Donald Trump’s Year of Living Dangerously

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Susan Glasser is Politico’s chief international affairs columnist and host of its weekly podcast, The Global Politico.

When President Donald Trump sat down for dinner on September 18 in New York with leaders of four Latin American countries on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly, anxieties were already running high.

There was the matter of Mexico and his promise to build that “big, beautiful wall,” presumably to keep not just Mexicans but all of their citizens out of the United States too. And the threat to blow up the North American Free Trade Agreement. And then, a month earlier, seemingly out of nowhere, Trump had volunteered that he was considering a “military option” in Venezuela as that country’s last vestiges of democracy disappeared. Amid the international furor over his vow to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea in the same golf-course press conference, the news that the president of the United States was apparently considering going to war with its third-largest oil supplier had gotten relatively little attention. But the leaders from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Panama invited to the dinner remembered it well.

So, it turned out, did Trump. After the photo op was over and the cameras had left the room, Trump dominated the long table. His vice president, Mike Pence, was to his right; Pence had just spent nearly a week on a conciliatory, well-received tour of the region, the first by a high-ranking administration official since Trump’s inauguration. To Trump’s left was his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. “Rex tells me you don’t want me to use the military option in Venezuela,” the president told the gathered Latin American leaders, according to an account offered by an attendee soon after the dinner. “Is that right? Are you sure?” Everyone said they were sure. But they were rattled. War with Venezuela, as absurd as that seemed, was clearly still on Trump’s mind.

By the time the dinner was over, the leaders were in shock, and not just over the idle talk of armed conflict. No matter how prepared they were, eight months into an American presidency like no other, this was somehow not what they expected. A former senior U.S. official with whom I spoke was briefed by ministers from three of the four countries that attended the dinner. “Without fail, they just had wide eyes about the entire engagement,” the former official told me. Even if few took his martial bluster about Venezuela seriously, Trump struck them as uninformed about their issues and dangerously unpredictable, asking them to expend political capital on behalf of a U.S. that no longer seemed a reliable partner. “The word they all used was: ‘This guy is insane.’”

Ever since Trump took the oath of office on January 20, the world has been taking his measure, trying to make sense of his “America First” foreign policy and what it means for them. Over the course of the year, Trump has traveled to 13 countries and met with "more than 100 world leaders," as he bragged in a recent tweet. Many, like the Latin Americans who dined with him in September in New York or the Australian prime minister whom Trump snapped at in a phone call a little more than a week into his presidency, came away reeling from the encounter. Several others whom I’ve debriefed in recent months found Trump perfectly hospitable in private—while leaving with similarly scathing assessments of his volatility and lack of command of the facts. Some, like the Saudis and the Chinese, have wooed the disruptive new president with red-carpet fanfare and over-the-top flattery; others, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have combined simplistic charts and maps to press their case in private with public finger-wagging about Trump’s rejection of the norms of international diplomacy. All of them have anxiously pored through his Twitter feed for clues to America’s intentions, seeking the glimmerings of a Trump Doctrine in the president’s inflammatory, typo-ridden early morning pronouncements. ...

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