Politics & Policy

Trump's World Tour Is All About Him

Don't go looking for a strategy or grand master plan.

Trump answers a final question while departing a press conference in Singapore.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images AsiaPac

The president of the United States is on a roll.

His stopover in Singapore on Tuesday to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un capped off the Trump World Tour, and several days of performance art. It began with his revealing that he may pardon thousands of Americans of federal crimes and included a visit to Quebec for the Group of Seven summit that afforded him the opportunity to brand Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “dishonest” and “weak.”

In coming days, we could indulge President Trump and ourselves by performing along with him. We could try to discern what wily stratagems informed his on-again-off-again-on-again courtship of Kim — beyond the obvious attraction of an event destined to enter the history books as “The First Ever Face-to Face Meeting of the Sitting Leaders of North Korea and the U.S.”

We could also play along by coming to the somber conclusion that in leaving the G7 meeting early and dissing Trudeau on the way to Singapore, Trump was executing a master plan aimed at unwinding the post-World War II political world order. Pure Bond villain.

Let's take a different path, shall we?

Trump isn't a student of history, and is so innumerate that he sometimes can't do basic multiplication. He also would be hard-pressed to talk about the intricacies of the Cold War, China's aspirations to be an Asian-Pacific hegemon, or the ins-and-outs of the U.S.'s military and diplomatic relationship with North Korea. History, mathematics, and foreign policy just aren't his things.

As I've noted before, the two clearest ways to understand what motivates most of the president's actions are self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. His hostile posture toward Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of the Trump presidential campaign's intersection with Russian interests, for example, is all about self-preservation. His proclamations about presidential pardons, his tough-guy talk with Trudeau, and his loosely considered visit with a dictator? Self-aggrandizement.

Trump appears to have come to the view that he has the most fun and freedom when he can exercise powers that don't require him to consult with Congress, or even other members of his own administration.

So it came to pass last Friday that Trump — having recently snared boatloads of attention for pardoning a celebrity provocateur and a cause celebre — told reporters that thousands more pardons could be coming.

“We have 3,000 names. We are looking at them. Of the 3,000 names, many of those names really have been treated unfairly,” Trump said, noting that he wanted professional football players to send him recommendations as well. "If I find, if my committee finds, they're unfairly treated we will pardon them or at least let them out.”

I'm willing to guess that Trump's "committee" doesn't exist. If it does, perhaps its members could tell the president that he can't pardon Muhammad Ali, as he said he intended to, because Ali's conviction was overturned almost 50 years ago. Details, however, don't really get in Trump's way. He got the attention he craved simply by floating the idea of mega-pardons. Mission accomplished.

The G7 summit began with Trump calling for Russia to be re-admitted into the group (not a great move for a master-strategist under investigation for possible collusion with the Kremlin). He also found himself isolated due to his enthusiasm for a series of ill-informed trade wars rooted in nostalgia that will ultimately do more harm than good to his own economy. The meeting ended with a kumbaya-ish joint statement from the participants, and a press conference in which Trudeau largely conveyed his hope that everyone could just get along.

Trudeau also said Canada “will not be pushed around” in trade disputes. Ruh-roh.

Trump, predictably, lashed back — and not because Trudeau's comments upended some mysterious Trump master plan to re-engineer global trade and the tides of history all by himself. The president most likely raised his fist because he never wants to appear to be on the short end of any dispute, no matter how minor. That's how self-aggrandizers roll.

And then the president arrived in Singapore, calling his own shots and basking in a whole new round of global attention. His meeting with Kim was all choreography, embroidered with a vow "to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" that was vague and meaningless. Kim outmaneuvered the Great Dealmaker, and got a historic meeting with the most powerful man in the world in exchange for almost nothing. Let's score that Korea, 1; China, 1, and the U.S., zero.

After the meeting, Trump said he has faith that Kim is a man of his word, but, if mistaken, he'll adapt. "I may be wrong. I mean I may stand before you in six months and say, 'Hey I was wrong,'" he told reporters in Singapore. "I don't know that I'll ever admit that, but I'll find some kind of an excuse."

Not copping to mistakes and finding excuses to cover your tracks is useful if your primary goal is self-aggrandizement, rather than securing tangible policy victories. In fact, if you're really focused on meeting your own needs, you can even try to do business while discussing nukes.

North Korea has “great beaches. You see that whenever they are exploding the cannons into the ocean, right?” Trump told reporters when recounting his conversation with Kim. “I said, `Boy, look at that view.' Wouldn't that make a great condo behind?' And I explain, I said, `You know, instead of doing that, you could have the best hotels in the world right there. Think of it from a real estate perspective: You have South Korea, you have China, and they own the land in the middle.' How bad is that, right? It's great.”

It's tempting for crackpots to paint Trump's zeal for the limelight and bespoke greed as something other than self-aggrandizement — as some novel and calculated historical force. For that, we can turn to Trump's exiled adviser Steve Bannon, who told the New York Times that the president's trade wars and singular diplomacy reveal a man empowered by chaos and mercurial decision-making.

“This is how he won,” Bannon told the newspaper. "This is how he governs, and this is his 'superpower.' Drama, action, emotional power."

Dennis Rodman, the former NBA star who made a hobby out of makeshift Korean diplomacy long before Trump, hit similar notes when asked in Singapore about the Trump-Kim get-together.

“I'm so happy just to be here, man, and see everyone in the world get emotional like I did,” Rodman said, weeping. “Trump should take a lot of credit because he went out of the box and made this happen.”

Drama, action and emotional power certainly can win elections. They aren't nearly as valuable when it comes to hammering out details and learning the particulars of trade agreements and nuclear disarmament. But you hang on to drama, action and emotional power when you're in it for yourself. Just ask the president.

    This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Edward Evans at eevans3@bloomberg.net

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