US President Donald Trump speaks to the press on Air Force One on April 6, 2017.
When describing his vision on health care policy, Donald Trump, before the election and after, made a series of fairly explicit commitments. The Republican wouldn’t just repeal the Affordable Care Act, he said, he’d replace it with a system that brought insurance to all Americans, while also lowering premiums and deductibles.
In practice, Trump abandoned every promise he made, embracing legislation that would’ve delivered the exact opposite results. The president radically changed direction without explanation, largely because House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told him the House Republican plan had merit, and Trump, indifferent towards policy details, accepted the assurances at face value.
Trump didn’t have any working understanding of the GOP legislation – by all appearances, he hadn’t even read it – but the president didn’t think it mattered. The Speaker told the White House it was the best available option, and Trump eagerly went along, promises to the public be damned.
To a very real extent, the president got played, and his ignorance made it easy. As Vox’s Ezra Klein put it a few weeks ago, “This is the problem with not knowing or caring much about the details of policy – it’s easy to get spun by people who do know and care.” It’s an often overlooked detail: Trump abandoned the course he promised voters he’d pursue because the president listened to allies who cared vastly more about the substance of the debate than he did.
If this dynamic sounds familiar, it’s because there’s ample reason to believe something similar happened last week – except, this time, Trump wasn’t ignoring his own promises and instincts on health care, he was ignoring his own promises and instincts on national security policy as applied in the Middle East.
For the three years leading up to Election Day, Trump was strikingly consistent: the United States needed to stay out of Syria. Missile strikes would be a costly and pointless mistake, he said. The risks associated with intervention against the Assad regime were enormous – Candidate Trump warned against “World War III” shortly before Election Day – and the benefits were few.
And yet, Trump was again spun by those who knew more and cared more. The New Republic’s Jeet Heer highlighted the Pentagon’s role.
As a candidate, Donald Trump swaggered about how he’d order the military to do what he wanted. “They won’t refuse,” he said during a Republican debate, defending his call for the military to “take out” terrorists’ families. “They’re not gonna refuse me. Believe me.” He also claimed to have unique expertise. “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me,” he said at a rally in Iowa.
The U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian air base on Friday make clear a different reality: The Pentagon, not the White House, is playing the dominant role not just in military strategy, but in shaping foreign policy. Most recent presidencies have been distinguished by tugs of war between different groups of foreign policy hands…. The Trump administration, though, doesn’t really have many normal foreign policy experts among its civilian officials. Rex Tillerson may have a realist streak and Nikki Haley a moralistic style, but neither one has been part of these debates before. Mike Pence has nothing like the experience of a Dick Cheney or a Joe Biden. If Bannon’s vision is getting sidelined, it’s not like Jared Kushner is ready with a deeply thought-out alternative.
What Trump has instead are generals – James Mattis and H. R. McMaster and the other military men in his cabinet, plus, of course, the actual professional military itself. And it’s this team of generals, not any of the usual foreign policy schools, that seems increasingly likely to steer his statecraft going forward.
It’d be overly simplistic, of course, to suggest that the brass are pulling Trump’s strings, shaping the entirety of the administration’s foreign policy. The broader dynamic is more complex: the president was reportedly affected by television coverage of Assad’s chemical attack and an apparent desire to do the opposite of whatever Barack Obama did.
But the real simplicity was Trump’s assumptions that an almost mindless commitment to “America First” principles could realistically become the basis for a functioning foreign policy. It was a placeholder vision, which the president would replace with whatever the people around him told him to do. Last week, that meant listening to his party’s orthodoxy and ignoring everything Trump has ever said, thought, or promised as it relates to U.S. policy in the Middle East.
On health care, it was Paul Ryan who effectively told Trump, “Never mind what your instincts tell you; my plan is the way to go.” On Syria, it was his national security team that did the same thing, effectively telling the president, “Never mind what your instincts tell you; this is an issue 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles can make better.”
It’s a safe bet Trump’s entire presidency will continue to unfold this way. It’s not that he’s determined to deliberately do the opposite of what he promised voters; it’s that he doesn’t seem to take any of those commitments especially seriously. Someone he knows and trusts – Paul Ryan, James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, et al – comes into the Oval Office, presents him with an idea, tells him it’s the smart thing to do, and Trump says, “Sounds good.”
He didn’t necessarily change his mind about his vision; Trump never really made up his mind in the first place.