Uh-oh, bad news for the Trump administration: Jim Mattis is consorting with the enemy.
Mind you, I don’t mean to accuse the smart, able, thoroughly (and thankfully) level-headed secretary of defense of anything underhanded, let alone treasonous. I don’t mean any enemy of the Unites States, but rather that resilient foe of the Trump administration: reality.
On Monday, Mattis told reporters that “we’re not in Iraq to seize anybody’s oil.” In normal times, that would seem self-evident. But President Trump has bandied about the absurd notion that the United States should have done just that — and might still. That’s ridiculous, of course, something recognized instantly by anyone with a grasp of how law-abiding nations behave.
Mattis’s remark helps illustrate a larger point, however. Although Trump and his team have cast the press as their enemy, their actual foe is political, legal, and factual actuality. Elected on a string of ideas that ranged from highly improbable to totally absurd, Trump now finds himself caught between a campaign rock and a governing hard place.
Administration emissaries are traveling the (real) world with this message: Pay no attention to the noise from the Oz machine; listen instead to us, the men behind the curtain. Witness the recent itineraries of Rex Tillerson and Mattis, who were both in Germany on Friday, and Vice President Mike Pence, who was in Brussels on Monday to reassure the European Union that, Trump’s pronouncements notwithstanding, the US still supports NATO.
But that’s merely cleaning up Trump’s shoot-from-the-lip foreign policy pronouncements. The president’s bigger problem is his domestic campaign promises. There’s no way to offer big tax cuts while also balancing the budget and preserving Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Replacing the Affordable Care Act with better, cheaper health care would defy policy-making gravity. Boosting economic growth to a sustained 3.5 to 4 percent annually is the stuff of economic fantasy, just as forcing Mexico to pay for his wall is political fantasy.
Trump, however, needs to maintain the illusion that he’s making meaningful progress on his agenda. Thus the flurry of executive orders to different agencies that amount to this direction: Do something — anything — that makes us look as though we’re doing something – anything.
Nowhere is that more apparent than with Trump’s ill-conceived seven-nation travel ban. Cobbled together by the aggrieved Steves, pugnacious partisan populists Bannon and Miller, that court-stayed executive order was a failure that highlighted the fumbling dysfunction of this fledgling administration. Yet rather than use that debacle to remedy the obvious problems in his White House, Trump claimed, laughably, that “we had a very smooth rollout of the travel ban, but we had a bad court.” So did the Titanic, save for an encounter with a bad iceberg.
But rationalizations notwithstanding, reality has a way of breaking through. Sometimes it’s a small moment, such as when a reporter at Thursday’s press conference queried the president on his not-even-close claim is that he had won the biggest Electoral College victory since Ronald Reagan. Perhaps Trump thought that he could bolster his legitimacy with his lightly informed base by slipping in his Electoral College falsehood. Instead, he was forced to beat an ignominious retreat, blaming his falsehood on bad information he had been given.
Embarrassing though it is to America, it might be productive to have our president mocked on the international stage for things like his apparent allusion to a nonexistent Friday terrorist incident in Sweden. That’s now been explained as a reference to an inflammatory but dubious Fox News segment, but either way, Team Trump needs to understand the public price of trafficking in falsehoods, fantasies, or vapors from the conservative fever swamps.
After all, with Donald Trump, the fear of ridicule is clearly a more effective prod than any inclination toward honesty for its own sake.