Why Is Donald Trump Still So Horribly Witless about the World?

Max Boot, a lifelong conservative who advised three Republican
Presidential candidates on foreign policy, keeps a folder labelled
“Trump Stupidity File” on his computer. It’s next to his “Trump Lies”
file. “Not sure which is larger at this point,” he told me this week.
“It’s neck-and-neck.”

Six months into the Trump era, foreign-policy officials from eight past
Administrations told me they are aghast that the President is still so
witless about the world. “He seems as clueless today as he was on
January 20th,” Boot, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on
Foreign Relations, said. Trump’s painful public gaffes, they warn,
indicate that he’s not reading, retaining, or listening to his
Presidential briefings. And the newbie excuse no longer flies.

“Trump has an appalling ignorance of the current world, of history, of
previous American engagement, of what former Presidents thought and
did,” Geoffrey Kemp, who worked at the Pentagon during the Ford
Administration and at the National Security Council during the Reagan
Administration, reflected. “He has an almost studious rejection of the
type of in-depth knowledge that virtually all of his predecessors
eventually gained or had views on.”

Criticism of Donald Trump among Democrats who served in senior
national-security positions is predictable and rife. But Republicans—who
are historically ambitious on foreign policy—are particularly pained by
the President’s missteps and misstatements. So are former senior
intelligence officials who have avoided publicly criticizing Presidents
until now.

“The President has little understanding of the context”—of what’s
happening in the world—“and even less interest in hearing the people who
want to deliver it,” Michael Hayden, a retired four-star general and
former director of both the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency,
told me. “He’s impatient, decision-oriented, and prone to action. It’s
all about the present tense. When he asks, ‘What the hell’s going on in
Iraq?’ people around him have learned not to say, ‘Well, in 632 . . . ’ ”
(That was the year when the Prophet Muhammad died, prompting the beginning of the Sunni-Shiite split.*)

“He just doesn’t have an interest in the world,” Hayden said.

I asked top Republican and intelligence officials from eight
Administrations what they thought was the one thing the President needs
to grasp to succeed on the world stage. Their various replies: embrace
the fact that the Russians are not America’s friends. Don’t further alienate
the Europeans, who are our friends. Encourage human rights—a founding
principle of American identity—and don’t make priority visits to
governments that curtail them, such as Poland and Saudi Arabia.
Understand that North Korea’s nuclear program can’t be outsourced to
China, which can’t or won’t singlehandedly fix the problem anyway, and
realize that military options are limited. Pulling out of innovative
trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, will boost China’s
economy and secure its global influence—to America’s disadvantage. Stop
bullying his counterparts. And put the Russia case behind him by
coöperating with the investigation rather than trying to discredit it.

Trump’s latest blunder was made during an appearance in the Rose Garden
with Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, on July 25th. “Lebanon is on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, Al Qaeda, and
Hezbollah,” Trump pronounced. He got the basics really wrong. Hezbollah is actually part
of the Lebanese government—and has been for a quarter century—with seats
in parliament and Cabinet posts. Lebanon’s Christian President, Michel
Aoun, has
been allied with
Hezbollah for a decade. As Trump spoke, Hezbollah’s militia and the
Lebanese Army were fighting ISIS and an Al Qaeda affiliate occupying a
chunk of eastern Lebanon along its border with Syria. They won.

The list of other Trump blunders is long. In March, he
charged that Germany owed “vast sums” to the United States for NATO.
It doesn’t.
No NATO member pays the United States—and never has—so
none is in arrears. In an
interview with
the Wall Street Journal, in April, Trump claimed that Korea “actually
used to be part of China.” Not true.
After he arrived in Israel from Saudi Arabia, in May, Trump said that he had
just come from the Middle East. (Did he even look at a map?) During his
trip to France, in July, the President confused Napoleon Bonaparte, the
diminutive emperor who invaded Russia and Egypt, with Napoleon III, who
was France’s first popularly elected President, oversaw the design of
modern Paris, and is still the longest-serving head of state since the
French Revolution (albeit partly as an emperor, too). And that’s before
delving into his demeaning tweets about other world leaders and
flashpoints.

“The sheer scale of his lack of knowledge is what has astounded me—and I
had low expectations to begin with,” David Gordon, the director of the
State Department’s policy-planning staff under Condoleezza Rice, during
the Bush Administration, told me.

Trump’s White House has also flubbed basics. It misspelled the name of Britain’s Prime Minister three times in its official
schedule of her January visit. After it dropped the “H” in Theresa May,
several British papers noted that Teresa May is a soft-porn actress best
known for her films “Leather Lust” and “Whitehouse: The Sex Video.” In a
statement last month, the White
House called Xi
Jinping the President of the “Republic of China”—which is the island of
Taiwan—rather than the leader of the People’s Republic, the Communist
mainland. The two nations have been epic rivals in Asia for more than
half a century. The White House also misidentified Shinzo Abe as the
President of Japan—he’s the Prime Minister—and called the Prime Minister
of Canada “Joe” instead of Justin Trudeau.

Trump’s policy mistakes, large and small, are taking a toll. “American
leadership in the world—how do I phrase this, it’s so obvious, but
apparently not to him—is critical to our success, and it depends eighty
per cent on the credibility of the President’s word,” John McLaughlin,
who worked at the C.I.A. under seven Presidents, from Richard Nixon to
George W. Bush, and ended up as the intelligence agency’s acting
director, told me. “Trump thinks having a piece of chocolate cake at
Mar-a-Lago bought him a relationship with Xi Jinping. He came in as the
least prepared President we’ve had on foreign policy,” McLaughlin added.
“Our leadership in the world is slipping away. It’s slipping through our
hands.”

And a world in dramatic flux compounds the stakes. Hayden cited the
meltdown in the world order that has prevailed since the Second World
War; the changing nature of the state and its power; China’s growing
military and economic power; and rogue nations seeking nuclear weapons,
among others. “Yet the most disruptive force in the world today is the
United States of America,” the former C.I.A. director said.

The closest similarity to the Trump era was the brief Warren G. Harding
Administration, in the nineteen-twenties, Philip Zelikow, who worked for
the Reagan and two Bush Administrations, and who was the executive
director of the 9/11 Commission, told me. Harding, who died, of a heart
attack, after twenty-eight months in office, was praised because he
stood aside and let his Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes, lead
the way. Hughes had already been governor of New York, a Supreme Court
Justice, and the Republican Presidential nominee in 1916, losing
narrowly to Woodrow Wilson, who preceded Harding.

Under Trump, the White House has seized control of key foreign-policy
issues. The President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a real-estate
developer, has been charged with brokering Middle East peace, navigating
U.S.-China relations, and the Mexico portfolio. In April, Kushner
travelled to Iraq to help chart policy against ISIS. Washington
scuttlebutt is consumed with tales of how Trump has stymied his own
Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, the former C.E.O. of ExxonMobil.

“The national-security system of the United States has been tested over
a period of seventy years,” John Negroponte, the first director of
National Intelligence and a former U.N. Ambassador, told me. “President
Trump disregards the system at his peril.”

Trump’s contempt for the U.S. intelligence community has also sparked
alarm. “I wish the President would rely more on, and trust more, the
intelligence agencies and the work that is produced, sometimes at great
risk to individuals around the world, to inform the
Commander-in-Chief,” Mitchell Reiss, who was the chief of the State Department’s
policy-planning team under Secretary of State Colin Powell, told me.

Republican critics are divided on whether Trump can grow into the job.
“Trump is completely irredeemable,” Eliot A. Cohen, who was a counsellor
to Condoleezza Rice at the State Department, told me. “He has a feral
instinct for self-survival, but he’s unteachable. The ban on Muslims
coming into the country and building a wall, and having the Mexicans pay
for it, that was all you needed to know about this guy on foreign
affairs. This is a man who is idiotic and bigoted and ignorant of the
law.” Cohen was a ringleader of an open letter warning, during the
campaign, that Trump’s foreign policy was “wildly inconsistent and
unmoored.”

But other Republicans from earlier Administrations still hold out hope.
“Whenever Trump begins to learn about an issue—the Middle East conflict
or North Korea—he expresses such surprise that it could be so
complicated, after saying it wasn’t that difficult,” Gordon, from the
Bush Administration, said. “The good news, when he says that, is it
means he has a little bit of knowledge.” So far, however, the learning
curve has been pitifully—and dangerously—slow.

* This post has been updated to clarify the contextual significance of the year 632.

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