did not try to radically alter major aspects of foreign and domestic policy.

Woodward shows how Trump stuck to his guns and imposed his campaign promises as policy. He decertified the “nuke deal” with Iran, transferred the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, walked out of the Paris Accord on Climate Change, forced a renegotiation of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada, imposed tariff on imports from China and the European Union, force NATO allies to raise their defense expenditure and, last but not least, introduced the biggest tax cut scheme in US history.

There are, of course, areas where Trump has not succeeded, notably in launching an ambitious infrastructure project, building a wall on the border with Mexico and fully burying the national health scheme known as Obamacare.

Trump's performance on foreign policy is depicted as mixed. He has succeeded in bringing North Korea, the rogue state par excellence, into a process of negotiations that has reduced tension in northeast Asia and may lead to genuine denuclearization of the war-torn Peninsula. Woodward reveals that Trump, when still a private citizen, had urged talks with North Korea as early as 1999 when Trump had also opened a dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin which may or may not lead to desirable modifications in Moscow’s behavior in some sensitive ears such as Europe and the Middle East.

Woodward devotes a whole chapter to Trump's strategy of forging a special link with Saudi Arabia as the core of a larger strategy to promote stability in the Middle East. Trump overruled his closest advisers, including Tillerson and Mattis, and invited Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, then the second Crown Price, to a formal presidential lunch, ignoring long-established protocol.

In the dispute between the Gulf Cooperation Council and one of its members Qatar, an agreement that Tillerson and Mattis had signed with Qatar was quickly put on the back-burner.

It was at Trump’s insistence that the Islamic Republic in Iran was put at the top of “states that cause concern” with their activities beyond their borders.

A special report prepared by the Pentagon on the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah identified the group as the largest terrorist network in the world, suggesting the need for scenarios to deal with it. Hezbollah was reported to receive $1 billion a year from Iran to cover the cost of a fighting force of 48,000 in Lebanon and 8000 in Syria. In almost every case Iranian commanders in ultimate control of the party’s war-machine. The party also has set up unofficial bases in Colombia, Venezuela, South Africa, Mozambique, and Kenya while maintaining “sleeper cells” in many European countries.

Hezbollah also funnels funds and arms to groups in Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen while spending substantial sums buying loyalty from prominent figures in all of Lebanon’s communities.

While the report treats Hezbollah as a threat on its own, Trump’s analysis is that it is the “puppet-master”, that is to say, the Islamic Republic in Tehran, that should be the real target. If there is change in Tehran, Hezbollah and similar “terrorist” groups, would evaporate just as all Communist parties disappeared once the USSR had collapsed.

For all that, Woodward’s account makes it clear that Trump’s very personal approach to foreign policy and his obsession with clinching “deals” have not yet produced a coherent global strategy. After years of lethargy, imposed deliberately by Obama, the US has become more active on the international stage without, however, achieving any major tangible results. That may be partially due to Trump’s own ambivalence.

At times he speaks like traditional anti-war preachers. On Afghanistan, for example, he says: “It’s a disaster; it’s never going to be a functioning democracy. We ought to just exit.” At a meeting with military commanders asking for more troops in Afghanistan, the president asks: “How many more deaths? How many more lost limbs?”

And, yet, later he approves an increase in the military footprint there and changes the mission of General John Nicholson US Commander there from “just hang on” which was given him by Obama, to “win this war.”

Woodward devotes several chapters to the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Muller into alleged Russian attempts at influencing the US presidential election. At times these chapters read like spy stories and could be amusing. However, the fact is that Muller’s extensive probe has produced absolutely nothing to prove that the Russians did intervene, let alone if any such intervention affected the election results.

Woodward’s book includes some revelations which, if verified, could have longer-term significance. For example, he claims that, at one point, Trump contemplated having the Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad assassinated. If true that would mean Trump was prepared to violate a US law, passed in the 1970s, that forbade the assassination of foreign leaders.

Another revelation is that China’s President Xi Jinping phoned Trump to support him for launching missiles against Assad’s bases in retaliation for his use of chemical weapons. If true, this could mean Chinese unhappiness with Russia’s policy of keeping Assad in power in parts of Syria. According to Woodward over 100 other heads of state also phoned Trump to express support for the missile attack on Assad, a sign that the Russian policy on Syria lacks credible support in the international arena.

Woodward also reveals that Trump ordered Defense Secretary Mattis to find out how the Houthi rebels in Yemen received weapons and take steps to stop the flow. Woodward quotes Mattis’ enigmatic response: “The Yemeni coastline is very long.”

This is bizarre because the Houthis control only a small strip of coast to the west of the Gulf of Aden and close to Bab al-Mandab. The only other channel for smuggling could be from the Sultanate of Oman via the Gulf of Hauf. In both cases, halting the flow of arms would not appear to be an insurmountable task in military terms.

At times, Woodward wonders why Trump is behaving the way he does, which means, unlike the seven previous presidents that the star reporter has known and interviewed for his various books. Trump, however, refused to grant Woodward an interview, implicitly regarding him as a hostile member of the mainstream media which have declared war on the Trump presidency.

That, I think, is unfair since Woodward’s book ends up as on the whole positive on Trump, revealing him as a rare politician who insists on honoring his contract with his electorate. Historic comparisons are always problematic. However, Trump maybe compared to Theodor Roosevelt, who expressed the fears of many Americans affected by the speed of industrialization at the start of the last century just as Trump represents the hopes, fears, aspirations and, yes, prejudices of those who feel overwhelmed by the tsunami of globalization.

In one very well drawn scene, Woodward relates the debate between Trump and his chief economic aides, who turn out to be all bankers, regarding international trade. The aides quote chapter and verse on how the global economy is now service-oriented and how the mama-and-papa small shops and old industrial factories have been replaced by “service” units such as Starbucks cafes and hair-dressing saloons. They also argue that the US needs more and more immigrants to provide cheap labor so that businesses can reduce costs and increase profits.

It is clear that the advisers regard the sole legitimate end of any economy as making more and more money, especially through international trade, even if that means the dismantling of a whole way of life in a short time. Listening to those arguments, Trump doodles this on the paper pad in front of him: TRADE IS BAD!

In other words, the arch-capitalist real estate mogul realizes that an economy should be more than about just making money! Woodward doesn’t say it. But that is why Trump is such a paradox.

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