WHITE HOUSE - On the campaign trail, candidate Donald Trump called NATO “obsolete.” This week, with the NATO secretary general standing next to him at a White House news conference, President Trump did a complete reversal, saying, “It’s no longer obsolete.”
Candidate Trump regularly denounced China as a currency manipulator. But days after his summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Trump said the exact opposite. “They’re not currency manipulators,” he told The Wall Street Journal.
These and other presidential policy zigzags are the talk of Washington’s political elites.
The Washington Post recently declared Trump “the king of flip-flops.” There is almost daily commentary arguing that the first weeks of his presidency have revealed a leader with a weak understanding of geopolitics, struggling with critical issues such as the workings of the NATO alliance.
“He’s been mugged by reality,” one commentator said.
In an article published Thursday, however, the Post noted that the president appears to be flip-flopping with more moderation as he gains experience.
Positions more nuanced
On issue after issue in the past 12 weeks, Trump’s views have evolved away from campaign rhetoric to more nuanced positions that reflect the responsibilities of office, according to Dan Mahaffee, senior vice president and director of policy at Washington’s Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
“Many presidents would say campaigning is one art and governing is another,” he told VOA.
“There is a contrast between the black and white of the campaign trail and the many shades of gray you see sitting behind a desk in the Oval Office,” Mahaffee said. “The adage, ‘You campaign in poetry and govern in prose’ is true no matter who holds the office.”
Trump himself makes no apologies for his shifting views and policy reverses. After seeing pictures of victims of the recent Syrian chemical weapons attack, Trump told a news conference that his opinion of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime had changed.
“I think of myself as a very flexible person. I do change and I’m proud of that flexibility,” Trump said, as he stood alongside visiting Jordanian King Abdullah.
A day later, the president ordered a Tomahawk missile strike on the Syrian air base where the chemical attack is believed to have originated. While the strike earned him international plaudits, it surprised many at home, including supporters who had listened to him promise on the campaign trail to keep the United States out of conflicts in the Middle East.
The further turnabout on at least three issues this week, including NATO and his campaign pledge to close the Export-Import Bank, have prompted discontent in several quarters of the foreign policy establishment.
“I would say the most generous interpretation would be that he’s now learning about issues that he really didn’t have any expertise with beforehand,” said Angela Stent, director for the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. “He came from the world of real estate.”
“It’s the same on the NATO issue,” Stent said. “He said consistently during the campaign that NATO was obsolete. He didn’t understand why the U.S. needed NATO.”
Surrounded by professionals
Luke Coffey, director of the Foreign Policy Center at the conservative Heritage Foundation, questions the mainstream narrative. He says Trump’s sometimes worrisome campaign persona has been supplanted by a leader who may speak imprecisely, but who surrounds himself with professionals.
“The stuff he [Trump] said about NATO in the past and Russia, I found very alarming, but yesterday he said all the right things,” Coffey said. “His staff, his appointments, his Cabinet, his generals say all the right things about NATO.”
Mahaffee, of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, says that in the final analysis, Trump’s flip-flops probably won’t hurt his overall approval ratings.
“NATO defense spending, the Ex-Im Bank, things like that really won’t resonate as much as getting the economy moving and getting jobs back,” he said. “While a Washington media corps that likes to keep a scorecard will be doing one thing, much of the voting public will be more concerned about pocketbook issues.”