Pentagon leaders, national security officials, Trump administration lawyers, and a variety of diplomatic officials have all warned the president about designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. As the New York Times reported yesterday, Donald Trump seems inclined to do it anyway.
The White House directed national security and diplomatic officials to find a way to place sanctions on the group after a White House visit on April 9 by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, for whom the Brotherhood represents a source of political opposition. In a private meeting without reporters and photographers, Mr. el-Sisi urged Mr. Trump to take that step and join Egypt in branding the movement a terrorist organization.Such a designation imposes wide-ranging economic and travel sanctions on companies and individuals who interact with the targeted group. The president responded affirmatively to Mr. el-Sisi, saying it would make sense. Some of Mr. Trump's advisers have interpreted that as a commitment, officials said.
The motivations of the Egyptian president are obvious: persuading Trump to label el-Sisi's opponents as terrorists would strengthen the leadership in Cairo.
The benefits for the United States, however, are harder to identify. So why would the American president signal his support for the Egyptian leader's recommendation? Especially since officials in the Pentagon and State Department have said the Brotherhood "does not meet the legal definition of a terrorist group and that its designation could have unintended consequences in allied countries where the Brotherhood fields prominent political parties"?
Perhaps because Trump has no idea what he's doing. As the Washington Post's Max Boot noted yesterday, "The paradox of President Trump, as I've noted before, is that he is both a supremely skilled con man -- and a supremely gullible mark. He is notorious for acting on the advice of the last person he talked to.... Now he has gone from listening to fast-buck artists peddling get-rich-quick schemes to listening to dictators peddling fly-by-night geopolitical schemes."
It would be less of a problem if this didn't happen quite so frequently.
Ned Price, an Obama administration veteran and an NBC News analyst, took stock yesterday of how many times we've seen the gullible Republican make brash and reckless decisions at the urging of a foreign counterpart, and the list wasn't especially short.
Price concluded, "The message the world over is clear: Get Trump alone on the phone or in a room and it's carte blanche, America's interests be damned."
One of the foundational questions of the Trump presidency is who, exactly, the Republican is willing to listen to. We know, for example, that Trump has been comfortable ignoring the judgment of GOP leaders in Congress. We also know, because he's been quite candid on the matter, that he doesn't trust the judgment of American intelligence agencies.
So whose guidance does the president find reliable? He clearly places enormous value on what he hears from far-right voices in conservative media. Trump similarly loves conspiracy theories peddled by assorted websites on the right.
But perhaps most important is the Republican's willingness to listen to whichever foreign autocrat happens to be whispering in his ear.