President Donald J. Trump woke up this morning and issued a tweet about FISA that seemed to contradict his administration’s position on an upcoming FISA vote:
“House votes on controversial FISA ACT today.” This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2018
What’s going on? Today the House votes on reauthorizing “Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, that permits the government to collect without a warrant from American firms, like Google and AT&T, the emails and other communications of foreigners abroad — even when they are talking to Americans.” Section 702 will certainly be reauthorized, but libertarian-minded lawmakers like Justin Amash are trying to impose a warrant requirement for such searches. The White House has consistently opposed any such amendment, with Sarah Sanders saying as recently as last night that the amendment would “would re-establish the walls between intelligence and law enforcement that our country knocked down following the attacks of 9/11.” Sanders said, in no uncertain terms: “The Administration urges the House to reject this amendment.”
And then Trump stepped into the breach with his tweet, emboldening the supporters of the amendment and undermining the clarity of his administration’s position.
Apparently somebody spoke to him, because one hour and 41 minutes later, Trump tweeted this:
With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2018
That is a big Emily Litella-style climbdown. And it was obviously motivated by the intervention of someone who, unlike Trump, understood his administration’s position.
If the notion of Trump farting out an off-message policy statement and having to be walked back sounds familiar, cast your memory back to two days ago, when Trump seemed to tell Sen. Dianne Feinstein that he was for a “clean” DACA bill — a statement that Kevin McCarthy had to help Trump walk back. Trump is like a kid who might suddenly dart into traffic at any moment. You have to hold that tiny little hand tight, to keep him safe.
You don’t need Michael Wolff to tell you that Trump is a woefully uninformed man-child who stumbles around saying random things. This aspect of Trump’s character is on public display, day after day.
So what does this say about the nature of Trump’s presidency? Until we get to foreign policy, not much. It appears that, for the most part, the people around him manage to get the right thing done most of the time, despite Trump. And he obviously listens, at least sometimes. Although the FISA tweet and Feinstein DACA examples show that Trump has no grasp of what his position is supposed to be, they also show that when the correct position is explained to him (which we know happened with Feinstein and which I assume happened with FISA today), he is willing to back down from his incorrect pronouncements. True, an informed president could do more with the bully pulpit to push legislation like ObamaCare repeal. But he mostly does OK on the domestic front.
Ah, but then there’s foreign policy. There, Trump both interacts directly with other world leaders, and also makes public pronouncements on his own (“fire and fury,” anyone?). I think a lot of people assume that, hey, everything will be OK because we have folks like Mattis or McMaster around to rein Trump in. But if you believe the story in Wolff’s book (and here’s an example of a story I believe), Trump has contempt for McMaster, whom he finds “boring” because of his penchant for PowerPoints that make Trump feel like he is being lectured to by a professor. In any event, let’s assume for the sake of argument that Mattis & Co. support comments like “fire and fury” as exemplifying Nixon’s crazy man strategy. It’s still concerning that a guy whose ad libs are often this uninformed and off-message is the Voice of America.
I’m sure my concerns about all this will be met with arguments that South Korea is crediting Trump with bringing North Korea to the table for talks. Settle down, Sparky. The situation is hardly resolved yet. That’s not Trump’s fault, of course; presidents since Clinton have devoted a lot of energy to addressing North Korea, and every effort has ended in failure. It’s a problem that has no easy solution. But when I look at Trump’s aggressive pronouncements about nuclear war, a rhetorical question keeps coming to mind: when did mindless and prideful escalation ever lead to unnecessary violence?
I realize it seems we have detoured far from our original discussion about FISA, section 702, and Trump’s contradictory tweets. But in the headline I promised an analysis about the larger meaning for Trump’s presidency of having a man in the Oval Office with a grade-school-level grasp of policy details. And foreign policy in general — and North Korea in particular — are a YUUUUUGE part of that discussion.
Exit suggestion: if you’ve never seen Nick Kristof’s video from November about North Korea’s preparation for war, set aside some time to watch it. Kristof visited North Korea and interviewed government officials and people on the street — and at the end there is an interesting reveal about the way in which the officials guided the expression of opinions from the “normal citizens.” I disagree with Kristof about a lot of things — just yesterday, I was dismissing Kristof’s worry about Trump’s authoritarianism, noting that while Trump certainly talks like an authoritarian, he doesn’t really act like one. But it’s hard to watch a video like this and not be acutely aware that North Korea at least wants to send the message that it considers war with America virtually inevitable. As we cheer the slight reduction in regulations under Donald Trump, let’s give a little thought to the at least equally important issue of whether we are about to go to nuclear war with a country led by a madman.