PAUL CONNEW: Last Trump card is the art of making us look the other way
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Following Rex Tillerson's sacking, PAUL CONNEW reflects on the president's diversion tactics.
You have to hand it to him. The Donald is still the master of the art of deflection and diversion.
But can he really also prove himself master of the Art of the Deal (the title of his ghost-written autobiography) when the man who boasts he's got the biggest nuclear button on the planet sits down opposite the opponent he's mocked as 'Little Rocket Man' and threatened to wipe off the face of the earth?
Downplayed in the massive coverage of President Trump's bolt from the blue acceptance of a second-hand invitation to talk 'denuclearisation' with North Korea's despotic leader Kim Yong-un has been the diversionary tactic it offers an under-pressure POTUS.
By the same token, the timing of The Donald's sensational sacking of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson fits into his deflection and diversion playbook. It followed a furious weekend phone row over the Kim meeting but it also hijacked the news agenda ahead of a potentially disastrous defeat for the GOP and POTUS in a key Congressional seat by-election in Pennsylvania.
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Just as late last week Trump's impetuous agreement to meet Kim, had reset the domestic and global news agendas that were being dominated by a Republican party revolt over his trade war and tariffs declaration, growing splits in the GOP over the president's ever-shifting stance on gun control and the darkening shadow of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russian Connection investigation.
The alarming common denominator in both Trump's reckless rush to 'bigly' up the prospect of a ground-breaking face-to-face with his 'Little Rocket Man' and his trade war/tariff tactic? Both bypassed his closest specialist advisers who would have expressed either outright opposition or urged extreme caution instead of a populist, on-the-hoof temptation (addiction?) to hijack the headlines and temporarily lower the temperature around his domestic political woes.
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In the case of trade wars and tariffs, it cost him his top White House economics adviser Gary Cohn, the Jewish Democrat-voting former Goldman Sachs president widely viewed as a moderating force in a dysfunctional West Wing.
Cohn, who came close to quitting last year over Trump's defence of white supremacists involved in the Charlottesville riot, became the seventh of POTUS's 12 most senior advisers to resign, get fired or be redeployed. Now Tillerson has made it eight.
According to a new study by the Brookings Institution 43% of senior White House positions have turned over since Trump's inauguration — unprecedented in any modern presidency. So much for The Donald's recent claim the White House is a happy ship with people clamouring to climb on board.
The big winner in the White House power game now is Peter Navarro, director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing and a key architect of Trump's 'America First' brand of economic nationalism and protectionism. The only economics PhD in the Trump team, the Harvard-educated economist has produced little by way of academic papers, but is well-known for his anti-Chinese views and two populist books (first championed by Trump's campaign mastermind Steve Bannon) provocatively titled Death by China and Crouching Tiger: What China's Militarism Means for the World.
It's no secret now that the president secretly plotted his trade war/tariff strategy with Navarro in the full knowledge that Cohn would openly oppose it if he'd been in the loop. But the president can at least argue — even as international allies, GOP leaders and much of the US business world criticises him and Wall Street shivers nervously — that he's fulfilling a key election campaign pledge that swung over Rust Belt Democrats.
But what of the extraordinary North Korean U-turn gamble and Tillerson's demise? Certainly the Secretary of State was wrong-footed and humiliated after he'd delivered a major speech hours earlier in Africa ruling out any immediate prospect of negotiations with the Pyongyang regime before Trump announced the precise opposite.
The cruel irony of Tillerson's demise is he has so often been the voice of reason, countering his president's bellicose 'fire and fury' and 'total destruction' threats against the Kim regime and effectively echoing Churchill's famously misquoted 'jaw-jaw better than war-war' maxim. It frequently earned him early morning tweeted rebukes from The Donald.
In truth, Tillerson and most of America's seriously-depleted diplomatic corps were horrified by the prospect of a narcissist, egomaniac POTUS rushing impetuously and ill-prepared into a meeting with the potential to plunge the Korean peninsula back into a dangerous deep freeze beneath the mushroom-shaped cloud of nuclear conflict.
Significantly, Pompeo is one of very few in the US diplomatic and intelligence services to enthuse over The Donald's hasty acceptance of Kim's offer. He's also been less vocal than most over Russian meddling in the presidential election.
In common with his State Department advisers, Tillerson had made it clear to the president that he'd rather revert to a more orthodox strategy, delaying any direct Trump/Kim face-off beyond May to enable US, South Korean and North Korean diplomats to grind out the preparatory details and agendas before the two volatile leaders sit down across the table. Not to mention the highly-tricky issue of where it could be staged: The White House, the UN in New York, Geneva, Seoul, Pyongyang, the DMZ itself or a neutral ship anchored in the South China Sea?
But Tillerson and his under-strength team were equally cognisant that prevailing on POTUS to pull back or postpone well beyond May will be a tall order. Trump, they privately acknowledge, views meeting Kim as a 'PR coup' that could redefine his presidency, rescue the Republicans from heavy defeat in November's mid-term congressional elections, derail the Mueller probe and reinvigorate his presidential re-election prospects in 2020. The big fear among US diplomats is that Mike Pompeo will be far less inclined than Tillerson to speak truth to presidential power.
Trump, they're convinced, has been 'blinded' to the high-risk stakes involved, with POTUS so far dismissive of warnings that it would represent a 'far bigger coup' for Kim than himself and that the North Korean leader is 'playing the president' rather than the other way round. As the eminent nuclear deterrence expert Jeffrey Lewis puts it: 'Kim is not inviting Trump so he can surrender North Korea's weapons. Kim is inviting Trump to demonstrate that his investment in nuclear and missile capabilities has forced the United States president to treat him as an equal.'
State Department veterans are convinced that — presuming the talks do go-ahead — Kim will be looking for US acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear power. In return for a pledge not to use them unless attacked first, to suspend further missile tests indefinitely, accept limited international inspections and to consider signing a 'peace treaty' to end the Korean war. But he'll also be seeking substantial US economic aid and the ending of sanctions. Demands which would, given North Korea's long history of broken promises, prove difficult for any US president to accept. But it would also hand Kim the propaganda weapon of blaming failure on Trump.
The State Department's concern is compounded by the inconvenient fact the US doesn't even have an ambassador in its South Korea ally and its top expert on North Korea just happened to resign days before Trump hastily agreed to talks.
In addition, US diplomatic strength is at its lowest in living memory, with dozens of senior jobs vacant and a president who only last November laughed off warnings from the State Department by declaring: 'I am the only one that matters. We don't need all the people they want.' Will Pompeo be willing to challenge that dangerous mindset is the question taxing the US diplomatic corps.
The president gushingly announced via Twitter (of course): 'Kim Jong-un talked about denuclearization with South Korean representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!'
Inevitably, too, there was much talking-up of POTUS's tough sanctions campaign forcing Kim to the table and rather less about the key diplomatic role played by South Korea's liberal President Moon. And no mention of the fact that only a few weeks ago Trump had been openly deriding Moon's diplomatic efforts, or that — on his orders — vice president Mike Pence cold-shouldered Kim's sister and other North Korean officials during their historic presence at last month's Winter Olympics in South Korea, refusing to even shake their hands.
White House loyalists insist The Donald's impetuosity is born out of his conviction he truly is 'The Great Deal-Maker' – the swashbuckling, unconventional president who can make history by achieving what three successive US administrations failed to achieve with three successive generations of the Kim family ruling North Korea. Nicholas Burns, an ambassador who served both the Clinton and Bush governments, counters: 'Here is the big gamble the president is taking: Is Kim really likely to give up his nuclear weapons? The answer is no. It wouldn't be rational for him to give them up, it's the only card he has. He knows what happened to Gaddafi and he knows what happened to Saddam Hussein when they gave up their weapons of mass destruction.'