ROBERT COSTA: About face. President Trump shuffles away from hardline nationalism to a more hawkish approach to foreign policy. I’m Robert Costa. We’ll examine what’s behind the administration’s reversals and the decision to bomb ISIS in Afghanistan, tonight on Washington Week.
Less than 100 days into his presidency, Donald Trump is moving away from the key themes that propelled him from candidate to commander in chief, on Russia –
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We’re going to have a great relationship with Putin and Russia.
Right now we’re not getting along with Russia at all. We may be at an all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia.
MR. COSTA: On China –
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing.
President Xi wants to do the right thing. We had a very good bonding. I think we had a very good chemistry together.
MR. COSTA: And the candidate who once called NATO “obsolete” –
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) It’s no longer obsolete.
MR. COSTA: A global policy in flux. A new appreciation for U.S. military forces that launched airstrikes on Syria and dropped the Mother Of All Bombs on ISIS targets in Afghanistan.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) We have incredible leaders in the military and we have incredible military, and we are very proud of them. And this was another very, very successful mission.
MR. COSTA: Plus, White House whiplash as Steve Bannon’s positon as chief strategist hangs in the balance after a falling-out with the president’s key advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
We examine the evolving Trump Doctrine with Molly Ball of The Atlantic, Peter Baker of The New York Times, Vivian Salama of the Associated Press, and Michael Crowley of POLITICO.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week.
Once again, from Washington, Robert Costa of The Washington Post.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Friday marked day 85 for the Trump administration. It was perhaps the most significant week yet for the president on the international stage. U.S. military forces used the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in America’s arsenal to target ISIS in Afghanistan on Thursday. The 21,000-pound blast, nicknamed the Mother Of All Bombs, destroyed ISIS tunnels and caves in the Nangarhar Province. Going hard after ISIS was one of candidate Trump’s strongest talking points.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me. I would bomb the (expletive deleted) out of them.
MR. COSTA: And as president, Mr. Trump has leveraged the full force of the U.S. military.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) We are so proud of our military, and it was another successful event.
MR. COSTA: The bombing in Afghanistan came one week after the U.S. launched retaliatory strikes on Syria in response to the deadly chemical attack on civilians. And earlier this week, U.S. Navy strike forces were deployed to the Korean Peninsula, a move in response to Kim Jong-un’s latest ballistic missile test and escalating tensions over a possible nuclear showdown.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES MATTIS: (From video.) The bottom line is North Korea’s got to change its behavior. That is an agreed position among the international community of nations that are working together on this.
MR. COSTA: Peter, is there any doubt that this mission in Afghanistan was symbolic as well as strategic?
PETER BAKER: Well, it clearly had an effect beyond the borders of Afghanistan. There’s a reason why they wanted us to see it. They wanted a video to be out. Because we are in this moment where the president of the United States is at odds with Syria, with Russia and North Korea all at the same time, and he’s trying to prove his bona fides. Eighty-five days in office, nobody’s quite sure what his doctrine really is. On the campaign trail he sounded at times bordering on isolationist. And so he’s trying to make a point: you know, we’re not going to sit back and take it, I’m a tough guy, you better pay attention. And you can certainly be sure that in Pyongyang they’re at least thinking about that.
MR. COSTA: Molly, is he a hawk?
MOLLY BALL: I have no idea anymore, you know? I mean, it’s always risky to try to attribute too much of an intellectual infrastructure to a man who I think is fundamentally about his gut, and that’s part of the attraction, I think, of Trump as a leader. But at the same time, it’s been clear he has as much as said this week that he went into this not knowing a lot about a lot of these conflicts. And I think it’s also been clear all along that he was someone who really valued toughness and strength, and had a sort of macho sense of the United States. But it can’t be denied that the “America first” philosophy he articulated very explicitly during the campaign was not about humanitarian airstrikes. It was the opposite of that. It was a transactional policy. So I do think that his behavior this week has confused a lot of people, myself included.
MR. COSTA: Has it confused other diplomatic leaders around the world, Michael?
MICHAEL CROWLEY: I think so. I think everyone is studying the guy, trying to figure out if there’s any kind of a method – I won’t say to the madness, let’s say a pattern to the policy. You know, I do think that on Afghanistan, actually, if you’re trying to collapse a bunch of tunnels and caves that ISIS fighters are in, that bomb makes sense. That bomb is designed to do that kind of thing. So tactically it solved a problem. And I want to be careful in drawing too large a conclusion from the use of that weapon. It’s also not clear that Trump had a direct role, that the generals might have kind of made this decision on their own, although I think the generals have a longer leash under Trump than they did under Obama to make that kind of decision. But again, on the larger point, I do think Peter’s right that Trump wants to – so even if the MOAB was part of this intentionally or not, Trump is trying to solve difficult problems by projecting toughness, to make Kim Jong-un wonder what is this guy capable of doing, to make the Russians think, boy, he really might get the U.S. involved militarily in Syria in a way that we thought Barack Obama never would. And so I think there’s a kind of a psychological component to this foreign policy. It’s just not clear to me whether it really is going to solve these very hard problems for him.
MR. COSTA: Vivian, welcome. Who’s driving this policy, based on your reporting? Is it the generals, or is it the president?
VIVIAN SALAMA: Well, there’s no doubt that the generals are very influential in this administration. He wanted that. He was always very respectful of the generals. He always kind of looked up to them. And he placed a lot of generals in the highest positions in the Cabinet. And so I definitely think that he’s listening to them. He’s taking their advice very seriously. But at the same time there’s a little bit of Donald Trump in this, and that’s that, you know, way back when he was still candidate Trump, one of the big things he said is that the world is going to respect us again; we lost the respect, and now we’re going to have it again. And I think that that was a big part of the move in Syria, is that he wanted to regain that respect and to show that he can’t be pushed around. In Afghanistan, I don’t think that was as much the case. I think that it was a little bit more of the generals influencing his policy. There’s an active war going on there, there was a threat, and they acted on it accordingly.
MR. BAKER: There’s something interesting about this, too, right? So he launches the first big new military operation of his presidency, against Syria, and then we have this bomb this week. What have we not seen from him? We’ve not seen him really talk about it, right? This is a person who uses his Twitter account –
MR. COSTA: Or tweet.
MR. BAKER: – exactly – to go after basically anybody within the boundaries of the United States who offends him, including actors and comedians and senators and nobodies who probably should be left alone if you’re a president of the United States. He has not trolled Bashar al-Assad once. He’s not trolled Putin once. He has been very restrained, which tells us a couple things. One is I think that his instincts from the campaign trail, where he said we shouldn’t really get involved in all these wars, are still there, and maybe he’s trying to keep his involvement in Syria limited, right? And the second thing it tells us is there’s more discipline, perhaps in his Twitter feed than we’ve given him credit for, and perhaps when he’s doing all these things we think are just simply impulse, you know, he does have moments where he can show discipline on the Twitter feed, and he’s using it.
MR. COSTA: And let’s remember, though, in one 24-hour period this week the president did a 180 on a number of policy positions, including China. He backed away from his view that Beijing was a currency manipulator and America’s enemy. Instead, he sees President Xi playing a role in defusing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Here’s another one, on the NATO alliance, which was characterized as outdated and obsolete by Mr. Trump on the campaign trail, but he now embraces it as necessary for global security and stability. Molly?
MS. BALL: Well, a lot of these things are just complete – as you said, complete 180s. He attacked Hillary Clinton for wanting to intervene in Syria. He literally said intervening in Syria is the wrong thing to do. Now you can say changing times, changing conditions, but I think, to Peter’s point, part of the problem not – with him not tweeting or not talking about it is, he hasn’t really explained himself. He hasn’t gone before the American people to say, here is the coherency. You know, the dumb pundits on TV can’t see it. OK, tell us what it is that you’re thinking, Mr. President, like give us a framework or, if there’s not a framework, just a situational explanation for these different moves.
Instead, it has much more of a feeling – and reporting supports this – my reporting, Peter’s reporting – that he’s learning on the job, that there are a lot of things he just didn’t know going in and that are changing his mind.
MS. SALAMA: That’s absolutely right. I think that’s he is just – the learning curve was huge with President Trump. He didn’t have any foreign policy experience. A lot of the people that are closest to him didn’t have any foreign policy experience.
And I think that it shows a little bit that he’s restrained himself on Twitter, on social media. I think it dates back a little bit to the health care issues and how that failed, and he kind of really took a step back and said, OK, maybe I should kind of keep a lower profile – on a lot of issues, not just foreign policy.
But I think that he really realizes that this is a very serious situation, that there are lives at stake, and so he is really kind of controlling what he says about it.
MR. CROWLEY: I think it’s – I think you’re exactly right. Some of it is learning. And you know, you’re getting classified briefings, intelligence briefings. And you’re having men and women in uniform come to you and present you with perspectives that you just wouldn’t have encountered until you were in the White House.
And along with that, I think, is a sense of responsibility that anyone would feel: This is now on my watch. And again, who are those people coming to brief you? They are foreign leaders or they are generals who are representing people who in some cases – or intelligence officials representing people who are putting their lives on the line for the United States, for their country; people who are going to be killed in conflicts. And that really has to concentrate your mind.
And finally, I think this was reported – I think his son said it in an interview – we’ve heard that Ivanka came into the Oval Office or at least came to the president somewhere after the chemical attack in Syria and basically said, look at the pictures of these women and children. This is horrible. What are you going to do?
Again, that accountability. You’re behind the desk, and people are saying, this happened on your watch. What are you going to do?
And I think that it’s understandable that would change your worldview quickly, especially if you came in without a very clearly formed worldview on international affairs.
MR. COSTA: Peter?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, and I think that’s exactly right. And I think they – because in fact if you look at the 2013 chemical attack in Syria, that killed 1,400 people. The one that happened a week or so ago killed 80. That doesn’t make it any – it doesn’t make it any better, obviously, but it does suggest that when the president said, as a private citizen in 2013, it’s not our business, we shouldn’t do it, and then he says, we are, it’s because, in fact, of that change. You are in the office. So –
MR. CROWLEY: It’s on his watch.
MR. BAKER: So – but it has not yet developed into a broader coherence. What is the doctrine? we said this week. The doctrine is no doctrine. You know, it’s very situational, very transactional. And that unpredictability is both an asset and a liability. It’s an asset if you – if you kind of intimidate some adversaries into thinking, well, we don’t know what that guy’s going to do; maybe we ought to back off. It can be a liability if it means your allies don’t know what they can depend on.
MS. BALL: And this was a famous theory of Nixon’s, right?
MR. BAKER: Yeah.
MS. BALL: The “you could be destabilizing the madman” theory. And Trump articulated it during the campaign that you want to be unpredictable.
I think, though, in addition to not knowing how to understand the strategy, we also have not seen any attempt to account for the consequences. There hasn’t been any attempt to explain what’s going to happen next or – especially with the refugee problem that you’re arguably exacerbating when you intervene in Syria and which Trump has been very aggressive about saying we are not going to help with.
MR. COSTA: As the president navigates through this thicket of tough decisions, of policy, there is an apparent power struggle inside of the White House between chief strategist Steve Bannon and the president’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner. This week Mr. Trump distanced himself from Bannon in a very public way during an interview with The New York Post. When asked if he still had confidence in Bannon, the president said, quote, “I like Steve, but you have to remember, he was not involved in my campaign until very late.”
The president went on to say, “I’m my own strategist” and added, “Steve is a good guy, but I told them to straighten it out, or I will.”
Trump is loyal, but he also doesn’t like to lose. Peter, who are the players who are shaping this move toward a more hawkish approach inside of the White House?
MR. BAKER: Well, it’s not Steve Bannon. That’s one way you know he’s in fact on the downslide at the moment, because he’s been very consistent about saying we shouldn’t be involved in these Middle East wars. These are quagmires. They are not in our national interest to get involved and trying to split up between sects and tribes and so forth in a far-off place. And he lost that fight in this particular week.
On the other side of the equation, obviously you do have his son-in-law, Jared, and his daughter Ivanka, who obviously did have an emotional reaction to – as many of us did, to those pictures.
You have H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser, a three-star general, who’s turning out to be a pretty influential figure right now, and James Mattis, who you’ve shown on the screen, the defense secretary.
So you know, you hear a lot from the establishment that was scared of Trump, both Republican and Democrat, some sense of reassurance that the people around him at least seem to have some seasoning and some experience. How far they’re able to shape that with him is not clear.
MR. COSTA: Vivian, what does your reporting tell you about Kushner himself? He is very quiet, doesn’t give a lot of interviews. But what’s he doing to shape the president’s policy?
MS. SALAMA: Well, he’s very influential just by default, because he’s the president’s son-in-law and he has his ear. He’s very trusted.
Certainly I think Ivanka probably gets the prize as far as people that he trusts the most and confides in the most.
But Jared has shaped the more moderate circle surrounding the president now as they increase and get more powerful. And so you have people like Gary Cohn, who was brought in as an economic adviser from Goldman Sachs. And he’s increasingly taking on a much bigger role. He’s actually been doing a lot of the negotiating with the health care. He was in the room for China, which obviously has economic ties as well.
But you even see some of the others, like – Peter Navarro is one person I think of, where – who is someone who was helping the president’s policy on China. He wrote a book called Death by China. So that kind of sums up what his views are on China.
He wasn’t in the room for any of the China meetings last week, whereas Gary Cohn, Jared Kushner, they were in most of those meetings.
And so you can see the sort of populist group that Steve Bannon brought in to be sort of sidelined, increasingly so, as we get further into this administration’s time in office.
MR. COSTA: How’s the president responding?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, you know, again, I think that if I were a Trump voter, I would be pretty upset if foreign policy had been one of the issues that I focused on here. I mean, Trump is responding by going to what the swamp, as he calls it, would call the responsible center.
You know, in a lot of ways, I’m seeing a foreign policy that doesn’t look all that different from what you would have gotten from Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, at least on its foundations.
Now there’s the sort of Trump theatrics at the top, and what I’m wondering is – what we might be headed for is a foreign policy that’s actually rather conventional, the kind of foreign policy you’d expect from a Jim Mattis-H.R. McMaster sort of nexus, where you have this – you know, these antics from the president, and people are scratching their heads over what did he mean by that but increasingly say, actually, it doesn’t matter that much, because I talked to Mattis today, or I talked to Jared today, and he was just with the Joint Chiefs chairman in Iraq. And that’s the level on which the real policy is made and where the communications happen with foreign countries. That’s what it looks like right now.
MR. COSTA: This muddle seen inside of the White House has consequences beyond Pennsylvania Avenue. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s meetings with his Russian counterpart and President Vladimir Putin revealed the divide between the two countries over Syria’s six-year civil war, and that divide’s only widened.
SECRETARY OF STATE REX TILLERSON: (From video.) The current state of U.S.-Russia relations is at a low point. There is a low level of trust between our two countries.
The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.
MR. COSTA: The biggest issue now for the U.S. and Russia is solving their differences over Syria.
MS. BALL: Well, and this is another 180 from the campaign. And this is one of the actually few issues that Trump was a hundred percent consistent about on the campaign trail – being friends with Russia, admiring Vladimir Putin, feeling that there were areas where the United States and Russia should be collaborating, and that this animosity that was maintained not just by the Obama administration but by most of the Republican Party toward the Russian regime was somehow misplaced.
So this is another way in which he has come full circle and seemed to come to rest in the place that – where most of Washington was before. I would just hesitate to assume that the place Trump is today is the final resting point of his views, because he does seem to do this sort of government-by-reality-show, where the competing factions are in favor or out of favor, and how he decides to really govern depends on who he’s listening to at the time.
So I don’t think we can know that just because this is where he is today, this is where he’s going to be.
MR. BAKER: I think he still has the idea that he’s going to be friends with Putin. I don’t think that’s gone away. I think if you look at what he said publicly in the interviews and at the press conference with the NATO secretary-general, he said things about Russia but not Putin. He didn’t personalize it in a way that he’s very capable of doing.
And the next day he put out a tweet saying, don’t worry; it’s all going to work out. I think in his mind he’s going to get there with Putin.
MR. COSTA: So is it all theater? There’s been some criticism from the – from the president’s opponents that some of this Russia tough talk distracts from some of the investigations that are ongoing about possible collusion between Putin and Trump associates last year.
MR. CROWLEY: Not even – not just the idea that the tough talk is a distraction, but Phil Gordon, who was National Security Council director for the Middle East under President Obama, wrote an article for POLITICO in which he said, we have to take seriously the idea that the Syria missile strikes themselves were an attempt to divert attention from those investigations, to show that he’s willing to do something that would make Russia upset.
And you know, Phil Gordon is a very credible person who is floating a pretty provocative theory that Trump actually ordered military action – now of course this is a kind of a Washington pattern where, you know, one side accuses the other of taking military action to distract from their problems. People said that about Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal when he ordered some missile strikes. I think it was against Iraq.
But the reality is that the posture now is very tough. I don’t think it’s all theatrics. I mean, if you just listen to the tone from the Kremlin, Russian media, they’re very upset. And the problem you have is that you could have some kind of an accident in Syria – maybe one of our planes hits one their planes or something similar to that – that starts to careen out of control.
So it’s dangerous to be in this position, but I do think Peter makes an excellent point. I’ll be really interested to see what happens when Trump and Putin are in the same room. It’s going to happen, I think, in June. And I think it’s very possible that Putin will have a very canny approach to Donald Trump that might – that might change this story dramatically.
MS. SALAMA: I mean, remember, he’s the deal-maker. He wants to bring everyone together around the table and the handshake and sign, and everyone will just kind of go their own way, and everything will be great.
But I do think a little bit of is conspiracy theory in terms of wanting to distract from the investigations. There’s maybe a little bit of that. But President Trump is someone who also really responds to what the media’s saying about him. And so suddenly it’s a win for him after Syria. It was good news. He acted on something, and there was a lot of celebration, even from some of his biggest critics.
And so I think, for him, that is a huge part in it, especially after a couple of weeks of just like, you know, constant, you know, shortfalls, I guess we could say. There – he wanted that and he needed that. And so I’m sure he welcomes the distraction. Whether or not he intended for it to happen, he definitely welcomes it. He’s thrilled.
MR. COSTA: And finally, one more flip: While the president spent the week focusing on foreign policy issues, back home the story that the White House just can’t get to go away, Russia and its meddling in the U.S. presidential election last year, took yet another turn. This time it was caused by Trump’s own CIA director, who accused WikiLeaks of colluding with Putin’s government.
CIA DIRECTOR MIKE POMPEO: (From video.) It’s time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: a nonstate hostile intelligence service, often abetted by state actors like Russia.
MR. COSTA: Peter, it’s not just the president. You look back at then-Congressman Pompeo, he was embracing the WikiLeaks work on Secretary Clinton’s campaign last year. You see people throughout the administration now taking this more hawkish direction, more anti-WikiLeaks tone.
MR. BAKER: Well, where you stand depends on where you sit, right? A very Washington story. If you’re in power, suddenly it’s very different than when you’re not in power. And he’s in – he’s in power. He’s sitting in Langley every day now, Director Pompeo is, and he’s talking to these analysts, he’s talking to these spies, who are saying, this is what happened, and it’s not politics on our part to say that it’s what happened.
So you heard Rex Tillerson say in Moscow this week that in fact our conclusion is Russia meddled in the election, even as the Russians were denying it.
So there is a turnabout on this. And WikiLeaks obviously is not the friend of any government. And so, you know – but we don’t know if –
MR. CROWLEY: Possibly the Russian government.
MR. BAKER: Possibly the Russian – I mean, the problem is so murky, right?
MR. CROWLEY: Right. Yeah.
MR. BAKER: And WikiLeaks remains, I think, a very interesting mystery we haven’t solved.
MR. COSTA: Molly, is this – is there a political cost for President Trump and his allies as they change their tune on all these different issues? You’ve been following all of the special elections very closely. What are voters thinking and seeing as they watch this administration change its whole approach?
MS. BALL: The signals at this point is very unclear. And I do think that there has been so much noise and so much news and such an overwhelming sort of flooding the zone by this president that a lot of Americans have probably turned off the TV and tried to go about their lives. So this sort of constant cycle of hyperventilation has not – if you look at Donald Trump’s approval rating – still low for an incoming president but around the number he got in the election, 44 percent – not a lot of people are really jumping ship at this point.
However, there does seem to be an energizing going on, on the left. We saw the unexpectedly close special election in Kansas. There’s others coming up now, all in light red to dark red districts in places like Georgia and Montana. And so of course we’re going to be watching those to see what kind of tea leaves we can read.
MR. COSTA: Michael, what’s your take on the WikiLeaks drama inside of this administration? Now they’re anti-WikiLeaks.
MR. CROWLEY: Yeah. You know, again, I just think it’s – it’s the accountability you have when you’re sitting on the outside and you’re sort of enjoying the theater, it’s great, and you’re not – you know, I think Trump just didn’t think through the implications of it.
I love WikiLeaks, he said at a campaign event, and now he’s there getting these intelligence briefings and realizing WikiLeaks could bite him. That’s a big difference.
There’s a lot of reason to think the Russians have intelligence on him. Who knows how much they might have collected? WikiLeaks might be their way of laundering it, so get out ahead and start to discredit it, because you might be the next target.
MR. COSTA: Thanks, Michael, and thanks to everybody. Great week. And welcome to Washington Week, Vivian.
MS. SALAMA: Thank you.
MR. COSTA: It’s great to have you here.
MS. SALAMA: Thanks.
MR. COSTA: Our conversation will continue online on the Washington Week Extra, and you can find that tonight after 10 p.m., at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. And from all of here at Washington Week, happy Easter and happy Passover.