Many on Britain’s centre-right dismiss Donald Trump as a crude narcissist. They cite his flirtation with the Alt-Right, threats of tariffs, approach to Kim Jong-Un, ambiguity over Putin, retweeting of British fascists, and slapdowns of Theresa May. The sum of their view is that one never knows what the President is going to get up to next.
Others claim by contrast that if one looks beyond the President’s Twitter feed, a more considered and consistent figure can be seen – one who is consolidating the conservative presence among America’s judges; has got his tax programme through Congress; is working well with his own party there, is speeding the growth of his country’s economy and is making its presence felt abroad.
I came to Washington for a David Cameron speech – of which more tomorrow. I hoped while passing through to find a more settled view of Trump among the centre-right. On this score, as so often, I failed completely.
“Whatever the subject under discussion is, he’s the best-informed person in the room,” one well-placed observer told me. He painted a picture of a thoughtful President who consults, listens and weighs advice before acting with force. And he praised Trump for some of the aspects of his presidency described on this site by Ben Roback: the judicial appointments, the improved relations with congressional republicans, the tax cuts. There was no enthusiasm for the President’s outreach to North Korea, but “you have to understand that this is man who just loves doing deals”. It follows that when, Trump realises there is no acceptable deal on offer, he will toughen up again, according to this take.
“The signs are bad,” I was told, in stark contrast, only a day later. By this reading, Trump’s approach to Kim Jong-Un is naive, frivolous, and has achieved nothing other than to give a tyrant the international recognition he craves. Elsewhere abroad, nothing is seen through: for example, the President’s bombing of Syria may have deterred the regime from using Sarin, but Assad’s bombings go on. At home, Trump has failed on healthcare, has little interest in controlling federal spending, and is stoking up an unsustainable boom. The White House is dysfunctional, as the long list of Presidential sackings shows: James Comey, Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, Reince Preibus, Gary Cohn, Sean Spicer, and now Rex Tillerson. And more.
Both interpretations agree that this is a Reality TV show presidency – but differ on whether there is substance behind the noise of the tweets. Whichever version is right, it may be that the real significance of his latest sacking has been largely missed in Britain.
The multilateral deal with Iran reached under Barack Obama’s presidency is either supported or viewed with indifference by much of the centre-right here. Not so in America. Tillerson lined up with European governments, including ours, in backing the agreement. Mike Pompeo, his replacement, is a long-time critic – as is the President himself.
Trump has already shown himself more than willing to break with Britain, as well as the rest of the EU, over foreign policy – announcing withdrawal from the Paris Agreement over Climate Change; recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Britain is preoccupied by Brexit. We perhaps have room for only one foreign affairs distraction at a time, and the clash with Russia over the Salisbury incident is providing it. But it is worth keeping an eye on the President’s approach to Iran – at present, from our perspective, a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand (or tweet).
Mind you, perhaps we should be ready for the author of The Art of the Deal to announce suddenly that he is ready to visit Tehran and open talks with Hassan Rouhani.