The folks at NBC News’ First Read flagged an interesting trifecta that’s unfolded over the last 17 days.
In less than three weeks, President Trump has made three different retreats:
1. Reaching a deal with Mexico to avert tariffs – a deal that largely consisted of actions that Mexico had already agreed to.
2. Backing down on military strikes against Iran for shooting down a U.S. surveillance drone.
3. Delaying his plan for nationwide raids to deport undocumented immigrants.
I imagine Donald Trump’s followers would respond to this list by arguing that each of their reprieves came with a caveat: the president may yet change his mind. That’s fair, as far as it goes, and it’s possible the White House will still impose new tariffs on Mexico, launch military strikes on Iran, and initiate a mass-deportation program.
It’s also worth noting that in each of these instances, the Republican moved in a direction that I approve of. As an observer who didn’t want to see Trump punish Mexico for no reason, touch off another deadly war in the Middle East, or deport thousands of families, these reversals were welcome developments.
But my personal preferences notwithstanding, the behavioral pattern carries consequences. This president has an unmistakable habit of making threats, and then backing off. Starting fires, and then putting them out. Vowing action, and then pursuing inaction.
Trump was going to close the southern border, until he didn’t. He was going to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, until he didn’t. He was going to subject North Korea to “fire and fury,” until he didn’t. There have been plenty of bills the president was prepared to veto, lawsuits he was prepared to file, and information he was prepared to divulge, only to have Trump retreat, over and over again.
Trump keeps playing erratic games of chicken, before being exposed as someone who likes to bluff – badly.
Jon Alterman, Middle East Program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Washington Post, “If you make threats and then people decide you aren’t going to follow through, if you’re looking for the reaction and you stop getting the reaction, the options are either to make larger threats or to stop going down that road at all…. Credibility is a hard thing for a president to maintain.”
That was in mid-May – several examples of threaten-and-retreat ago.