David K. Shipler
The truckload of problems that new presidents suddenly face when they enter the Oval Office must not be enough for Donald Trump, because he is manufacturing his own to add to the pile. These are problems that did not exist beforehand. Some are inventions of his fertile imagination, others are new and damaging twists to old issues whose scars had long healed.
Here is a short list:
Mexico. As a cardinal rule of national security, you do not pick fights with a peaceful friend who shares a 2,000-mile border. You do not risk stoking anti-American radicalism that could bring an antagonistic government to power and turn your neighbor hostile. You do not endanger your security by jeopardizing the anti-drug cooperation that has developed. You do not provoke Mexico's president to cancel a visit to Washington. And if you don’t want more Mexicans to cross illegally into the US, you don’t make it hard for them to get decent jobs at home. By bullying companies not to build factories there and by imposing steep tariffs on their goods, you damage their economy and create more incentive to come to the US.
China. If you want to address the actual, serious tensions that exist with China—trade, military expansionism, and the like—you don’t reopen the one-China policy by engaging with Taiwan, an approach with no gain for the US. If you’re a post-election Trump and you can’t resist tramping around awkwardly inside the carefully groomed garden of foreign policy, at least try to think more than one stomp ahead. And if you commit a clownish faux pas by speaking with the president of Taiwan, let it pass and be seen in Beijing as a rookie mistake. Don’t follow it up with threats to use some recognition of Taiwan as a bludgeon against China in other areas. Since Nixon, China has grown accustomed to the US accepting the fiction that Taiwan is just a Chinese province. It’s silly to us but essential to Beijing, which could probably invade and seize Taiwan before Trump could tweet, “Sad.”
Israel. Here is another fiction: that Israel’s capital is not Jerusalem, so the US embassy can’t be located there—a convenient dodge designed to leave open Washington’s position on the disputed holy city’s final status. If you don’t want to add to your problems with Muslims around the world, leave the embassy where it is, in Tel Aviv, instead of moving it to Jerusalem as Trump proposes. It will have to be built as a fortress to withstand attacks from Palestinians, and it will inflame devout Muslim believers elsewhere. If you don’t want to encourage attacks on American facilities and Americans themselves, even inside the US, don’t take purely symbolic steps that touch raw nerves, insult religious sensibilities, and grant you no gain. And if you insist on building, there is a picturesque site in Jerusalem that could be easily defended: The Hill of Evil Counsel.
Muslims. If you want to combat terrorism, think about how to cultivate confidence in your decency and respect among Muslims at home and abroad, including majority Muslim countries whose assistance you will need in sharing intelligence and military duties. If you seek to profit by denying visas wholesale to people from a bunch of Muslim countries, and by bludgeoning American cities to have their cops finger undocumented immigrants, you don’t understand much about human nature. Sowing fear of law enforcement will dry up sources of information on incipient terrorism. Local subcultures divorced from the law will grow, as even battered women become terrified of reporting the assaults to the police.
Torture. If you want to avoid further damage to America’s shredded moral authority in the world, don’t preach the virtues of torture, which even some Republican members of Congress now regard as soundly illegal. However, if you want to harm America’s standing again, by all means do what Trump has done, and sing the siren song about the efficacy of waterboarding, ignoring the experts whose investigations have shown it to be unproductive, even counterproductive, in producing reliable information. If Trump had the gift of irony, he could find satisfaction in proving his predecessor an abject failure in this area: Obama’s refusal to have a single torturer prosecuted has left the door open to abuses.
Ethics. You don’t want scandal to dog your administration, especially in contrast to your predecessor, who was purely corruption-free. Trump, by retaining his family interests in his business, puts himself knee-deep in the swamp (his term) of self-dealing, conflict of interest, and incipient corruption. As he swaggers above the ethics laws and practices, he gives license to his subordinates to do the same. His tenure seems likely to be consumed with the enervating task of parrying one accusation after another. If you want to add distracting problems to your inbox, this is perfect.
The Press. “You can’t kick a man toward you,” was the advice routinely given by the father of a highly successful investment banker I’ve known. You can’t kick the press toward you either, and lying is a swift kick in the teeth. Journalists who work for mainstream news organizations are trained and committed to ferreting out facts, whether delightful or unwelcome to those they cover, and their work routinely brings them into contact with lies—but lies issued with some finesse. Traditionally they’ve treated official lies as one side of an argument, to be balanced with an opposite viewpoint. Reporters are unaccustomed to Trump-style blatant fabrications, and the barrage of falsehoods has driven editors into corners of opinionated characterizations that hurt both the president and the press. People who lie to reporters rarely regain their credibility; Trump and his press secretary have spent theirs in their first few days in office. So, if you’re going to lie, don’t be so obvious; stick to ambiguous stories that are hard to check out.
Trump and his aides seem to believe that thumping attacks will cow the press, and they might be right when it comes to marginal media. For responsible newspapers and broadcasters, however, the proper answer is more thorough reporting, including investigative work into government agencies where policy changes will be made in the weeds, far from daylight. In general, news organizations have not assigned beat reporters to regulatory agencies, but they should, especially now.
Of all Trump’s problems, this one—the problem of an inquisitive, skeptical, irreverent press—is one that the country should cheer and celebrate and fervently hope never goes away.