Some may chuckle that Trump’s measured rhetoric was not what his biggest fans signed up for, and that those fans will now pretend they were always cool with diplomacy. Some (like me) may joke that they’re old enough to remember when the non-Left made fun of Pres. Obama for needing a TelePrompTer to excel.
More seriously, some may dispute parts of Trump’s implicit critique of the prior two administrations’ foreign policy (which in fairness is pretty consistent for him, despite the change in tone).
And even those who approve generally of Trump’s effort to rebalance U.S. policy in the Middle East back toward the Sunni-dominated nations and away from Iran might take a moment to consider there may be some unintended consequences (and that such consequences historically tend not to benefit us). But overall, the speech was a serious effort warranting serious responses.
My focus here, however, is on the domestic impact of Trump’s speech (and foreign trip, as a whole, presuming he continues to perform similarly; he’s been described as “exhausted” already).
The obvious context is a White House that is somewhat under siege for things Trump has said — or allegedly said — off-prompter.
If you agree with me that there are a number of parallels between the Clinton era and what we’ve seen so far of the Trump era, you can see how Trump’s foreign trip can help him weather the storm on the homefront.
As I’ve previously noted, a key element in Bill Clinton’s crisis management blueprint was to triple down on doing his job — or at least to create the appearance of doing so. Bubba proved Americans can be pretty lax regarding scandals if you deliver results — or are at least seen as trying to focus on their concerns over the Beltway’s concerns. Spending a week focused on foreign policy — and not conducting unscripted interviews with the press — could at least help take the pot off the boil.
The problem is that, even if it works, Trump is unlikely to internalize it as a lesson.
For all of the parallels so far between the Trump administration and the Clinton administration, there is at least one big difference. Bill Clinton, perhaps from years of experience in office, realized that he needed strong political discipline to compensate for his lack of personal discipline.
Trump, on the other hand, lacks that experience and so far lacks that political insight or discipline. This can be seen as recently as his response to the appointment of a special counsel to lead the so-called Russia probe.
Like the “I’m going to work hard for the American people” tactic, Clinton understood the value of placing his scandals under official investigation. The appointment of independent counsels allowed the Clinton White House to stop responding to questions about various scandals on a continuing basis: “I’m sorry, we can’t comment on a matter under investigation.”
Instead of recognizing this benefit, one even discussed on “the shows,” Trump’s response was his usual response. The world’s alpha male whined and complained about how unfair it was that Pres. Obama and Hillary Clinton had not suffered the indignity of such an investigation (despite the FBI investigation of Hillary keeping her disqualifying qualities on the public’s mind during the 2016 campaign).
Maybe crisis management sinks in with Trump eventually, if it could be sold to him as clever. But he is not — as many of his critics suggest — an angry toddler. He’s a 70-year-old man who has become President behaving the way he does. Everyone keeps hoping for a pivot that hasn’t come in the entire time he has been on the political stage. But moments like his Riyadh speech may be exactly that — moments, to be weighed against the other, more unfortunate moments.
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