THE revelations about the Trump White House exposed in a new book by veteran journalist Bob Woodward, along with an anonymous op-ed published in The New York Times on Wednesday, have gripped America.
They give an account of an administration in disarray and of a president whose lack of understanding and tempestuous countenance makes him unfit to hold the office.
Since the book’s release, column inches and airwaves have been filled with what this means for the US; is it a constitutional crisis? Is the president a danger to national security? And what can be done about it?
But the chaos described could have wider implications far beyond just America. Encounters described in both the op-ed and Woodward’s book cast doubt on some of the administration’s biggest foreign policy decisions and call into question just how much Asia’s leaders – and fellow deal-makers – can trust what’s coming from the White House.
SEE ALSO: Is North Korea playing Trump?
‘Let’s f**king kill him!’
It appears damage to Trump’s flagship attempt at diplomacy may have been averted.
Since the Singapore Summit in June, Trump has been attempting to build bridges with the North Korean regime, the end goal being denuclearisation. Statements coming from Pyongyang on Thursday suggest leader Kim Jong Un is more committed to this pursuit than ever, finally setting a timeline.
But it’s likely, after months of floundering talks, that Woodward’s revelations and the Times’ op-ed were at the top of his mind. Kim’s statement aims to directly counter the president’s critics, unashamedly heaping praise on Trump and reminding him that, unlike Trump’s own staff, he has never said anything negative about him.
This tweet by @realDonaldTrump strengthens Kim Jong Un. Trump gave up military exercises, but Kim has NOT:
-reduced nuclear weapons
-reduced chem weapons
-increased nuclear fuel
-worked on new missiles
— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) September 6, 2018
It’s possible Kim is being entirely genuine, although this would mark a significant break from North Korean diplomatic tradition. Or perhaps Kim sees an opportunity, spotting a cornered man who is willing to take support from wherever he can get it and Kim’s ceasing his chance to give the illusion of progress.
For a man who values his reign above all else, some of the more explosive excerpts from Woodward’s book may make Kim reevaluate, as his lack of progress could anger a volatile man with a track record of wanting to kill dictators.
While not directly related to North Korea, Woodward’s book tells of Trump’s impetuous request to assassinate Syrian president Bashar al-Assad following a chemical attack in April 2017.
“Let’s f**king kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the f**king lot of them,” Trump reportedly told Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, referring to Assad and his forces.
Does the so-called “Senior Administration Official” really exist, or is it just the Failing New York Times with another phony source? If the GUTLESS anonymous person does indeed exist, the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 5, 2018
According to the Washington Post who received an advanced copy of the book, Mattis hung up the phone and, in direct defiance of the president, told one of his senior staffers: “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.”
This kind of attack on his leadership is exactly what the North Korean dictator fears. Analysts believe this need for self-preservation was the driving force behind developing nuclear weapons in the first place as they pose a huge deterrent to any outsiders considering regime change.
For Kim, Trump’s apparent willingness to wade into other countries’ politics with no foresight and little consideration will be ringing alarm bells.
Coupled with Woodward’s account of Trump asking the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to devise a pre-emptive attack on North Korea, Kim will understandably be questioning the White House’s sincerity at the negotiating table
Jeopardising close alliances
On the other side of the Korean border lies one of America’s staunchest allies. South Korea has long relied on Washington for trade, on top of vital defence against its neighbour to the North.
But Woodward’s book shows that the highly-valued trade agreement between the two was dangerously near termination had it not been for the quick thinking of Trump’s economic adviser.
Noticing a prepared letter that would end the tariff-free agreement if signed, Gary Cohn “stole it off his [the president’s] desk,” possibly averting the ruination of one of America’s most strategically valuable relationships.
Several copies of the letter were also confiscated and the withdrawal was never finalised.
The once unshakable alliance between the two has been strained in recent months due to America’s failure to advance denuclearisation talks and their sudden end to military exercises in the South. This account of vulnerable trade deals will only serve to increase those tensions and leave President Moon Jae-In wondering exactly whose side Trump is on.
Who’s running the show?
The letter-stealing incident, along with the Syrian assassination diversion, will also have world leaders questioning who’s actually running the show in Washington.
Both Cohn and Mattis disobeyed the will of a sitting US president, deviating Trump’s foreign policy on astronomically significant issues. Both, it seems, did so without any notice from Trump, let alone penalty.
The op-ed made it clear that Trump is not at the helm of his own organisation. Instead, staffers, senior officials, and advisors are “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda” and are “thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses” until he leaves office.
While some may breathe a sigh of relief knowing there is a line of defence between Trump and his most ill-thought out compulsions, world leaders are left wondering if they can rely on the administration to follow through on agreements. And, if they’re making a deal, who exactly they are making it with.
Special counsel’s coming for him
There is also, of course, the concern that Trump may not even be in office long enough to make good on the promises he is making.
This concern was echoed by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on a phone call to Trump in April 2017, during which a deal to release an Egyptian-American captive was brokered.
“Donald, I’m worried about this investigation. Are you going to be around?” al-Sisi asked, referring to the ongoing Special Counsel investigation into Russian collusion by the Trump election campaign.
As Robert Mueller’s probe heats up, this is an entirely legitimate line of questioning.
Some of Trump’s closest associates have been indicted or pled guilty in court as a result of Mueller’s investigation. It’s not unrealistic to think Trump could be next.
The Failing New York Times! pic.twitter.com/SHsXvYKpBf
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 5, 2018
Even the president’s own lawyers don’t have any faith in him surviving a Mueller grilling, according to Woodward, who tells of a mock-interview conducted by Trump’s then-personal attorney, John Dowd.
Being peppered with questions, Trump was quick to stumble, fumbling through contradictions and lies until he finally lost his cool. This doesn’t bode well for his chances should Mueller decide to subpoena him. How long he would remain in office after that is difficult to predict.
Understanding of a ‘fifth grader’
Beyond all the erratic behaviour and impulsive decision-making, there is the underlying issue that Trump just isn’t very smart. And perhaps more worryingly, he has zero desire to remedy this problem.
We’ve heard before that Trump refuses to read his daily intelligence briefings, preferring an A4 sheet of pictures, if anything. This wilful ignorance is troubling in any job, but when it’s the president of the United States, the consequences could be catastrophic.
Woodward recounts an out-of-character reproach from the usually stoic Mattis following a heated discussion on South Korea.
After attempting to explain why the US spends resources in South Korea, the defence secretary told associates that the president “acted like — and had the understanding of — ‘a fifth- or sixth-grader.’ ”
As Trump inserts himself in delicate international negotiation and policy creation, it is understandable if world leaders are skeptical. To place the future progress of your nation in the hands of a man who operates on the emotional and mental level of a “sixth grader” is likely to have severely detrimental results.
And therein lies the root of many of these problems. The lies, the impulse decisions, the tantrums, the need for attention and careful handling – this does not conjure the image of a reliable man and trusted dealmaker, but rather has all the hallmarks of, as Mattis said, a middle-schooler. And who would want to make a deal with a middle-schooler?
Much less, a middle-schooler with the nuclear launch codes.