In the Oval Office yesterday, Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan was asked about Donald Trump possibly playing a diplomatic role in Kashmir. Sitting alongside the American president, Khan voiced his support for White House intervention, expressing confidence that Trump would "push the process."
It was at this point that the Republican made some dramatic news, announcing that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had personally invited Trump to participate in negotiations. From the official transcript:
TRUMP: So I was with -- I was with Prime Minister Modi two weeks ago, and we talked about this subject. And he actually said, "Would you like to be a mediator or arbitrator?" I said, "Where?" He said, "Kashmir." Because this has been going on for many, many years. I was surprised at how long; it's been going on a long —KHAN: Seventy years.TRUMP: And I think they'd like to see it resolved. And I think you'd like to see it resolved. And if I can help, I would love to be a mediator. It shouldn't be — I mean, it's impossible to believe two incredible countries that are very, very smart, with very smart leadership, can't solve a problem like that. But if you want me to mediate or arbitrate, I would be willing to do that.
The American leader went on to again say that Modi "asked" him to help resolve the conflict, adding, "I've heard so much about Kashmir. Such a beautiful name."
At face value, Trump's claims were impossible to believe. India has never wanted outside involvement on Kashmir, and the idea that its prime minister would reach out directly to an American president -- an easily confused amateur who knows nothing about the dispute -- and ask him to serve as a mediator, seemed bizarre.
And that's because the exchange Trump described apparently didn't happen in reality. It wasn't long after the president made his public comments that Indian officials delicately contradicted the American leader, explaining, "It has been India's consistent position ... that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally."
Or put another way, no one should take Trump's rhetoric seriously.
This struck me as significant for a couple of reasons. The first is that Trump has an odd habit of thinking some of the world's most intractable challenges are easy, largely because he doesn't know better. Middle East peace? Easy. Putting people on Mars? No problem. Overhauling the American health care system in a few weeks? Piece of cake. Resolving the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan? Consider it done.
I'm all for American leaders having ambitious goals, but the Republican president thinks everything's simple because he doesn't know enough about current events or public policy to appreciate the complexities of these problems. His confidence is born of ignorance and arrogance.
The other angle of note is that yesterday offered a fresh example of Trump forgetting an important rule: it's a bad idea to attribute made-up quotes to real people who are capable of speaking for themselves.
It was earlier this year, for example, when Trump told reporters that “some” of his presidential predecessors had told him they wish they’d built a wall along the United States’ southern border. It was, of course, an impossible claim to take seriously, which was made worse when each of the living former presidents issued statements debunking Trump’s claim.
There was a moral to the story: when Trump describes made-up conversations -- something he does with alarming frequency -- he needs to avoid references to real people who can expose his nonsense.
As we discussed at the time, the president tends to understand this fairly well, which is why he frequently quotes “anonymous validators”: mysterious unnamed people, whom the president swears exist, who we’re supposed to believe secretly tell Trump how right he is about the major issues of the day. It’s impossible to definitely prove that all of these people are fictional, which creates a rhetorical safe harbor for the Republican.
Occasionally, however, Trump forgets the rule.