Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Something has changed. President Donald Trump’s headline-hungry governing style has never lacked for drama, but there’s a new sense of aimlessness lately in Trump’s frenetic search for a crisis, his efforts to control the headlines, distract from other events, and keep his base satisfied that he is the muscular fighter who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals.
In reality, the Trump administration is a vortex of incoherence.
In the final weeks of 2018, Trump suddenly revived his promise to build a wall with all the concentrated determination of a man fleeing a posse. The promise was never quite dead (the second stanza of the “Build the Wall” campaign chant, the part about Mexico paying, has faded, drowned by the debunking of nonsensical claims) but two years into the Trump administration, the urgency of building a wall exploded onto the scene only after tangible threats to Trump looked imminent.
After winning control of the House of Representatives, Democrats prepared to launch real investigations into the endless areas of possible corruption and malfeasance in the administration, a development that coincidentally occurred just as the probe into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia started gushing new damning revelations, with the Mueller investigation appearing to zero in on its target.
Trump is flailing badly on foreign and domestic policy. At home, some of his allies are worried, and abroad there is also concern.
At home, the government shutdown over a phony crisis at the border has created a very real crisis for hundreds of thousands of Americans, not only the more than 800,000 federal workers at risk of going without a paycheck, or the more than 420,000 who are – incredibly – required to work without pay, but also the millions more who depend on spending by all of those people.
Trump’s strategy seems baffling because it is so unnecessarily harmful to individuals, to the country, and even to Republicans in Congress. Already some Republican senators have parted ways with him. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has called for an end to the shutdown. Sen. Susan Collins said she’s looking for a compromise, something Trump histrionically signaled he has no interest in when he walked out of a meeting with Democratic leaders. Both Murkowski and Collins were instrumental to ending the 2013 shutdown, conferring with colleagues across the aisle when other Republicans wouldn’t.
Trump’s claim that there’s an immigration crisis at the border is refuted by experts. His demonization of immigrants treads a well-worn path of demagogues seeking to invent enemies to build support. And even people who live along the border are skeptical of his claim that a wall is a solution. And yet he has brought part of the government to a standstill over it.
The shutdown is helping Trump keep the latest developments on Russia off the top of the news. But it is not making them disappear. Just this week, a redaction error in a court filing revealed that Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chief, passed confidential campaign polling data to a business associate with close links to the Kremlin. It is the most powerful public evidence yet of coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. Separately, the Russian lawyer who met at Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr. and other top campaign figures, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was indicted in an unrelated case that offered further proof of her close links to the Russian government. The case against Trump is becoming more ominous by the day. And that’s just a small piece of his troubles.
No wonder Trump is throwing everything at the wall, trying to make us look in a different direction, threatening to cut off aid to Californians who lost everything in recent fires, saying he will declare a national emergency if he doesn’t get his way.
Republicans see what the rest of us do. “The guy is nuts,” is what some congressional Republicans say about Trump privately, according to former Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. “He doesn’t have a grasp of issues, he’s making rash decisions, he’s not listening to people who know the subject matter.”
A recent foreign policy example shows the destructive impact of Trump’s impulsiveness on the global stage, with top administration officials touring the Middle East to contain the fallout from his sudden announcement that the United States is pulling out of Syria. American troops, he unexpectedly announced, are “coming back now. We won.”
The December announcement sent shockwaves. Almost every expert said it was a mistake. Defense Secretary James Mattis, one of the administration’s most respected officials, resigned in protest, with a letter that castigated Trump’s conduct of foreign policy. The Syria plan seemed to contradict every foreign policy objective Trump had claimed to embrace. It was a boon to Iran, a gift to ISIS, a potentially deadly blow to America’s Kurdish allies, and a weakening of support for Israel.
Then started the backtracking, the meandering, the confusion so astonishingly unseemly for the world’s most powerful nation. The “now” turned into a little later, maybe four months. National security adviser John Bolton said US forces would leave, but only after ISIS was really defeated (never mind “we won”) and after guarantees that Turkey would not attack the Kurds.
Turkey was furious. When Bolton traveled to Turkey, President Erdogan snubbed him, refusing to meet. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then gave yet another version of Washington’s plans for Syria, creating even more confusion.
Professionals in government have been trying to keep a semblance of sound and coherent policygoing, but when Trump becomes directly involved, rationality can disappear. Trump’s faith in his “gut,” his narcissistic belief that he knows more than people who have dedicated their lives to understanding complex issues, propelled by his compulsion to be the center of attention and his goal of obscuring reality and distracting from his growing troubles, adds up to a destructive policy muddle.
That’s one reason he can’t fill key positions. Mattis was only one of many top figures to leave. After Chief of Staff John Kelly (the last one of what Trump called “my generals”) left the administration, the President went through an embarrassing spectacle trying to replace him. Now many of the most important jobs in government are temporarily filled by interim or stand-in “acting” officials.
Trump is trying to look tough, but his actions betray nervousness, fear. The news that Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, will testify publicly before Congress in February is likely to become yet another thing from which the President will try to distract us. His apparent belief that a national “border crisis” protects him from his troubles represents a very real crisis of presidential leadership for the country.