US President Donald J. Trump participates in a health care discussion in the White House in Washington, DC , USA, 10 March 2017.
SHAWN THEW/EPA

Trump faces foreign policy tests he doesn’t know how to pass

At a White House press conference yesterday alongside Jordan’s King Abdullah, Donald Trump was asked about Iranian support for the Syrian regime. The president responded by complaining about the Iran nuclear deal, which in context, didn’t make any sense. At the same event, asked about his administration’s plans for U.S. policy towards Syria, Trump’s answer was even stranger.

“I don’t have to have one specific way, and if the world changes, I go the same way,” he said. “I don’t change. Well, I do change.”

The Rachel Maddow Show, 4/5/17, 9:00 PM ET

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Soon after, BuzzFeed reported that officials in Trump’s Defense Department “were left confused” by what, exactly, the president intends to do.
[T]hree defense officials told BuzzFeed News they cannot begin to craft a military response, if that is what Trump wants, without a clear understanding of what the president wants to see happen in Syria. Does he only want the Assad regime to stop using chemical weapons? Does he want regime change? Is he seeking a negotiated settlement? Or were Trump’s comments simply rhetoric?
It’s one thing when you and I have no idea what Trump’s intentions are, but as Rachel explained on the show last night, when officials in his own administration can’t figure out what their boss wants to do, there’s a much larger problem.

It’s not that Trump is implementing the wrong foreign policy. We’re dealing with a more alarming dynamic in which the president and his White House team don’t seem to have a foreign policy.

Trump is quite clear about two core beliefs: the president is (a) convinced “Obama’s bad,” and (b) committed to some vague sense of “toughness.” But bumper-sticker slogans do not a foreign policy make.

A Washington Post analysis explained late yesterday, “President Trump has made some broad, sweeping promises about foreign policy…. But when he’s pushed on how, specifically, he aims to achieve his foreign policy goals, he’s not very forthcoming.”

Of course, even that assessment is predicated on the assumption that Trump knows what he wants to do, but prefers to keep his cards close to his chest. Perhaps the more realistic assumption is that the president doesn’t have any cards, doesn’t understand the game he’s playing, and is simply going through the motions hoping that no one notices he has no idea what he’s doing.

There’s no coherent thread tying recent developments together: Trump is picking pointless fights with U.S. allies; he’s cozying up to dictators; he’s offering mixed signals on Syria; he’s raising more questions than answers on North Korea; and he’s making a mess of the White House National Security Council.

There are, meanwhile, critically important meetings with the Chinese president in Florida starting today, and by all appearances, Team Trump is already in over its head.

As Rachel noted on the show last night, “Whatever you think about the competence of this administration, the world is not waiting for them to get it together. Quite to the contrary, the world is now issuing its first tests.”

If only Donald Trump had prepared, he might not be flunking this badly.

Donald Trump and Foreign Policy

Trump faces foreign policy tests he doesn't know how to pass