Nikki Haley, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, is not confused. “With all due respect,” she said in a pithy and empowering statement to Fox News anchor Dana Perino, “I don’t get confused.”
She issued this pointed assertion in response to National Economic Council chief Larry Kudlow, who accused Haley of getting “ahead of the curve” and suffering a “momentary confusion” when she announced on Sunday morning that the Trump administration planned more punitive sanctions on Moscow over its support for the murderous Assad regime in Syria. But Haley seems to have been on firm ground when she made those remarks.
Shortly after Donald Trump’s address last Friday night announcing strikes on Syrian targets, the Republican National Committee distributed to its surrogates a set of “White House talking points” previewing a new round of “specific additional sanctions against Russia.” President Donald Trump reportedly intervened as late as Sunday night to put a halt to a policy that was all but in motion. The only person who was confused here seems to have been the president. Kudlow later apologized for his remarks about Haley’s competence.
The bewildering 24-hour period between the coordinated announcement of new Russia sanction and the administration’s retreat from that policy is typical of this administration. The source of the White House’s confusion is not hard to identify.
Before Haley suffered the insults of those dedicated to insulating Donald Trump from the consequences of his indecision and ambiguity, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the man in the barrel. Tillerson surely thought he was representing American diplomatic interests when he revealed last September that the U.S. was “probing” North Korea for an opening that might lead to direct negotiations. “Save your energy, Rex,” the president tweeted. The comment cut the legs out from under his chief diplomat, who he said was “wasting his time” by seeking talks with the Kim regime.
When Tillerson conspicuously continued to lobby the North Korean government for an introductory first meeting “without precondition,” a spokesperson for the president’s National Security Council corrected him. There could be no talks, the NSC spokesman said, until North Korea stops testing missiles and nuclear devices for an unspecified period of time. “The President’s views on North Korea have not changed,” the White House said. But the White House was engaging in back-channel communications with the Kim regime with the goal of a face-to-face encounter between both nations’ principals.
The president’s Northeast Asia policy is about as clear as his Middle East policy. When Trump announced to an Ohio crowd in late March that the U.S. would withdraw its approximately 2,000 troops from Syria “very soon,” to let “the other people take care of it,” it came as a surprise to his administration. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said she was “unaware” of any plan to pull troops out of Syria, and Pentagon officials had spent that same week previewing plans to augment U.S. deployments to Syria. The White House later disclosed that Trump had been convinced of the virtue of maintaining a footprint in Syria indefinitely.
In fact, the president has a bad habit of forcing his staff and allies to clean up after his messes.
When Donald Trump explicitly agreed to a Democratic proposal to make the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program permanent without reciprocal border security legislation at an on-camera meeting with legislators, he had to be reminded that his comment did not reflect the GOP’s position. The transcript of the event was initially written to omit the president’s injudicious comments.
In a similar meeting with lawmakers regarding American gun policy, Donald Trump declared his support for legislative measures that would expeditiously strip guns from the hands of potentially dangerous people. Due process rights, he said, were a secondary consideration. The remarks sent Trump’s GOP allies reeling, and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders quickly dialed the president’s position back to one that was recognizably Republican.
Former Press Secretary Sean Spicer has had to correct the president for misstating the number of Guantanamo Bay detainees released under the Obama administration. In response to Trump’s comments about the value of raciallycharged protests that culminated in violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, the White House released a statement clarifying that Trump “of course” condemns white supremacists.
The White House has had to walk back Trump’s criticism of German trade policy, his claims about specific terrorist events in Sweden, his support for blanket tariffs on a variety of commodities, his intention to leave three college basketball players in a Chinese prison in response to personal criticism from one of the player’s fathers, and a statement about whether or not the travel ban was (as Trump called it) a “ban.”
The White House corrected the president’s myriad eye-popping assertions made before an audience of Boy Scouts last year, confirming that no one called Trump to congratulate him on “the greatest speech that was ever made” before this audience. They were also compelled to admit that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto did not call Trump to confess that the flow of Central American migrants north through Mexico had ebbed to a trickle as a result of Trump’s policies on the border.
Trump has reserved for himself both sides of the issue when it’s come to major U.S. policy initiatives such removing the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accords, corporate tax rates, whether ObamaCare will be stabilized or allowed to “explode,” and almost every aspect of America’s strategic relationship with Russia. Trump has promised to eliminate the carried-interest loophole, reduce individual tax brackets to just three tiers, and create targeted tax credits for working parents with elderly or young dependents—proposals Congress simply ignored.
If there is confusion within the administration as to what Donald Trump’s policy preferences are at any given moment, the president only has himself to blame. Nikki Haley might have been the first administration official to refuse to take the fall for Trump’s lack of clarity, but she is unlikely to be the last.