Just How Dangerous Is Donald Trump?
Donald Trump has outlived the “axis of adults” who was supposed to guide and shape his foreign policy. He’s run through two national security advisers, innumerable lawyers and lower-level aides, an attorney general, an array of Cabinet secretaries and, any day now, the second of two White House chiefs of staff. He’s dumped the ideologist who helped elect him and never really clarified what his “America First” campaign slogan was all about anyways.
But since we launched The Global Politico days after his inauguration, Trump has more than followed through on his election pledge to shake up the Washington establishment of both parties when it comes to America’s position in the world. Each week, we’ve watched as he’s reoriented – or tried to – U.S. policy toward everywhere from Iran to North Korea, Russia to our North American neighbors.
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In 67 episodes over the last year and 85 days, I’ve been privileged to host NATO allies and Middle East leaders come to Washington in search of answers about the puzzling new president; members of Congress, both conservative and liberal, who spend their days trying to unlock that puzzle; and an array of brilliant thinkers and doers, elder statesmen and brash young activists, who are trying to make sense of this disrupted world we’re all living in. I thank all of them – and all of you – for listening, reading and commenting, and here’s one last Global Politico conversation from me, a final session of foreign-policy Trumpology before I sign off.
Read excerpts of my conversation with POLITICO Magazine Editor Blake Hounshell here:
Susan B. Glasser: Well, hi. This is Susan Glasser, and welcome to The Global POLITICO. This week something a little different. Sadly this is my farewell episode of The Global Politico, while I depart for The New Yorker. It’s episode number 68 of the podcast, since we launched in February of 2017, and we’ve had an incredible run of guests helping us make sense of this disrupted world we’re living in — from three former U.S. Secretaries of State to prime ministers; we’ve had artists and dissidents, senators and statesmen, everyone from Condi Rice to Ai Weiwei, Tony Blair to the architect of the Iran deal. We’ve heard about secret talks with the North Koreans and what it’s like to watch democracy die in Venezuela. And of course we’ve talked Russia, Russia, Russia. But the theme of The Global Politico is the extraordinary and unlikely American presidency of Donald Trump — and how it is disrupting Washington’s relations with the rest of the world. And it is to that theme I wanted to return in my final episode.
My guest is my colleague and partner in crime in The Global POLITICO from the very beginning, Blake Hounshell, the editor of POLITICO Magazine. He helped me start POLITICO Magazine; he’s now doing an amazing job running it. We go all the way back to our days together at Foreign Policy magazine, and to the extent that you’ve liked anything about The Global POLITICO, I would say it’s been his handiwork; to the extent that you didn’t like it, that’s all my fault.
No, seriously, Blake, I’m delighted that you’ll be with me on what, sadly, will be my last Global POLITICO, at least—it will go on hiatus, as I understand it, as POLITICO thinks about it. Global POLITICO is a project we started together, basically with the very birth of the Trump administration on January 20, 2017, more or less we launched the podcast about a week later, with Jim Baker, former secretary of state and all around wise man, as our very first guest. He was kind of prescient in a way, wasn’t he, Blake, about the troubles that Trump would have, especially, I thought, he was keen to see the emerging dysfunction in the White House, as already kind of a major theme in the Trump era. And that’s certainly proved to be true.
Blake Hounshell: Yes Jim Baker is sort of an under-appreciated genius, and I think that he really nailed it in saying that Trump was going to be this process fiasco, and I think he even couched probably what he really thinks because he didn’t want to put himself out there as an anti-Trumper, which I think is true of a lot of the foreign policy wise men.
And, I actually, though, I think maybe you and I disagree a little bit about the way things have played out since then. I sort of see a lot of disasters that haven’t happened, and I think maybe you can elaborate, but you see kind of a slow-growing disaster in foreign policy. And I’m just wondering if there is ever going to be the kind of crisis that people really worried about, or if Trump will continue to kind of muddle along and create problems, but there won’t be any sort of horrible national security fiascos.
Glasser: Well, look, I think one thing that has been a consistent theme for many of our guests from the very beginning of The Global POLITICO, and a line of analysis I broadly am in agreement with, is that the Trump story is fundamentally a drama about Donald Trump, and he has certain instincts and impulses which are pretty consistent when it comes to foreign policy. Many of those are disruptive, even potentially highly disruptive, but that we haven’t yet always seen the full consequence of what following through on those impulses is going to mean.
And I think 2017 was a year of taking the measure of Donald Trump, and also Donald Trump taking the measure of the office. 2018 has the potential for being a much more decisive year, and if you look at this remarkable purge of his team, in particular, his national security team, that Trump has undertaken over the last six weeks. He’s dumped his national security advisor; he’ll now have his third national security advisor in office as of this week.
He’s dumped his homeland security advisor. He’s dumped his secretary of state. He has marginalized both his White House Chief John Kelly and disregarded much of the advice of his defense secretary, Jim Mattis. And so, he’s set up a situation where, A, he is in a position to act in a much more unconstrained way. And then also, the rest of the world has been carefully observing and monitoring Trump and seeing what he’s like, and I think both Russia and China, and other potential challengers to Trump on the international stage, are much more likely to act on the basis of their analysis of this very unconventional president this year.
So, you know, it has the possibility to be a much more active year, when it comes to international relations.
Hounshell: Right. But I think if I were Vladimir Putin, or if I were Xi Jinping—I mean, they obviously have armies of people that are trying to understand Donald Trump, you know, reading his tweets and analyzing them, and researching his background, intercepting communications.
But I think Donald Trump is a really hard person to read on foreign policy because I don’t think he actually knows what he thinks. I think he acts on impulse. Take, for instance, the debate over whether to put more troops into Afghanistan. Trump was dovish; he didn’t want to do it. He didn’t understand why he needed to put more forces in there. And he fought it.
He also wants to get U.S. troops out of Syria, and yet at the same time he’s bragging about these nice new missiles that he’s planning to send..
So, I think he’s very difficult to read. He’s the same guy who wants to withdraw from the rest of the world, and then he hires a guy like John Bolton, a very aggressive nationalist, to be his national security advisor. I don’t think Donald Trump has signed up for John Bolton’s agenda in many respects.
Glasser: Right. Well, so, I agree with you that I don’t think he’s signed up with John Bolton’s full agenda. But I think it’s a misreading of Trump to say that he is hard to understand when it comes to foreign policy. In my view, actually, Donald Trump has been often shocking, but very infrequently surprising, when he’s been president, over the last year and four months.
Hounshell: Give me an example of that.
Glasser: I think that if you pay close attention to Donald Trump’s background, psychology, and history—both as a private sector businessperson, as a reality show guy—his management, for example, of the White House is completely consistent with the way he managed the Trump Organization, the way he has managed his entire life.
And so, the idea that there is this enormous amount of chaos, that there’s a lot of people coming and going, that he places a huge premium on loyalty, that he wants people to follow him blindly, without always being able to articulate a clearly thought-through strategy that they could implement.
All of those are not in the least bit surprising to me. I think they’re very consistent, and that’s why, actually, going back to the campaign in 2016, I urged us to engage in what we called Trumpology, and early on in POLITICO Magazine we convened the four or five major biographers of Donald Trump.
Because the thing about Trump is not that he came as this mysterious cypher to presidential politics, even though he was a total newcomer. But he was probably one of the most investigated and written about public figures who wasn’t in politics in our lifetime. And I thought that those insights from the Trumpologists, the Trump biographers, have served me well in trying to understand Trump, and actually, that’s been one of the things from the very beginning that we tried to do in Global POLITICO was not just to talk to fellow members of the foreign policy Blob, the establishment here in Washington of really both parties, who have their views about the world.
But, to try to talk to people, both who were more supportive of Trump, but in particular, what I’ve been interested in doing, interviewing people who have engaged personally with President Trump, who are sympathetic enough to be in his orbit, or at least are trying to understand him, from a different vantage pint. And to me those have been some of the most valuable conversations.
We talked with Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, back at the very beginning, before he was a public critic.
Hounshell: Yeah, it’s been a real emotional roller coaster for Bob Corker.
Glasser: Exactly. Before he was a critic of Trump. And I thought his insights, which were based on talking with Trump and those around him, have helped me, again, to be not surprised by a lot of the things that Trump has done.
He said, from February of 2017, Look, Trump on foreign policy—he’s torn between two conflicting things. He wants to be a wrecking ball, and he wants to just destroy everything that basically both parties believe about American foreign policy, on the one hand.
On the other hand, he’s set himself up as this great deal-maker, and at some point those impulses become in conflict, and how is he going to resolve those? He identified that as one of the central tensions of Trump, as a foreign policymaker, back in early February of 2017. I thought that was a very useful insight that came from talking to Trump, being sympathetic.
I think we’ve gotten a lot of insights from talking to people like Senator Tom Cotton, who has been the very hawkish Republican up on Capitol Hill.
Hounshell: Very tied in with the Trump administration. Very influential at the White House.
Glasser: Very influential. For example, the Iran deal. That was specifically what we spoke with him about. I talked with him for The Global POLITICO just a couple of hours after he came from a long lunch at the White House with Donald Trump, in the middle of Trump’s key decision so far on the Iran deal, and that decision was to “decertify”—I’m putting quotes around that—the Iran deal to Congress, but not actually to withdraw from it at the United Nations, where the deal itself actually is.
Now, that’s basically where it’s laid ever since. That was Cotton’s recommendation. Cotton gave us, I thought, some really interesting insights into Trump that have proven useful. Loyalty, and the perception of loyalty is more important than agreeing with the whole ideological program. So, for example, Tom Cotton is a very similar foreign policy thinker, I think, to John Bolton. He’s an uber-hawk and a traditional conservative.
I don’t believe that Donald Trump subscribes to every element of the carefully-calibrated ideology each of those men have, but each of them has found a way to convince Donald Trump that they have his best political interests at heart, and that they are loyal to him, whatever that means.
Hounshell: Well, I think it means don’t contradict him and don’t criticize him.
Glasser: Well, I think they both see the possibility to lead him towards their preferred outcomes. That being said, am I going to be surprised—and I don’t think you or our listeners to Global POLITICO should be surprised. Will he come into conflict with John Bolton? In my view, absolutely.
Hounshell: John Bolton does not seem to me like the kind of guy who will make compromises to accommodate his boss. Up to a point, he might.
Glasser: Well, look. John Bolton had a very interesting falling out with his previous presidential boss, George W. Bush. In the first term he was appointed to senior positions by Bush, including ultimately to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He couldn’t get confirmed in that role. By the end of the second term of Bush, Bush was saying openly to people in the Oval Office, “I don’t consider him to be a credible figure,” and John Bolton was openly attacking him on TV and in op-eds.
Hounshell: Do you think we’ll see that with Trump?
Glasser: It’s certainly a likely outcome. Donald Trump has fallen out with almost all of the senior officials—
Hounshell: Steve Bannon—
Glasser: Officials he’s ever hired, even people that he substantially agrees with—and he probably agrees more ideologically with Steve Bannon in many ways than he does with John Bolton.
Hounshell: Whatever happened to that guy? We don’t hear very much from him anymore.
Glasser: Well, you know, he just gave an interesting interview this week to The New York Times talking about the decisions that Trump will face upcoming on China tariffs and the trade war, as a key political moment for the Trump presidency. He’s obviously trying to pressure Trump now from the outside, because he no longer, at the moment, has the inside track.
But, you know, Trump has a long history of falling out with people and then later reconciling with them.
Hounshell: It’s one of his most endearing attributes.
Glasser: I don’t find it endearing. I find it very consistent with him as a—as someone explained to recently—as a real estate developer. Hounshell: Unpack that for me.
Glasser: Yes, so, I find a lot of my best Trumpology comes from people who’ve really tried to study Trump’s biography, and tried to study what he does at other moments in his life. And this notion that Trump is at heart a real estate developer, or believes himself to be, is a really interesting notion.
Real estate developers might fight tooth and nail with other people over acquiring this parcel of land, or over the development rights—
Hounshell: But you’ve still got to deal the city council and city hall, at the end of the day.
Glasser: Well, also, you don’t know where your next deal is going to come from. So, the person who’s your opponent today could well be the guy that you’re teaming up with to redevelop the Upper West Side tomorrow.
Hounshell: Right. You might need those additional—
Glasser: So, you don’t burn permanent bridges if you’re in real estate. And I though that’s an interesting insight into why you and I think it’s puzzling he has these explosive fights with people—and then he’s friends with them several years later. So, I would expect that.
Hounshell: Except his wives.
Glasser: Well, we’ll see. That’s not true. Even Ivana Trump has been brought back into the fold, after a very messy and contentious divorce. Look at her these days. She’s not out there giving nasty interviews about Donald Trump.
Hounshell: That’s true, that’s true. But there might be legal reasons for that.
Glasser: Well, yeah, but they were in a very, very hostile situation that he somehow managed to crawl back.
Hounshell: All right. So, your main point here is that Donald Trump is not that surprising, right? So, let’s put some cards on the table. It’s your last episode of Global POLITICO, and I want to try to push you to make some predictions. I know this is an uncomfortable ground for a journalist, but it’s the last episode, so why not?
Give us some predictions for the rest of 2018. They could be scenarios, worst case, best case, but let’s have a little fun here. So, tell me about North Korea. What’s going to happen with North Korea?
Glasser: Well, okay, North Korea. First of all, it is true, journalists don’t like to make predictions; they like to make fun of other people for making bad predictions. I’m not going to get in the memorial Bill Kristol chair here. I think what’s happening with North Korea is very interesting, obviously. You already see a little bit of slippage in the timetable. Trump made this dramatic personal announcement, “I’m going to meet with Kim Jong Un,” and accepted the invitation that South Korean envoys brought to him in the White House, to the surprise and dismay of many of his advisors.
Hounshell: Rex Tillerson had no idea it was happening; he was in Africa.
Glasser: Well, and even those who did, who were sitting the room—go back and look at the faces of Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster, who were almost stricken, it seemed to me, if you look at the photograph.
Hounshell: We just did an interview an interview with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, and she had no idea. He said, “I’m going out at 7 p.m. and I’m making an announcement,” and she was like, “What the heck is this?” and she found out when he announced it.
Glasser: Right, what the heck is this? So, we recently had Jake Sullivan as a guest on The Global POLITICO, who was Hillary Clinton’s chief foreign policy adviser. He had an interesting scenario for the North Korean talks, which I think is one plausible outcome. Jake’s scenario was that both Kim and Trump have a lot personally invested now, a lot on the line, in this summit happening. So, for different reasons, they’ll make it happen.
And he envisioned a situation where they both come out and they proclaim victory, basically. But then, leave it to aides and advisers to negotiate the details, and that takes years or it never happens, right?
Hounshell: The details of what?
Glasser: Well, exactly. So that they both come out proclaiming that they’ve made some great deal that either, A, never really happens, or B, means something different to both the North Koreans and the Americans, and that ends in recriminations. So, that’s one scenario.
Now, Jake and I were speaking right before John Bolton was named as the national security adviser, so there’s also now, with Bolton’s presence, I think, an even more likely scenario.
Hounshell: He is, actually, very knowledgeable about North Korea.
Glasser: Well, knowledgeable about North Korea—North Korea and the Bush administration’s decision to talk with the North Koreans was John Bolton’s—
Hounshell: Right. Over Bolton’s dead body.
Glasser: Was John Bolton’s breaking point with the Bush administration. He called his fellow Republicans in the State Department “appeasers” for their willingness to engage in the six-party talks with North Korea. He believed this was selling out America, and he has recently—as just a couple months ago—published an article in The Wall Street Journal suggesting that a pre-emptive military strike would not be untoward or uncalled for in this situation.
So, certainly, we have to say the odds have gone up that what happens if this summit actually does happen at all is that Trump goes in there, lays down ultimatums for Kim Jong Un; Kim says no way, no how. They walk out; they say diplomacy has failed, and it actually increases the risk of a military conflict.
Hounshell: Right. Right. And you know, one thing that I don’t know if we’ve talked about is the “bloody-nose” scenario, and this was a big McMaster project, I understand, is that he was very interested in the idea that the U.S. could use some sort of limited strike on North Korea and signal somehow—I don’t know how you actually signal this with a country that we don’t really talk to—that we’re going to stop at some point, and that Kim is supposed to not retaliate, and then we just move on with our lives and they become more cooperative.
It doesn’t sound like that’s John Bolton’s thinking; it sounds like he wants to go—he’s kind of a maximalist; he would go to 11, as they say in Spinal Tap.
Glasser: Well, look. He is the national security adviser; he is not the secretary of defense; he’s not the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and in fact, one thing I would spotlight for you is watch the extent to which Bolton tries to get directly into the gears in the machinery of the American military machine, and will that create friction?
Hounshell: Oh, it will.
Glasser: Will he be ordering up specific war plans, which so far—as far as I can tell—Mattis and the chiefs have resisted?