Commentary: Some Foreign Leaders Continue to Misstep in Approaching Trump: Yes, It Is Still Happening!

US President Donald Trump (center right), French President Emmanuel Macron  (center left) and other G7 leaders in Biarritz, France. Problems have obtained on the international scene because some foreign leaders have used flawed stories from the US news media about Trump as a basis for their decisions concerning the US. It is surprising that nearly three years into Trump’s first term, many foreign leaders remain uncertain about what he is doing and how to approach him. More national leaders must engage in a bit of self-intervention and halt what may be their respective governments’ self-destructive approaches toward the US President.

The renowned Ancient Roman Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar has been quoted as saying: Libenter homines id quod volunt credunt. (“Men freely believe what they want.”) Much as that centuries old adage obtains, critics in the US news media would have the world believe that Trump came to the G7 Summit in Biarritz, France on August 24, 2019 with a whip, so to speak, and the other leaders struggled to pull it away from him. The Economist summarized remarks made prior to the meeting in the following way: “the G7 summit in the seaside resort of Biarritz, an event many expected to be wrecked by conflict and theatrics.” However, there was in fact hardly anything that could be called conflict or uncongenial behavior in any form among leaders at the G7 Summit. Courtesy abounded. The leaders of the world’s economic powers were cozy enough as they figuratively shared the same tea trolley. There may have been some friendly, strong discussion among the members. There was also a very apparent misstep made by the host, French President Emmanuel Macron, with Trump. Still, each left with a better understanding of one another’s positions and better conception of how they can all work together on a variety of issues. During his remarks at an August 26, 2019 joint press conference with Macron at the close of the G7 Summit, Trump stated: This is a truly successful G7. There was tremendous unity. It was great unity.” He went on to say: “Nobody wanted to leave. We were accomplishing a lot. But I think, more importantly, we were getting along very well–seven countries. And it really was the G7.”  

Within reason, one could attempt to substantiate that misguided supposition propagated by many in the US news media that the G7 would by a disaster by noting that the agendas of foreign governments are usually single-minded. Coming almost naturally to them as politicians, foreign leaders meeting with Trump would certainly want to push the agendas of their countries forward. Some partners, much as competitors, pushed so hard with their respective agendas that the result was heated exchanges. However, the promotion of their respective countries agendas was not at the source of Trump critics’ expectations that their would be contentious interactions between him and other national leaders. Rather, those thoughts from Trump’s critics in the US news media were a manifestation of a personal dislike of the US President that echoes the established position of management in the various news media houses toward him. Their version of Trump has never been complimentary. They see no grace, creativity or intellect, in ways he has addressed foreign policy issues. They insist a dictatorial mayhem exists in the Trump administration that ensures only the worst decisions possible flow from it. Trump’s critics, while offering sentiment as reality, cannot be begrudged free expression. Yet, problems still arise on the international scene because some foreign leaders continue to use extrapolations from flawed stories from the US news media about Trump or make inferences from them to base their decisions concerning the US. The inability of Macron to grasp how Trump’s unique, successful, style of diplomacy that led to an aforementioned misstep with him at the G7 was very likely due in part to his use of faulty information from the US news media.

It is somewhat surprising that nearly three years into the first term of the Trump administration, many foreign leaders are still uncertain about what the US President is doing and how to approach him. Trump has been discussed by greatcharlie on previous occasions in its posts. Further, since 2017, greatcharlie has taken the opportunity to express its concerns about the US news media’s antagonistic treatment of Trump, initially in response to the heavy skepticism expressed about the nascent Trump administration and what was ostensibly an inchoate foreign policy. The hope then was that at least a few foreign leaders might heed advisories from greatcharlie cautioning against an over reliance on the US news media to collect “useful” information on Trump administration intentions and actions on foreign policy and diplomacy. During a January 21, 2018 CBS News “60 Minutes” television interview, the great novelist John le Carré, reflecting on his immediate work, explained that “Each book feels like my last book.” He wittily went on to say, “And then I think, like a dedicated alcoholic, that one more won’t do me any harm.” With regard to each essay it has produced on foreign leaders’ misunderstanding of Trump, greatcharlie feels similarly. The level of misunderstanding displayed in one situation or another always manages to prompt just one more essay on the matter. The hope now is that at least a few more foreign leaders might be egged on to engage in a bit of self-intervention and halt their respective governments’ self-destructive approaches toward the US President. Concordia res parvae crescent. (Work together to accomplish more.)

Trump’s Diplomacy: It Comes from the Heart

Watching Trump negotiate is akin to attending a master class on the subject. Trump has essentially been the administration’s metaphorical talisman on bilateral diplomacy, trade talks, essentially every kind of dealmaking. He will apportion his energy on foreign policy and diplomacy with an economical balance to each urgent, important, and not so immediate issue, as reasonably necessary. In doing things a bit differently on a variety of issues, Trump presents possibilities for getting many new, better things done. Perhaps by the manner in which Trump goes about doing things, he does displays a bit of magic, so to speak. He can see a clear way to doing things, sorting out the extraneous and sticking to the matter at hand. Some might describe what often emerges as a peculiar variety of diplomacy. Yet, there is in reality a clear logic to it all. Critics and opponents of Trump will likely find all of this hard to fathom. Henry Ford the US industrialist and inventor and Edward Everett Hale, a US author, poet, historian, and Unitarian minister have both been attributed to the quote: “Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” It could be said reasonably that Trump’s thinking on diplomacy runs along that same track.

Despite what might be a history of war, aggression, and strong animus with an adversaries and opponents, or coruscating flashes of disagreement on defense, trade, and even climate change with allies and partners, to Trump, diplomacy, all talks, must start with “coming together”. For Trump, coming together is the beginning of any successful human interaction. To that extent, Trump always insists that he is ready to talk, even to adversaries. Since he knows that the process of creating a connection between countries can only begin with one side expressing itself to the other, Trump has often very publicly taken that first step. He sees an opportunity to initiate a form of personal diplomacy with almost everyone. What is necessary is having a foreign counterpart who is willing to listen and understand to what Trump is saying. In establishing terms for interaction, differences between the two leaders, which on a very basic level could include political orientation, age, work experience, prestige, power, must set aside or overcome. On a personal level, there may be differences in styles of communication and certain sensitivities. Trump, will usually straightaway engage a foreign leader by looking beyond outward appearance, seeking to discover what is in his heart. Ex abundancia cordis, os loquitor. (From the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.)

From the beginning of a diplomatic process with a foreign leader, Trump will insist through his own cordial actions, that mutual respect shown and understanding given to positions expressed. Trump will rely upon soft sensory abilities, using intuition and intimations, to facilitate discussion on issues and all aspects that important to both leaders. As communication develops, he will desire to create a sense of “oneness” with his interlocutor on the matter at hand. Smooth interactions creates opportunities for fulsome talks more desirable and usually results in them becoming more frequent. In talks, Trump knows there will be moments when both sides must reconcile with dissonant components of one another’s thinking on the spot. Thinking ahead in order to cope with an issue that could develop into a major obstacle, Trump will lay the groundwork for handling those moments by ensuring that an open and friendly atmosphere exists in all interactions. He will promote that positive atmosphere without effort or pretentiousness and mainly through a natural discourse with foreign leaders. There is apparently no disproportion between what is observed publicly observed in Trump’s interactions with foreign leaders and what occurs between them behind closed doors. Another bit of nuance to Trump’s approach is to take into account emotional responses of his foreign interlocutor. Trump will regularly and earnestly express an interest in a foreign leaders well-being and what he was thinking. As leaders, he understands the harness in which one is strapped as a national leader. That harness can become a yoke for some. Being able to mutually see the world through that lense provides and excellent basis for commonality and understanding in which he and his interlocutor can find comfort, and to an extent, relief.

Once Trump has the US “working together” with another country on a matter as agreed, success has been achieved. His vision would typically entail both sides engaged in various levels of communication communicating, working together, and making equal contributions all along the lines of excellence. That type of shared contribution has been called the art of working as one. Trump spends time daily as chief imagineer of the US, engaged in forward thinking, considering new types of partnerships, largely economic, that would serve mutual interests, ensuring what is best for US. What he will hope and expect is that those with whom he is negotiating will be accepting of change and a new path forward. What will typically be seen as a result by other countries when it comes to trade is a mutually robust path toward economic growth or even renewal backed by the experience of Trump and the largess of the US. Trump has not displayed any interest in subsuming the interests of another country just to gain advantages. He knows that will only set the stage for a build up of animus and likely future contentious interactions over the unfairness of the relationship. Trump is not in the business of kicking the can down the road, leaving problems for the US President that would follow his second term.

Hardly anything is all peaches and cream. When meeting with foreign leaders face-to-face, Trump’s eyes are always wide-open. He knows that even when it is easy enough for others to be supportive, to do the right thing, they will often choose the opposite. As he no longer a novice US President, he no longer seen from him are any mistaken assumptions about the loyalty, honor, capabilities of others, particularly among longtime political leaders of his own Republican Party. Indeed, Trump has honed his ability to see straight through just about anyone he encounters in both politics and diplomacy. In that vein, what is presented to him by foreign leaders is not accepted at face value. In addition to being able to see through the false face, he can discern true intention and position. Having this ability does not make Trump dismissive of them. There is no turn to being condescending. Interestingly, he will do his best not to let on to what he is thinking and feeling in those situations.

While it can be reasonably stated, as mentioned here, that Trump actually does things a bit differently in diplomacy, it would also be correct to state that he has not engaged in a variety of diplomacy so peculiar that foreign leaders and their aides and advisers would need to bang their heads on the tables, attempting to understand it. (If that is truly the case anywhere, greatcharlie respectfully suggests that those leaders find new, more effective aides and advisers.) What foreign leaders may characterize as vagarities, unexpected actions, in fact is a certain nuance which has been Trump’s style on foreign policy and diplomacy since day one and should have been better understood and have become part of a reliable calculus concerning him long since. He never makes himself ordinary, and he should be treated as such, nor should his thinking be considered such. (On immediate impression, perhaps what has been presented may appear quite evident and to a degree, common wisdom, however, negative preconceptions and false assessments of Trump so dominate the world scene, it becomes necessary to lay it when discussing perception versus the realities about him.)

Macron’s Surprising Misstep with Trump at the G7

Periclum ex aliis facito tibi quod ex usu siet. (Draw from others the lesson that may profit yourself.) When efforts are made by foreign leaders to connect with Trump by taking manipulative steps designed to find advantage over his way of thinking, they typically fall flat. Perchance, those failed efforts reflect much more about the foreign leader making an assumption or basing a decision concerning Trump on mere conjecture. A recent example of this was Macron’s effort to bring Trump and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif together at the site of the recent G7 Summit. Apparently, Macron saw promise in the effort based on what Trump accomplished at the DMZ at Panmunjom with North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un. It appears that based on information he was provided by aides and advisers, and one might presume even his own research, Macron comprehended only on a superficial level what Trump had done with Kim. He unfortunately drew all the wrong lessons from Trump’s inspired move.

It has been suggested that Macron seeks to exert greater influence on the world stage. He is seen as growing into a role as a European leader who is “prepared to take risks, push new ideas, and try to use the multilateral system to ease tensions and defend the liberal order.” For Macron, organizing an impromptu US-Iran meeting turned out to be far more challenging and riskier than he could ever have imagined, particularly as it created the image of him among US officials and scholars, not as a European leader, but more as Europe’s busybody. When one does a comparison between what Trump accomplished at the DMZ between the two Koreas and what Macron attempted, similarities can be seen, but great differences become most apparent. In those differences can be found reasons why Macron’s venture went wrong. Further, Macron may have wanted to create something akin to Trump’s extempore meeting with Kim at the DMZ when bring Javad Zarif to G7 Summit site, but the matter was clumsily handled. It may not have been a stunt, but it reasonably appeared as such. Some effort was made by some mainstream European news media houses to dress up what occurred as something positive. The Economist claimed that Macron managed “to avert disaster, keep America’s Donald Trump happy, ease trans-Atlantic tensions over a French tech tax and win a pledge from Mr Trump to talk to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani.” Yet, alas, the effort was a failure.

The DMZ meeting was part of an ongoing effort to solidify the mutual respect,  understanding, and trust between Trump and Kim. As already explained, Trump and Kim demonstrated to each other that they equally understood the importance of “keeping together for progress.” They managed to indicate to each other that they were both interested in securing an agreement as things progressed. For Trump, in particular, it was part of an effort that greatcharlie has dubbed the ”maximum defusion campaign”. Further, Trump was also paying a visit to a new friend while “in the neighborhood” of his country as that is what real friends do! Having Kim respond to his invitation and come with a smile and outstretched hand to the DMZ was a tremendous success for Trump. Kim was willing to talk and follow-up on past meetings and letters. In the end, there were meetings that day in Panmunjom that resulted in a decision to bring teams of US and North Korean negotiators to getting to hash out irritating issues. The entire venture was born out of Trump’s life experience. Experience is something that one has and can be tapped into. Experience cannot be simulated.

Looking at the idea of bringing Trump together with Zarif in the manner that Macron should have, many things become apparent. Zarif was sanctioned by the US. Trump has doled out a number of hard hitting sanctions against Iran and Iranian officials following his administration’s withdrawal from the 2016 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated by the US, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, suspending the Iranian nuclear program for a short 10-year period. There had been no previous meetings between them, no positive relationship, not even a noncommittal plan for interaction preexisted between the Trump administration and the Iranian regime to build upon. Zarif has made more than a few dismal remarks, garden-variety disparagements about Trump and his administration. One comment that stands out is his mocking reference of the Trump administration as the “B team”, which may indicate his gross misunderstanding of the political scene in the US. It is difficult to understand how and why in Zarif’s mind that the Trump administration would not constitute the “A team”. Maybe Zarif uttered the phrase only as means to entertain the lessen lightened at home with some banal amusement. In the spirit of full-disclosure, Trump also said a few uncongenial things about Iran, particularly about it being a state-sponsor of terrorism and its distabilizing activities throughout the Middle East and beyond. That view has been repeated by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The big difference between what they have said versus Zarif’s comments is that all of their comments have been accurate.

Regarding Trump’s decision to meet impromptu at the DMZ, it certainly was not a decision based on preference or predilection toward meeting in that fashion. Rather, it was more about recognizing the potential in a particular circumstance and creating an opportunity. Thus, there was no reason whatever to duplicate such extempore circumstances in Biarritz. Further, it is difficult to understand why Macron would think Trump should meet with the sanctioned foreign minister of Iran and not the president. Kim is the Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the leader of North Korea. It would only be fitting for Trump to meet with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or at a minimum, Hassan Rouhani, the President of Iran. Under the circumstances, it is Zarif and his Foreign Ministry that could be called the “B team”. He is hardly eligible to meet with the US President.

Trump was unlikely pleased to discover that Macron completely failed to understand the DMZ meeting, that he was confused about what occurred, and even more, that Macron really did not understand him so well. However, in the face of it all, Trump displayed sangfroid and statesmanship. At the April 26, 2019  joint press conference with Macron at the G7 Summit’site end, Trump tried to tidy up the mess that the French President made with invitation to Zarif. Trump let Macron off the hook a degree by stating the French President had informed him of the surprise move with Zarif. Trump even agreed to meet Rouhani, with the condition of Iran becoming a good player in its region and on the world stage, but that accommodation fell flat. Rouhani absolutely rejected the idea of meeting with him unless, sanctions imposed by his administration were lifted. That was unrealistic condition insisted upon. Rouhani further stated incredulously that the US would also need “to bow its head in respect to Iran as an equal.” There is absolutely nothing that the US should have appreciated about Macron’s intercession into the current diplomatic difficulties between the US and Iran. Surely the impromptu venture was worth its candle enough that Macron should have been willing to go farther into the woods to consider all of its aspects, all of its possibilities, positive and negative. One might offer the conjecture that what was most importantly really revealed by the whole affair was a better understanding of Macron thinking on foreign policy and diplomacy. Smart, confident people can find real resolutions to difficulties. As a result of how the matter was handled by Macron, nothing good stemmed from it. If officials in the Palais de l’Élysée could please pardon greatcharlie’s frankness, the whole venture cobbled together by Macron was not particularly clever. Ornat haec magnitudo animi, quae nihil ad ostentationem, omnia ad conscientiam refert recteque facti non ex populi sermone mercedem, sed ex facto petit. (To all this, his illustrious mind reflects the noblest ornament; he places no part of his happiness in ostentation, but refers to the whole of it to conscience; and seeks the reward of a virtuous action, not in the applause of the world, but in the action itself.)

Examples of Recent and Past Failure by Foreign Government’s to Understand the US

This sort of ill-conceived approach not only to understanding of every new US President, but US society as a whole, tends to be a common problem in the decision making centers of foreign capitals. Perchance, even before the end of the first year of Trump’s first term, it became apparent to most foreign leaders that they could not rely on the intellectual support of their respective  subordinates when it came to dealing with Trump and the US, yet many continued to do so. Even Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, at the dawn of the Trump administration, appears to have been egged on by certain aides and advisers in his cabinet who harbored strong anti-Western sentiments and believed Trump could be pressed on certain issues. It was likely such skewed thinking and a desire of aides and advisers to create the impression that they had an easy handle on things that led to the continued execution of an election interference campaign in the US that began during the administration of US President Barack Obama. That operation, now well-exposed, indeed left little doubt that over the years that officials in Moscow have not learned much about the actual multifaceted inner workings of the US government and the dynamics of US politics. That misunderstanding of how the system worked in the US surely led officials there to believe that they could ever influence a US presidential election. With the considerable interests of so many in the US staked on the 2016 election’s outcome, there was hardly a chance that a rather weighty level of influence activity stemming from an odd, unexpected direction would not be detected in many quarters. Moreover, US intelligence services and law enforcement agencies were watching over everything. When the covert operation was uncovered, the US responded with expulsions of diplomats and closures of Russian Federation facilities in the US. So much was discovered about the operation that Putin was left with little ability to plausibly deny his knowledge of those particular activities of Russia’s intelligence services.

As explained in greatcharlie’s January 14, 2019 post entitled, “Trump Uses Prior Experience, Flexible Thinking, and Even Empathy, to Make Foreign Policy Decisions Fit for Today’s World”, the unique qualities and character of each US President in great part impels the US public to select them on election day. As chief executive of the US Government requires the president to take certain positions and actions in accord with US values and interests. Yet, it is the unique qualities and character of each which causes the choices of each to diverge a bit or a lot from those of their predecessors. How a president will act on certain foreign and national security policy issues will typically be outlined during an election campaign for the public to read and hear. From what is enumerated, the public will form an opinion on a candidate. There must be the belief that the candidate will make a positive difference in their lives personally such as making them financially better off and more secure, allowing for improvement to their communities by making more services available and life better in general, and in the country by improving its condition, guiding it in a positive direction, and ensuring its status as a world leader and force for good. Negative ideas that might to orbit around a preferred candidate and even a rival candidate, while seemingly important in campaign efforts–every campaign has elements that focus on those matters and to an extent promulgate negative information on an opponent–and in news media stories broadcasted, published, and posted, may remain correlative, even de minimus, in the minds of many voters. In the end, it is not what is wrong with a candidate that sticks in the mind of a voter that is so important. It is what is right for the voter which makes the difference. The thinking of the US public generally moves in that direction. To the extent that negative information about a preferred candidate might have an impact, it may drive voters to the polls to ensure their candidate wins. However, an influence operation that would ensure such behavior in sufficient numbers to manipulate an election results would need to be nuanced to a degree that would it nearly impossible to carry out. (At a minimum, a full-fledged shadow campaign, with a multitude of operatives on the ground, would be needed to be successful. Moscow carried it out its 2016 interference relatively on the cheap!) Basing the interference operation on a failed interpretation of US political activity, meant it was doomed from the start. Essentially, it was sabotaged by ignorance.

During the Cold War, within the furtive decision making centers of the Soviet Union, there was a similar half-baked understanding of race in US society. It was seen as a matter in which their intelligence service could insulate themselves and exploit. To be more specific, the hope of the Soviet intelligence services was to exploit the disaffection of ethnic communities, particularly African-Americans, toward the US Government as part of its mission. Conjecture, more than anything else, was used to develop some official understanding of the racial strife in the US. They simply needed to create some basis to conduct operations to exploit it. When it was expedient, they undoubtedly substituted revolutionary ideals of the Communist Movement as a framework for understanding the civil rights efforts of the African-American community where they lacked an authentic understanding of the many dimensions of the race issue. (There was apparently a penchant toward that type of projection by the Soviet and Eastern Bloc intelligence services.) The operations of the First Department of the Soviet Union’s intelligence service at the time, Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) better known as the KGB, covered the US and Canada. A target of the First Department among others, was the African-American community, particularly African-American radical groups. The task was to fund and support the radical groups in preparation for direct action, attacks on government facilities. However, they shpuld have only expected to achieve results. If the KGB had looked deeper into the matter, it might have discovered that despite the contentious, aggressive, and violent exchanges on race that were taking place during the Civil Rights Movement and afterward, for African-Americans there was certainly no desire to fight the US Government. Extremist elements with that in mind or something similar, promoting a divide between people, were few and far between. Further, despite any likely projection by Moscow of its own Socialist and Communist thinking in Moscow on the African-Americans community, the Civil Rights Movement was never about any of those political ideas. Respect and love for the US, and a sense of patriotism was present and apparent in most African-Americans despite incredible difficulties they faced in society. The goal of the Civil Rights Movement was not to tear down, destroy, transform system as it stood, but integrate more fairly society. The goal was to ensure the recognition of the rights of the African-American their community as due under the US Constitution and inclusion of members in all that was the US. The culture, attitudes, behavior, thinking, and laws had to be changed to allow and support the equal opportunity of African-Americans to enjoy those rights. Important to the struggle was getting the majority in the society value the lives of others, to value the lives of their fellow country regardless of race. Logic and wisdom had to conquer the sentiment and traditions of the past. For years, these elements were righteously insisted upon. Due to a willingness to accept change for the better and new federal laws passed, some progress was eventually made.

Intriguingly, a similar degree of skewed thinking on race in the US has been displayed by the Russian Federation Government today. According to The Atlantic, a spate of recent reports, accounts tied to the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency—a Russian “troll factory”— used social media and Google during the 2016 electoral campaign to deepen political and racial tensions in the US. Indeed, as explained on the Russian TV network TV Rain, those trolls were directed to focus their tweets and comments on socially divisive issues, such as guns, but another consistent theme has been Russian trolls focusing on issues of race. Russian ads placed on Facebook apparently placed emphasis on Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland, which were the sites of considerable and extended protests after police killings of unarmed African-American men. Another Russian ad showed an African-American woman firing a rifle. Other ads played on fears of groups such as Black Lives Matter.

Should Foreign Leaders Blame Their Intelligence Services for the Failure to Understand Trump?

When national leaders do not grasp what is happening on an issue and cannot get a handle on a situation in a satisfying way, anxiety, a sense of panic, can ensue. To fill those gaps information, they make use of their intelligence services. The information that the intelligence service may provide may not necessarily be collected through agent running in the field or technological means. Whatever might have already been gathered by intelligence professionals from clandestine operations and perhaps covert sources of collection, may be supplemented and even complemented by overt sources. Indeed, among the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods of many intelligence services of countries of various sizes and power, is to have analytical units mine for information through overt sources of intelligence, traditionally newspapers, magazines, books of certain authors. Now certain websites, blogs, and social media are also commonly raked through.

Using such overt sources, however, can be risky. Analysts can easily become victims of faulty reports, misleading stories, and politicized commentary. There is no assurance that the information is true. Without the means for verifying and confirming whether it is true, intelligence service must proceed with caution. Presently, overt sources can pose nearly as much danger as information that might be dangled before collectors by adversaries. When the wrong information is collected and presented to consumers, things can go terribly wrong. Policy and decision makers demanding intelligence, may not ask or give a cursory look at how and from where the information available was collected. Depending on how bad the situation is, those officials directly advising or supporting key leaders, rather than sit palms up due to detected discrepancies, questionable findings, intimations, will pass it along as work product, demonstrating that they possess some type of control, a handle on the situation. Those consumers might be pleased to receive verification of their ideas. Those ideas, strengthened with the support of new data, no matter if they are dead wrong, can often become facts and make their way from consumer to consumer as such.

What Foreign Leaders Should Keep in Mind about the US News Media

With regard to news related to foreign affairs and diplomacy, national security and defense, international and national, the news media serves as the eyes and ears of the US public in realms that are generally inaccessible. What is immediately apparent in the way in which stories are being reported and commented upon lately is the great degree that it deviates from well-established standards of professional practice of the past. That would include informing truthfully about people and events, reporting facts and not simply offering opinions. In particular, the quality of mainstream news media efforts devoted to foreign affairs and diplomacy, national security and defense, has degraded significantly.

US news media houses sell papers and magazines, but more importantly, advertising space when they express and act on such sentiment. The so-called “Information push” drives the made grab for stories and a source, almost any source, that will provide information to corroborate what is going out over the air, on paper, and online. Misguided speculation by the US news media can make stories seem more exciting, even lurid. Human nature is fascinated by what sounds exceptional and scandalous. When foreign leaders are drawn to such stories, they most often suffer the consequence of losing opportunities for their respective countries.

It is important to know that since the first days of the Trump administration, there has been an “us-them” approach taken by the majority of the US news media toward anything it does. Reporters and pundits in the broadcast media have gone beyond the point of being gadflies. Primacy is given to an effort to shape the thinking of the public against Trump, as well as provoke the US President, with daily stories that harshly criticize him, gainsay his administration’s decisions and actions, and chastise administration personnel from senior advisers to middle level staff. Words used are beyond hostile and aggressive. The distance that many journalists are willing to travel away from past norms is unknown. Into the second year of his first term in office, the news media remains all Trump, all the time. Journalists discuss hypotheticals sometimes with only a tenuous connection with the realities to ongoing events instead of informing the US public of facts from solid reporting and analysis based on studied patterns of decision making. The facts offered are more often bleached to the point of being superficial. Deeper dives into facts are avoided, and gaps are filled with opinions. Journalists will even seek to capitalize on Trump’s criticism of their stories whenever he decides to get involved with them.

The modality of the attacks on Trump from the news media catches the eye. Many critics have proven better skilled in unpleasantry than bon mot.  The attacks have been meted out in gradations of intensity. None of it represents, healthy, objective, traditional reporting and commentary. It is defined by a supercilious, holier-than-thou perspective of the US President, that they believe gives the free reign to be arrogant and rude toward him without regard for the fact that he is still a human being, and in an honored position that, itself, should garner respect. A type of patrician aesthetic has lead some critics to put themselves in position high enough to judge whether Trump is “presidential enough” for their liking. The words “not presidential” were heard every time Trump spoke. Efforts by Trump of any kind elicit a range of reactions by those engaged in the broad, piquant, counter-Trump discourse. From what has been observed, critics and detractors within the US news media as much as some angry scholars, policy analysts, political opponents, and leaders of the Democratic Party, have essentially exhibited a collective mindset, determined to find wrong in Trump. They have tried endlessly to uncloak some nefarious purpose in his legitimate effort to perform his duties.

On a secret recording made at a staff meeting on August 12, 2019, Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times, was heard making comments to the effect that the newspaper saw its job as imposing a “narrative” on the world rather than listening to what the world teaches. In that vein, Baquet seemed more concerned that in the Times coverage of the Russian collusion story concerning Trump and the 2016 US Presidential Election, it failed to deliver “the Russia story its readers wanted.” As Baquet stated: “Our readers who want Donald Trump to go away suddenly thought, ‘Holy [bleep], Bob Mueller is not going to do it.’ ” Baquet went on to explain that despite the fact that the newspaper covered an unsubstantiated story, he was satisfied with its work. He said, “We set ourselves up to cover that story. I’m going to say it. We won two Pulitzer Prizes covering that story. And I think we covered that story better than anybody else.” Baquet additionally indicated that the newspaper was not through with Trump yet. He suggested that the Times next needed to deliver the narrative that Trump is a racist, insisting that the Trump racism story is the one the newspaper’s readers want. He stated: “How do we cover America, that’s become so divided by Donald Trump? How do we grapple with all the stuff you all are talking about? How do we write about race in a thoughtful way, something we haven’t done in a large way in a long time? That, to me, is the vision for coverage. You all are going to have to help us shape that vision.” Baquet’s comments would have been considered unimaginable a few years earlier. Such is that state of the mainstream US news media today.

An Element of “Monkey See, Monkey Do” Overseas?

As greatcharlie discussed in its May 31, 2018 post, “An Open Mind and Direct Talks, Not Reports Developed from Overt US Sources, Will Best Serve Diplomacy with Trump”certainly, officers in topflight intelligence services around the world are carefully watching the drama being played out between Trump and the US news media. Interestingly, if any reports being produced by an intelligence service are still using the product of the US news media in their intelligence analyses of Trump, then those services are truly being remiss in their duties. Yet, maybe there is an element of “monkey see monkey do” that might drive such behavior.

During the testimony of the Special Counsel to Investigate Russian Interference with the 2016 Presidential Election and Related Matters, Robert Mueller, on July 24, 2019 before the House Judiciary Committee, Congresswoman Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) pointed out that in the final report of his office, entitled “Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In the 2016 Presidential Election” and known commonly as the Mueller Report, cited numerous media stories. Indeed, in Volume II of the Mueller Report, commonly referred to as Part 2, much of the supporting evidence used was from the US news media and not interviews or collected documents. Lesko asked Mueller directly: ““I think you relied a lot on media. I’d like to know how many times you cited The Washington Post in your report?” Lesko also asked Mueller how many times the report cited the New York Times or Fox News. Lesko then told Mueller that he cited the Washington Post “about 60 times,” the New York Times “75 times,” and Fox News “about 25 times.” She went on to state: “I’ve got to say, it looks like volume two is mostly regurgitated press stories. Honestly, there’s almost nothing in volume two that I couldn’t already hear or know simply by having a $50 cable news subscription.”

While the research as presented in Part 2 of the Mueller Report, analyses may have resembled authentic collection by intelligence and law enforcement officers, in reality it was a superficial mockery that fell far short of any professional standards. Perhaps foreign intelligence services a bit more familiar with the practices of the US intelligence community, may be taking a lesson from it. However, that particular practice, if it is indeed a common practice of the US intelligence community, certainly it would behoove foreign intelligence services not to allow that method to serve a model for what they should be doing to fulfill the requirements created by their consumers.

The Way Forward

Understandably, foreign leaders have great interest in successfully interacting with Trump. However, the use of information gleaned from the US news media is certainly not a way to accomplish that. To that extent, greatcharlie has been thoroughly critical of foreign leaders efforts in that direction. So scarcely can it be said that what appears in the US news media about Trump are  accurate facts that it would behoove foreign leaders to be more than circumspect of information they receive that has arrived out of its stories. Moreover, they should perhaps avoid such information, regardless of their own respective intelligence services procedures for using it as an overt source, altogether. As for alternatives, alas, greatcharlie’s not in the business on telling foreign how best understand the US President’s intentions and actions. Yet, lessons for anyone on the matter can be drawn from the approaches taken by Trump aimed at affecting change in the foreign and national security policy decision making of other countries in his first term while working outside the auspices of international institutions. There might be some disagreement with this suggestion, but very often from what critics might declare as crises, Trump has managed to create starting points for new beginnings in relations with other countries. Trump sees potential in everything. As a result, if he sees a better way, an easier route to put the figurative golden ring in his reach. His critics and detractors insist that there are strictures on foreign and national security decision making to which he must adhere as US President. However, Trump, having been engaged in international business for years, has had time to examine the world using his own lens, and not a political or bureaucratic prism. He came to office confident that he could maneuver well among the galer of national leaders, each with his or her own ideas, goals, ambition, will, and predilections. There will occasionally be surprise shifts in his approaches. Indeed, he exhibits the type of flexibility of thinking and action that an accomplished general would hope to display in war. It is possible that he has by instinct the methodology to do it all well.

Additionally, greatcharlie has neither the intent nor the wherewithal to insist the leaders in foreign capital to accept its explanation of how far off-base many of their analyses of Trump must be and that they must immediately change their perspective. It would seem that some might prefer to continue onward in that way given a degree of comfort has been found in believing the situation truly is as they see it. It would only hope that with a record of being unable to find a pathway to understanding what will most likely be a two-term US President, that all would adopt a perspective on Trump in line with reality. Laudem virtutis necessitati domus. (We give to necessity the praise of virtue finding the benefit in what is needful.)

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