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We Are Truly Living Through the Amateur Hour Presidency

This White House is more interested in controlling the news cycle than in nuclear diplomacy. And it’s showing.

Michael Tomasky5.24.18 12:59 PM ET

What an amateur show.

Virtually every step of the way, from the moment when Donald Trump surprised even his own staff by announcing a summit with North Korea, it was obvious, I mean achingly obvious, that the president had no idea what we he was doing. You hear that laughter? It’s the world, and they’re not laughing at Princess Beatrice’s hat.

Let’s retrace. It’s the evening of Thursday, March 8—an otherwise normal day in Trumpland, in what has become of the United States. The administration was scrambling to stave off a ballooning crisis that it created by announcing steel and aluminum tariffs with nearly zero forethought and actual preparation. They’d caught most people totally off guard, including a good number of Republicans who were saying, “Hey, wait a minute here, are we sure this is a good thing?”

On that day, The New York Times reported: “More than 100 Republican lawmakers implored President Trump to drop his plans for stiff and sweeping steel and aluminum tariffs as the White House prepared to formalize the measures on Thursday afternoon.” That’s when the administration started to backtrack and say, well, maybe we can find a way to carve out some exemptions for certain countries after all.

That was crisis one that day (that day!!). Crisis two was arguably even bigger.

The Times reported that Michael Cohen had obtained a temporary restraining order against Stormy Daniels to prevent her from speaking out about her relationship with the president. This was a big development in the Stormy saga and catnip for cable news (this is before we knew Trump re-paid Cohen the $130,000 in hush money fees). That was now Topic A that day. And then, in the late afternoon, after meeting with South Korea’s national security adviser, Trump dropped the bombshell. As CNN wrote it up:

Peeking around a half-opened pocket door, Trump caught the eye of a small handful of reporters and drew them closer to him. First, he asked to speak off the record, but with an ounce of prodding agreed to go on the record, as long as his remarks remained off camera.

"South Korea's going to be making a major statement at about 7 o'clock," Trump said ceremoniously. Vice President Mike Pence stood silently behind him.

"About what?" a puzzled reporter asked.

"The big subject," Trump replied, his scowl turning into a grin.


Is it possible  that Trump was watching cable news and freaking out about the negative coverage on the tariffs and especially on Stormy? It certainly seems likely. Imagine him thinking: I need a change of subject here fast! So he stuns his own advisers who were in the Oval Office with the South Korean representative—McMaster, Mattis, and Kelly—by accepting on the spur of the moment this offer from Mr. Chung, the South Korean, for a summit.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if n someday we learn that there was no such “offer.” That it was all Trump’s idea from jump street, just trying to make cable TV talk about something else that night.

To that extent, it worked. Wow, talking heads gushed. He’s done what no president before him could do! Improbable as it seems, maybe if anyone can cut this deal, Trump can! Google “Trump Korea Nobel Prize” and your machine will return you 7.55 million depressingly comedic results. “Everyone thinks so,” Trump said of the possibility of being bestowed with such an honor. “But I would never say it.”

There were voices, yes, that warned that maybe doing something like this on the spur of the moment wasn’t the world’s best idea. That something like this takes planning. That maybe there’s a reason a bilateral summit with North Korea just hasn’t magically happened in these last 80 years, and maybe even diplomats—dour, bureaucratic men and women that they are, always seeing the complicated side of things—have a point about treading carefully into these waters.

Bah! Small-minded people! Trump is too great for your small minds to comprehend! You merely describe reality; the great man remakes it! #MAGA #MAGA #MAGA!

Needless to say, nearly everything that had happened since March 8 has been, at best, a misfire and, at worst, a disaster. Not the release of those three Americans. That was unambiguously a good thing. But everything else. Kim was elevated in this process to being not merely the equal of the President of the United States but, in some ways, his superior, the one who set the terms by which this process advanced (and then ended). One day, complete denuclearization meant one thing; another day it meant another thing. One day the summit was the most important thing in the world. The next day it was well, who knows, if it happens, great, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Trump even went out of his way to call Kim a “very honorable” man.

Can you imagine—yes, we have to go here—if President Clinton and her administration had engaged in this farce for 10 weeks? If she had bolted out of the Oval Office to make an announcement like the one Trump made with no forethought, to get a bad email story out of the cable news wheel?

The right would have been having epileptic seizures. Weeks ago they would have begun calling her and her top people traitors. By now, about 60 percent of America, or at least of Republicans, would have believed that Hillary Clinton was literally Manchuria’s candidate.

The only thing that prevents us from believing that about Trump is—well, there are two. The first is the commonly held perception that he’s simply too ignorant; that he had no idea what he was doing when he agreed to the summit. The second is that he can’t be Manchuria’s candidate because he’s already the Kremlin’s. Well, the Kremlin would want a president who weakened America, discredited it, made it a laughing stock. Mission Accomplished.

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