During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump was not only eager to condemn every trade deal he could think of, he also assured voters that he, if elected, would negotiate far better agreements. As president, the results have been slow to materialize: to date, Trump hasn’t negotiated any new trade deals.
He has, however, tweaked an old one. A week ago today, the administration and officials in South Korea announced changes to the existing KORUS agreement between the two countries. The changes were relatively modest, but the White House was nevertheless thrilled to have something new and substantive to brag about.
It therefore came as something of a surprise when, just two days later, Trump announced that he might delay implementation of the new trade deal with South Korea until after his talks with North Korea. It was an odd and unexpected move, which suggested Trump thought the U.S. ally might try to undermine him during the talks.
The Washington Post’s David Ignatius yesterday said something interesting on MSNBC:
“I had a South Korean ask me, ‘Were the president’s comments about holding the new trade deal … was that real? Did he really mean that? Or was he just ad-libbing?’ They really didn’t know, but they were sort of horrified at a time when they were conducting the most sensitive diplomacy for their country.”
The South Korean confusion was certainly understandable. We are, after all, talking about a key U.S. ally that Trump has gone out of his way to antagonize for reasons that no one seems able to explain.
But South Koreans aren’t the only ones asking questions like, “Was that real?” and “Did he really mean that?” Because the truth of the matter is, we’re watching a presidential tale play out with an unreliable narrator.
In fiction, story tellers utilize unreliable narrators all the time. To understand the developments in a story, readers and viewers often rely on the first-person accounts from the person telling the story, but the challenge comes when the narrator doesn’t offer readers an accurate account of events. We’re left to figure out the truth through context and other sources.
In the real world, Trump, lacking anything resembling credibility, is similarly unreliable: he’s telling us a story about his plans, his priorities, and his agenda, but we have no way of knowing whether his narrative in any way reflects reality.
Indeed, much of the political world is often left scratching its heads. After Trump announced the end of DACA negotiations over the weekend, the New York Times noted in passing, “It was unclear whether the president’s tweets represented any change in his immigration policy, or were just the sort of venting he is known to do after reading a newspaper article or seeing a television program.”
After Trump announced the imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, Vox noted, “[O]f course, there’s no indication that this represents actual policy as opposed to the ramblings of a president who is a strangely marginal figure in his own administration.”
We’re all slowly adapting, coming to terms with the fact that news about the White House from the president should, just as a matter of course, be taken with a grain of salt.
To be sure, there are competing explanations for this. The amateur president, for example, is often confused. Trump also often lies. Occasionally, he sees value in keeping everyone “off balance” – for reasons that are only clear to him – which means making off-the-wall threats and/or promises he has no intention of honoring.
Regardless, the end result is the same: when the president of the United States makes a public declaration about matters of great importance, no one has any idea whether to trust him. We have an unreliable narrator in the Oval Office, presenting the world with a narrative that’s literally unbelievable.
As for the trade deal with South Korea, is it currently on hold? Despite Trump’s remarks last week, no one seems to know for sure. That’s precisely the problem.