Trump Embarrasses The U.S. On The World Stage

Ken AshfordForeign Affairs, Trump & AdministrationLeave a Comment

Asked at a news conference in Japan on Saturday whether he agrees with Vladimir Putin’s claim that “Western-style liberalism” is in decline, President Trump responded by criticizing the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, which he said are “sad to look at” because they are “run by liberal people.”

Obviously, this was not what the Russian strongman was talking about during his interview with the Financial Times.

“Trump doesn’t know the difference between West Coast liberalism and Western liberalism — between supporting the Green New Deal and supporting the immortal words of the Declaration of Independence that all people are endowed ‘with certain unalienable Rights,’ including ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,’” laments conservative anti-Trump columnist Max Boot.

“In another portion of the news conference, he was asked about an exchange in Thursday night’s portion of the first Democratic presidential debate over busing. Trump, yet again, didn’t seem to understand what the term meant:

ABC NEWS’S JONATHAN KARL: I’m sure you saw the exchange between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on the issue of federal busing — federally mandated busing. Biden thought that was a bad policy; he tried to stop it. Kamala Harris said it was an important part of desegregation, including in her own experience. Where do you stand on that issue of federally mandated busing?

TRUMP: First of all, before we get into that, I thought that she was given too much credit. … And as far as that, I will tell you in about four weeks, because we’re coming out with a certain policy that’s going to be very interesting and very surprising, I think, to a lot of people. Jennifer, do you have a question?

So Trump is going to come out with a policy on federally mandated busing … in 2019? 

And who did he bring along on this trip to insert herself with heads of state? Ivanka, who probably knows as little about world affairs as her dad.

The first daughter’s prominence in Japan and South Korea appeared to be by design — a sign of her influence with President Trump and the current absence of influential opponents within the administration.

It’s not clear, however, to what end.

Ivanka Trump shuttered her clothing business after joining the administration, although not right away, and has largely stepped away from her old life as an entrepreneur and social mainstay in New York. She and her husband, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, let it be known last year that they would remain in Washington and in the White House indefinitely.

Her ambitions are unknown — she demurs on any desire for public office…

Mostly, her prominence on a major foreign trip sends a message about who other countries should listen to or court, said Christopher R. Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and other nations.

“It looks to the rest of the world like we have a kind of a constitutional monarchy,” said Hill, who oversaw nuclear talks with North Korea at the close of the George W. Bush administration.

“It’s increasingly problematic in terms of our credibility,” Hill said. “It says to our allies, to everyone we do business with, that the only people who matter are Trump and his family members.”…

Ivanka Trump’s presence at the DMZ is particularly troubling, said Jenny Town, a North Korea specialist at the Stimson Center and editor of 38 North, a publication focused on North Korea.

“It was not appropriate for Trump to bring his kids to this meeting,” Town said. “But it was a weird mix of people on the U.S. side to begin with. What’s notable, however, is who wasn’t there: Bolton.”

This is part of a pattern: Standing on the world stage as the face of the United States, Trump has routinely fumbled basic facts about history, foreign policy and economics. The president and his allies maintain that he’s consistently underestimated and does not receive credit for his successes. Trump supporters like his unconventional approach, and they take pride in his apparent embrace of the “madman theory” of foreign policy. Critics argue that he puts his foot in his mouth every time he leaves the country. “The President of the United States is breathtakingly ignorant,” tweeted conservative lawyer George Conway, who is married to senior Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, after the comments about Western liberalism in Osaka, Japan.

Trade might be the most notable example: Trump has either knowingly made many false statements about tariffs to the American people, or he does not understand the most basic principles of how they work. Either explanation is plausible.

Speaking about trade in London earlier in June during his European adventure, Trump told British Prime Minister Theresa May: “We are your largest partner. You’re our largest partner. A lot of people don’t know that. I was surprised. I made that statement yesterday, and a lot of people said, ‘Gee, I didn’t know that.’ But that’s the way it is.”

In fact, that’s not the way it is. The U.S.’s largest trading partner is China. The U.K.’s is Germany.

During the state visit, the president met privately with Prince Charles, who tried – and failed – to educate him on climate change. Trump has often cited bouts of severely cold weather as evidence that global warming is not happening, unwilling to see or perhaps unwilling to admit that long-term climate change means more extreme weather – not just warmer weather. During an interview with Piers Morgan in London, Trump recounted his conversation with the prince and said it did not affect his thinking.

The 45th president is the first in American history with no prior governing or military experience. This has meant even more on-the-job training than usual, and that’s been apparent to audiences both foreign and domestic. At a state dinner in Japan in November 2017, Trump marveled at all the foreign leaders who called him after his unexpected victory a year earlier. “After I had won, everybody was calling me from all over the world,” he said. “I never knew we had so many countries.”

Indeed, Trump reportedly did not know that Nepal and Bhutan were sovereign nations until an adviser told him. “Trump, while studying a briefer’s map of South Asia ahead of a 2017 meeting with India’s prime minister, mispronounced Nepal as ‘nipple’ and laughingly referred to Bhutan as ‘button,’” Politico reported last August. “‘He didn’t know what those were. He thought it was all part of India,’ said one person familiar with the meeting. ‘He was like, ‘‘What is this stuff in between and these other countries?”’

“Meeting with a group of African countries at the United Nations General Assembly last September, Trump, in public remarks, referred to the country of Namibia as ‘Nambia.’ … Trump also raised eyebrows during the same gathering when he announced that ‘I have so many friends going to your countries, trying to get rich. I congratulate you’ — prompting cringes among some aides aware how such talk would resonate on a continent that well remembers the exploitations of its colonial era. … When Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte visited the White House [in July 2018], Trump congratulated him on his ‘tremendous victory,’ even though the Italian had never campaigned for office or run in Italy’s election. (Conte was a compromise candidate by two parties who came out on top in the election.)”

Inspecting the damage of fires in California last November, Trump said that Finland doesn’t have the problems the U.S. does because the Fins spend so much time “raking” their forests.

In 2017, Trump mentioned that something bad had happened “last night” in Sweden because the country took in so many immigrants. Nothing bad had happened. Trump later tweeted that he was referring to a segment he had seen the night before on Fox News.

During a testy phone call in May 2018 with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trump invoked the War of 1812 as he sought to justify imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum produced by our northern neighbor for national security reasons. CNN reported that it was not totally clear whether Trump was joking when he said, “Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?” The British burned the White House only after the United States attacked Ontario, which was then a British colony.

Trump has often underestimated the complexity of foreign affairs. When he took office, for example, Trump thought he could persuade China to pressure North Korea to stop its nuclear program. Then President Xi Jinping tutored him at Mar-a-Lago on the basic history of that part of Asia. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized that it’s not so easy,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal in April 2017. “You know, I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power over North Korea. But it’s not what you would think.”

Trump marveled last April that North Korea and South Korea are technically in a state of war. “People don’t realize the Korean War has not ended,” Trump said, his face showing bafflement. “It’s going on right now!”

“Many of Trump’s ‘people don’t know’ remarks have involved foreign policy,” Jenna Johnson observed at the time. “Trump’s public remarks are filled with dozens of similar comments. They often begin with some variation of the phrase, “Most people don’t know…,’ and end with a nugget of information that many of those surrounding him — fellow world leaders, diplomats, journalists, politicians or aides — do indeed already know. …

“In a meeting with the Italian prime minister in April 2017, Trump noted that ‘Italy is one of America’s largest trading partners’ and that ‘a lot of people don’t know that.’ While meeting with the president of Afghanistan, Trump acknowledged that the situation on the ground is complicated and ‘people don’t realize you had 20 terrorist groups in Afghanistan.’ When he visited France, Trump explained that ‘France is America’s first and oldest ally’ and that ‘a lot of people don’t know that.’ … Is Trump playing the role of educator in chief, or simply sharing historical facts he’s newly learned?”

He has repeatedly done this on domestic matters, as well. In 2017, he informed top Republican donors during a fundraiser that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. “Most people don’t even know he was a Republican, right? Does anyone know? A lot of people don’t know that,” he said.

“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice,” he said at a Black History Month event. “Have you heard of Susan B. Anthony?” Trump asked at a Women’s History Month reception. Trump accused Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) of all people – a civil rights hero who was nearly beaten to death as he marched on Bloody Sunday in Selma – as “all talk, talk, talk – no action or results.”

Trump’s dearth of knowledge about the world was on display when he was a candidate. In July 2016, two years after Russia annexed Crimea, Trump was adamant that Putin would not invade Ukraine. “He’s not going into Ukraine, OK? Just so you understand,” Trump told ABC News a full two years after Russia had, in fact, gone into Ukraine. “You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.”

During a GOP primary debate, Trump did not know what the nuclear triad was when questioned about it. He mused during the campaign that Japan should maybe develop its own nuclear weapons to respond to North Korea’s proliferation.

“Belgium is a beautiful city,” Trump said at a June 2016 rally in Georgia. (Belgium is a country. Perhaps he was referring to Brussels, the capital.)

Don’t forget the time Trump referred to Second Corinthians as Two Corinthians during a February 2016 speech at Liberty University.

Trump has given little indication, if any, that he is intellectually curious. He volunteered in July 2016 that he has never read a biography of any former president. “He said in a series of interviews that he does not need to read extensively because he reaches the right decisions ‘with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability,” Trump biographer Marc Fisher wrote at the time. “Trump said he is skeptical of experts because ‘they can’t see the forest for the trees.’ He believes that when he makes decisions, people see that he instinctively knows the right thing to do: ‘A lot of people said, ‘Man, he was more accurate than guys who have studied it all the time.’’”

Some of Trump’s own advisers have reportedly applied harsh labels to him when confronted with advising Trump on complex matters, especially relating to national security and foreign affairs.Before he was fired as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson reportedly called Trump a “moron.”NBC News reported that the nation’s then-chief diplomat used that word after a July 2017 meeting at the Pentagon with members of Trump’s national security team and Cabinet officials. A day earlier, in another session at the White House Situation Room, NBC reported, Trump compared the decision-making process on troop levels in Afghanistan to the renovation of a high-end New York restaurant.

Trump responded to that story by saying that he is smarter than Tillerson. “I think it’s fake news, but if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win,” the president told Forbes.

During seven hours of closed-door testimony in May to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the transcript of which was released this past Thursday, Tillerson described the challenges of briefing a president who does not read briefing papers and often gets distracted by peripheral topics. He said he needed to keep his message short and focused on a single topic. He also reiterated his previous characterization that Trump does not dive into details and said he learned not to give the president articles or long memos. “That’s just not what he was going to do,” said Tillerson.

Tillerson declined to answer questions during the interview with House investigators about whether he had indeed called the president a moron, according to the transcript, which was overshadowed by the Democratic debates. “We really should move on,” Tillerson attorney Reg Brown interjected. When Tillerson was asked again, Brown repeated, “We’re ready to move on.”

— He is not the only former senior Trump aide who has reportedly questioned the president’s intelligence. During a National Security Council meeting about North Korea last year, Trump wondered why the United States maintained a military presence at all in South Korea. After the meeting, then-Defense Secretary James “Mattis was particularly exasperated and alarmed, telling close associates that the president acted like — and had the understanding of — ‘a fifth- or sixth-grader,’” according to Bob Woodward’s book “Fear.” Mattis denied uttering those words and referred to the book as “fiction.”

  • Woodward, an associate editor at The Washington Post, also reported that then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, like Mattis a retired Marine general, privately described Trump as an “idiot” and “unhinged.” Kelly denied it.
  • “He’s like an 11-year-old child,” former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told a friend in 2017, according to Vanity Fair. Bannon has denied criticizing the president.
  • Then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster said Trump is an “idiot” who has the intelligence of a “kindergartner” during a private dinner with a tech executive in the summer of 2017, BuzzFeed News reported a few months later. McMaster flatly denied doing so at the time.

Trump’s lack of historical perspective fuels his apparent sense of grievance. “Abraham Lincoln was treated supposedly very badly, but nobody’s been treated badly like me,” he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos a few weeks back. John F. Kennedy, William McKinley and James Garfield, among others, might disagree.

In May 2017, Trump wondered aloud why the Civil War happened: “People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?” Speaking to a reporter from the Washington Examiner about Andrew Jackson, who died in 1845 – 16 years before the traitorous rebels attacked Fort Sumter – Trump said: “Had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. … He was really angry [about what] he saw with regard to the Civil War. He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’”

This is the public face of the United States.