As I write, President Donald Trump is on his way to the Middle East where he has set a high stakes program addressing some of the United States’ and the Arab World’s most critical concerns: Gulf security, defeating extremism, reining in Iran, and resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is a heady agenda, to be sure, but looming large will be the turmoil that is roiling the Washington the president left behind.
In Trump’s mind, the crises he is facing are “fake” and manufactured by his enemies. He complained in a Tweet on the eve of his departure that he is being confronted by “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.” Reality, however, is often at odds with Trump’s Tweets and this is no exception, because the president has no one to blame but himself for the growing controversies that are putting his presidency at risk. They are the result of his self-destructive narcissism, his ignorance about the workings of government, his dissembling, and his penchant for picking fights with adversaries ― including fights he couldn’t win. He simply has not understood that being president is different than being the star of his reality TV show or running his real estate/branding enterprise.
As a candidate and as president, Trump often struck out at the media. He called them biased and unfair ― and his followers loved it. After the election, his attacks on the media increased and were echoed by his spokespersons. He routinely dismissed the networks and newspapers who criticized him “fake news” and at press events he harangued and/or insulted individual reporters.
While Trump’s attacks were different in their harshness and demonstrated lack of civility, he wasn’t the first president to use the media as a foil to stir up resentment to serve his political ends. But as questions about the relationships between his key campaign operatives and Russia continued to grow, instead of merely upping the ante against the media outlets that carried these stories, Trump made a fateful decision. He went after the intelligence community, the FBI, and career prosecutors. The media may have served as a useful foil, but when he went after these institutions Trump clearly overreached, picking a fight he could not win.
Rankled by the president’s false stories about Michael Flynn and other operatives dealing with Russian agents, the reasons behind his firing of FBI Director Comey and what actually transpired in his conversations with Comey, and what occurred in the Oval Office meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister ― these agencies struck back with well-timed leaks that contradicted Trump, setting the stage for the Deputy Attorney General’s appointment of a Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller, to investigate: whether Trump campaign operatives colluded with the Russians; whether Trump or his operatives were under the influence of the Russians; or whether Trump, himself, was guilty of attempting to obstruct justice by pressuring the FBI Director to call off his investigation of Flynn.
There is a lesson in all of this: you can fight all you want with the press, but don’t mess with the FBI or the intelligence agencies or career prosecutors, because they’ll mess back ― and they have ammunition that gives them an advantage.
If Trump had been a bit more knowledgeable about the workings of government and less self-absorbed, he might not have picked these fights. But he did, and now there will be a cloud over his presidency as this investigation continues.
At this point, we don’t know where it will lead. What we do know is that Trump’s presidency will be weakened and members of his own party (many of whom only begrudgingly accepted his candidacy) will be questioning his leadership.
All of this is especially problematic coming on the eve of the president’s visit to the Middle East where he is set to participate in a number of meetings with GCC and other Arab and Muslim leaders. In some quarters, there are high expectations for this visit and at least the appearance of an alignment between some GCC key objectives and the stated foreign policy positions of the White House.
The visit will take place under a cloud. In addition to ongoing concerns with the Trump Administration’s unpredictability and disarray, and the continuing role of anti-Muslim ideologues within the White House (one of whom has been bizarrely tapped to write the president’s Riyadh speech on Islam), it is now necessary to ask whether the President’s troubles ― that were of his own making ― will weaken his ability to deliver on foreign policy goals he has set for himself and the region.
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