It is a rare moment where observing American politics is actually more interesting than observing political developments at home. Watching Donald Trump negotiate his young presidency is like watching an acrobat crossing the high wire. We are all waiting for him to fall.
Three weeks into his presidency, Trump absorbed two major political defeats. That alone is unprecedented.
First, a federal judge in Washington stayed the implementation of Trump’s travel ban. The ban, issued by executive order, suspends travel from seven nations. Petitioners against the executive order say this is a thinly veiled anti-Muslim ban.
Trump’s travel ban infuriates Muslims everywhere. Analysts say this exposes US citizens abroad to retaliatory action. The ban, while politically costly for Trump, does little to reduce security threats to the US homeland.
Second, Trump was forced to ask his national security adviser to resign after evidence he discussed US sanctions against Russia with the Russian ambassador – while Obama was still president. The US Department of Justice warned the White House weeks ago that the national security adviser could be vulnerable to blackmail. At any rate, there is a standing law against private citizens conducting diplomacy.
Depending on what Trump knew of the liaison and when he knew about it, the American president is now himself vulnerable to a top-level inquiry. In the worst possible case, he could end up the shortest-serving US president in history.
Interspersed with the two major political defeats are a long series of gaffes and embarrassments.
Trumps senior adviser Kellyanne Conway browbeat media for under-reporting on acts of terror. She kept referring to a “massacre” that never happened. The very next day, she went on national television endorsing the clothing line of Trump daughter Ivanka. That provoked an ethics complaint against her.
Trump himself is walking scandal. On the very first day of his presidency, he warred with the “dishonest media” for understating the size of the crowd that turned up for the presidential inaugural. All the evidence point to a smaller crowd as reported. He claimed there was massive electoral fraud causing him to lose the popular vote. That claim remains fact-free to this day.
His nominee for education secretary so divided the US Senate Vice President Mike Pence had to cast a tie-breaking vote to get her confirmed. That is unprecedented in American political history. The vice president presides over the US Senate in a largely ceremonial role.
During the campaign, Trump promised to repeal “Obamacare” (the Affordable Health Care Act) on his first day in office. It turns out, he had no alternative health care plan worked out. When the Republican congressmen were sent to their districts to conduct town hall meetings on the matter, angry citizens shouted down the legislators.
Trump’s forays into foreign policy leave everybody flabbergasted.
During the campaign, he told voters he would build a high wall across the long southern border and will make Mexico pay for it. When he visited the Mexican president, he could not find the gall to ask his counterpart to pay for the wall. There was no mention of the wall at all.
Shortly after wining the elections, Trump took a call from the president of Taiwan. Beijing, as a matter of course, vigorously protested. Trump declared the One-China policy, a main feature of US foreign policy for decades, needs review. A couple of weeks ago, Trump took a call from the Chinese president and affirmed the One-China policy.
Trump, during the campaign, declared Japan should be made to pay for her own security. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited last week, Trump announced full support for Japan. He made no mention about the cost of doing so.
Earlier this week, meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, Trump surprised everybody by appearing to drop the two-state solution to the Palestinian solution. The two-state solution (a state for Israel and another for Palestine) has been a main plank of US foreign policy for decades.
The stalemate dragged on for so many years because Israeli hardliners (like Netanyahu) reject the idea of recognizing full Palestinian statehood. Trump’s latest statement on the matter is nearly as jaw-dropping as his earlier proposal to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. Nothing would rile the Palestinians, and the entire Muslim world, more.
During the campaign, several dozen national security veterans signed an open letter warning about Trump’s lack of intellectual stability to be trusted with the nuclear codes. Trump’s fanatical base paid no heed to the warning.
Last week, a group of psychiatrists signed another open letter basically questioning Trump’s mental stability. The mental health professionals felt they would be remiss in their duties if they did not issue such a statement. The statement did not say what sane people could do about it.
When Rodrigo Duterte was elected last year, there were those who feared constant instability because of his blunt and gung-ho style of leadership. In contrast with Trump, Duterte is a lot more sedate. Our President shocks with his language but leaves policy-making relatively stable.
Trump, of course, wields a thousand times more power than our president. He could upset geopolitics and his policies could drive the American economy into a tailspin. What he does, the mess he creates, will impact on all nations.
Donald Trump has now become the main item of risk other governments must now factor into their calculations. We all hope the high office he now occupies will grow on him. There has, so far, been little indication of that – even as his job approval rating sinks by the day.