Donald Trump can't seem to make up his mind about whether ISIS has lost control of all of its territory in Syria and Iraq. Occasionally the president says the achievement is near, occasionally he claims it's already happened.
Of course, either way, it's only part of a larger puzzle. The demise of the ISIS "caliphate" matters, but so long as the terrorist network's dangerous militants remain plentiful, the amount of land it controls isn't the only consideration that matters.
White House National Security Advisor John Bolton appeared on ABC News' "This Week" yesterday to make clear that Trump and his team are well aware of the details.
"The president has been I think as clear as clear can be when he talks about the defeat of the ISIS territorial caliphate. He has never said that the elimination of the territorial caliphate means the end of ISIS in total. We know that's not the case."
Well, maybe. I don't doubt that there are plenty of officials in the U.S. government who appreciate the fact that ISIS remains a threat, caliphate or no caliphate, but it's much tougher to say the same about their boss.
It was, after all, just a few months ago when Trump declared in an online video message, "[W]e have won against ISIS. We've beaten them and we've beaten them badly." He went on to boast that American troops have successfully "killed ISIS."
Even at the time, Republicans cringed, knowing full well that the president's rhetoric wasn't true, but Trump didn't apologize or walk back his rhetoric. He was eager to declare victory -- a "Mission Accomplished" moment, one might say -- and so he and the White House peddled the rhetoric they knew to be wrong.
And yet, there was John Bolton yesterday, effectively playing the role of presidential interpreter, trying to turn Trump's words into English. Sure, the president may have argued that the United States successfully beat ISIS, but we're apparently supposed to listen to the White House national security advisor, who's certain Trump understands reality, even if it's at odds with the president's own rhetoric.
Yesterday, alas, was not an isolated incident. After Trump exonerated North Korea's Kim Jong-un, for example, saying the dictator wasn't responsible for what happened to Otto Warmbier, his team was forced to engage in a spirited effort of, "What the president meant was..."
The incident involving Trump and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in the Oval Office a week prior was every bit as embarrassing.
As a recent Washington Post report summarized, "Two years into a presidency that has upended assumptions about the U.S. role in the world and flipped the script on core Republican tenets such as arms control, ardent support for democratic principles and free trade, Trump's national security officials and Republican allies are still struggling to defend or even explain the president."