In December 2019, longtime Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward asked then-President Donald Trump to explain his strategic thinking in regards to his taunts – on Twitter! – aimed at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Had it all been a carefully calibrated effort to get him to the bargaining table?
“No. No. It was designed for whatever reason, it was designed. Who knows?” Trump responded. “Instinctively. Let’s talk instinct, OK? Because it’s really about you don’t know what’s going to happen. But it was very rough rhetoric. The roughest.”
He then told his staff to show Woodward his photos with Kim at the Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea. “That’s the line, right?” Trump told Woodward. “Then I walked over the line. Pretty cool. You know? Pretty cool. Right?”
That interaction is part a forthcoming audiobook from Woodward that CNN obtained called “The Trump Tapes,” which contains 20 interviews Woodward conducted with Trump from 2016 through 2020.
So, let’s just pause there for a minute. With the potential of starting a conflict with a country that possesses nuclear weapons, Trump acted based on his gut. There was no short-term or long-term plan beyond instinct. But he did it anyway, with the “roughest” rhetoric. So he’s got that going for him…
This episode offers conclusive evidence that the notion that Trump has always been operating on a different – and higher – strategic plane was always deeply misguided.
In the immediate aftermath of his 2016 election victory and throughout his presidency, there were those – mostly Republicans, but more than a few Democrats as well – who argued every move Trump made was calculated, that even the stuff that looked odd at the time was part of a detailed blueprint only he could see. He was playing three-dimensional chess. The rest of us – and especially those in the media – were still playing checkers.
Beyond the fact that Trump won an election that most people – including most people in his political orbit – expected him to lose, there’s always been scant evidence that he was some sort of strategic genius or a puppet master who could make anyone dance just the way he wanted.
In fact, there was – and is – ample evidence to the contrary. Go back to Trump’s 1987 book “The Art of the Deal” and how he describes his typical day.
“Most people are surprised by the way I work,” Trump writes. “I play it very loose. I don’t carry a briefcase. I try not to schedule too many meetings. I leave my door open. You can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure. I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops.”
Trump has always been this way! He acts and then reacts to the reaction. He makes the vast majority of his decisions not on the available information or even on the guidance of those around him, but by his gut.
Again, Trump was taunting a dictator with nuclear arms “for whatever reason.” This is not a man who is thinking 10 moves ahead. He isn’t thinking beyond his first move.