Trump’s credibility is shaken at home more than abroad

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Both domestic and foreign crises provide opportunities for President Trump to emerge stronger than before the crisis. Mishandling a crisis, as he has with Charlottesville, will work to his detriment. For the other major crises of the young administration, North Korea and Iran, the jury is still out.

Consider three characteristics of a crisis: surprise, threat, and short response time. In Charlottesville, Trump was surprised, there was a threat to his presidency and he had little time to respond in a way that wouldn’t require him to make tradeoffs he did not want to make.

A Domestic Crisis: Charlottesville

Trump’s credibility is at stake in mismanagement of Charlottesville, Va.. That city was immersed in violence on Aug.12, as “white nationalists” and counter-protesters clashed in a bloody fight over removal of a statue memorializing Gen. Robert E. Lee.

{mosads}This author, along with Steve Emerson at The Investigative Project on Terrorism, criticized President Obama, who declined to use terms like “radical Islamic terrorism,” in the wake of jihadist violence. Likewise, on Aug. 12, Trump’s failure to denounce explicitly by name the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists was morally decadent.

In an oft-quoted phrase, Trump referred to “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides.” Such a phrase implies false moral equivalency. The Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists marched with long guns, permitted in “open-carry” Virginia and in many other southern as well as western states. The protesters had no guns and were overwhelmingly nonviolent.

On Monday, Aug.14, Trump’s final denunciation of Saturday’s racists who provoked the counter-protesters in Charlottesville seemed rather tepid, at best. Trump condemned “the egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence” at the “Unite the Right” protests, and denounced “the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups,” as hooligans. But when Trump began his press conference by citing economic gains, it minimized the evil of Americans causing the deaths of other citizens over political differences, per Emerson.

But wait: On Tuesday, Aug. 15, the president held another press conference in NYC, in which he reversed himself again. He doubled down on his initial reaction to a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, laying blame on “both sides” and asking why the “alt-left” isn’t being held accountable for the violent clashes.”

On Wednesday, Aug. 16, a dozen of the country’s most influential CEOs joined a conference call and agreed as a group to withdraw from acting in an advisory capacity to the president, giving a huge blow to a president who came into office boasting of his close ties with business leaders. Trump heard about the mass defection and tweeted, “Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both. Thank you all!”

To make matters even worse, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also implicitly turned against their commander in chief. They issued separate tweets, decrying racism and celebrating diversity.

So, for the Charlottesville crisis, the president’s credibility is seriously challenged. It is inconceivable that Trump will benefit from Charlottesville and emerge stronger because he mishandled this crisis. He now is unable to use it as an opportunity; just the opposite is true. Trump elected to follow, rather than lead and compounded his problems by again doubling down on apparent support of the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists.

Foreign Crises: North Korea and Iran

Crises involving Washington with Pyongyang and Tehran manifest varying degrees of concurrence with crisis characteristics. North Korea meets all the criteria, Iran adheres to high threat at the moment.

North Korea

Critics disapprove of crisis management of the president, because of a threat of escalation via miscalculation. Think of the game of “chicken.” Supporters argue presidential skills are superb; ditto for Kim Jung un. Think of the “madman” theory for both. This author concurs with the idea Trump is a “madman,” while Kim is crazy like a fox, (to mix the metaphor). For the most part, Trump effectively uses threats to deter and compel.

So long as Trump’s actions do not match his deeds, escalation is unlikely. That said, National Security Council advisor Gen (ret.) H.R. McMasters said U.S. missile defenses would shoot down any of Pyongyang’s missiles headed toward Guam. And Tokyo said it had the capacity and will to do the same for missiles flying close to Japan.

Otherwise, there has not been an increase in deployment of American forces to the region, and soon-to-be held military exercises with Seoul are an annual event. Nevertheless, expect Pyongyang to respond with another nuclear test or missile launch, which is consistent with its prior behavior.

On to Tehran, which requires more elaboration than Pyongyang.

Iran

The need for the president to certify to Congress whether Tehran is in compliance with U.S. law and terms of the nuclear deal comes up every 90 days, so that the body can decide whether or not to extend sanctions relief. The next time for certification is in October. In mid-September, the Trump administration will have about a month to decide whether to certify, seek to renegotiate for a better deal, or withdraw.

U.S. Iran sanctions target the country’s ballistic missile program, destabilizing activities in the Middle East, and human rights abuses. Under the deal, Tehran agreed to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for international sanctions being dropped. 

On Aug. 14, the publication Al Arabiya traced the growing role of Congress in taking the lead on Iran policy from the president. In July 2014, several senior American figures, including Sen. Roy Blunt, vice president of the Republican conference and member of the Appropriation and Select Intelligence committees, staged a Senate briefing, which the author attended.

Speakers strongly condemned Iran’s destructive intervention in its western neighbor, Iraq. Characterizing Tehran as part of the problem and not the solution, Sen. Blunt demanded the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) members’ urgent and speedy transfer from Camp Liberty, a former U.S. base west of Baghdad, to countries abroad to save their lives. Yielding to such pressure, Iraq agreed and the majority migrated to Albania.

In April 2017, Sen. John McCain, became the most senior U.S. official to visit NCRI members in Albania; he also supports regime change from within Iran. On Aug. 12, a senior delegation from the Senate met with NCRI President-elect Maryam Rajavi in Tirana and discussed NCRI issues in Albania. The Senate delegation was headed by Sen. Blunt.

The Way Forward

First, because Trump’s credibility is at stake in mismanagement of Charlottesville, he needs to enhance his skills in crisis management for domestic issues.

Second, Trump has to make sure his “madness” doesn’t slip into escalation via miscalculation and use coercive diplomacy to convince Kim to do the same.

Third, the mainly Republican-dominated support for the NCRI has to be broadened into a more bipartisan coalition of supporters. Similarly, that organization has to expand its coalition by bringing other dissidents who reject clerical rule Iran under a huge tent.

Dr. Raymond Tanter (@AmericanCHR) served as a senior member on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush White House and is now professor emeritus at University of Michigan.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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