President Trump often talks about leaving the Middle East, getting out of “endless wars” and spending our resources here at home under a policy of “America First.”
So it was quite a moment when, on the night of Jan. 5, he threatened to impose “very big sanctions” on Iraq if the Iraqi parliament follows through on its nonbinding resolution to oust American forces from its soil. “We will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before, ever,” Trump said. “It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”
If you’re trying to follow along from home, this is a perfectly understandable moment to say, “Wait, what? Isn’t that a complete flip?”
The key word here is “moment.” That’s where Trump lives: in the moment. You wouldn’t think Don from Queens could be so zen, but it is what it is. He consistently says he wants to extricate the U.S. from Mideast conflicts. Except for all the times he doesn’t. With each about-face, his defenders and detractors rush to debate the theory behind the policy change, when there is none.
We should be used to it by now. Trump has told us time and time again: He leads with his gut, listens to his instincts, keeps people guessing and goes with the flow. “I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops,” he says in his ghostwritten autobiography “The Art of the Deal.”
To expect intellectual consistency from Trump is like expecting a dog to meow. It’s not in his nature.
Trump has made it clear he doesn’t care for extensive preparation or briefing papers. He likes to go into summits unencumbered by such things, relying instead on his ability to read the room. (“It’s worse than you can imagine,” former economic adviser Gary Cohn has said. “Trump won’t read anything — not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers, nothing.”)
When Trump announced he was pulling U.S. troops out of Syria last fall, there was no policy development behind it, according to sources familiar with the event. He had a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and made the decision on the fly. Erdogan told Trump that he had to make way for Turkish troops because NATO allies cannot fight each other.
Aides and advisers were appalled but couldn’t convince Trump to reverse course — until they told him about some oil wells we’d be leaving behind. Having talked for years about “taking the oil” as recompense for Middle East military interventions, he changed course again. Had he read his briefing papers, he’d have known about the marginally significant oil wells already. He’d also have known we didn’t have to do Erdogan’s bidding.
But that’s how Trump governs, from one moment to another, responding to stimuli from conversations, TV shows and his own mood. (In a deposition years ago, he admitted that his estimate of his net worth changes with how he feels about himself on any given day.)
It’s the difference between long-term investing and day trading. Most presidents try to follow a consistent line of policy, philosophy or both. Trump is a man of dots — scattershot moments connected only by Trump’s authorship of them. He has a few core convictions (“tariffs are good,” “get the oil,” etc.), a love of praise and a desire to collect disparate “wins” he can use as talking points. Thus, you can be sure he will simultaneously campaign on pulling troops out of the Middle East and sending them in, in the same way he boasts about lowering trade barriers and raising them. Consistency is in the eye of the beholder, not the man.
This leaves observers, at home and abroad, to connect the dots on their own. His fans see three-dimensional chess, or, when that won’t fly, they see the “real” Trump being manipulated by sinister forces. His most ardent foes see, well ... lots of different things. The Iranians, for example, made the mistake of believing Trump’s rhetoric about getting out of the Middle East and its endless wars.
Over the last six months, Iran committed one outrageous and provocative act after another, and the Trump administration did little in response, because the Magic 8-ball that is Trump’s gut said, “Ask Again Later.” Then, suddenly, the president changed his mind and seized a new moment, opting for a massive escalation by killing Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s most important general. Trump’s reasoning might have been, as the White House alleges, to avert imminent threats. Or it might have been because he wanted to change media coverage, or influence the impeachment process, or because he had bad clams for lunch.
Until we find out how Iran responds — and how Trump responds to that response — the wisdom of his decision depends entirely on which dots you connect from his presidency so far. But for Trump, it was just another moment.
Goldberg is editor-in-chief of The Dispatch and the host of The Remnant podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @JonahDispatch.