A Donald Trump interview conducted Tuesday with Washington Post reporters is another entry in what has become a well-worn genre. For a president so devoted to theatrical clashes with the mainstream media, he grants interviews to journalists like a man with plenty of time on his hands. He talked to Politico about the border the same day he talked to the Post, and he spoke to the Wall Street Journal about trade the day before; a few months ago he called Bob Woodward to complain he hadn't been interviewed for Woodward's book; in October he brought New York's Olivia Nuzzi into the Oval Office to emphasize that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly's job was safe, a pronouncement he undercut in another interview with Fox News's Chris Wallace when he hinted Kelly would "move on." Combine the interviews with the rallies with the tweets and you get what is probably the most talkative presidency of all time, a chief executive obsessed with explaining why he is right and everyone else is wrong.
So much of the Post interview, then, was predictable. As he's done before, Trump waved away his own government's report on climate change, saying the the country's air and water were "at a record clean." He complained about the Federal Reserve (whose chair he appointed last year) and China, took credit for the price of oil, repeated his lavishly inflated claims about arms sales to Saudi Arabia, made confusing statements about immigration legislation, and insisted (falsely) that Democrats were the reason he hasn't gotten his border wall. Out of the mouth of any other president, several of these statements could have triggered a week's worth of outrage. But given Trump's penchant for stream-of-consciousness rambling, odds are he'll say something even more baroque by the time you're done reading this sentence.
The truly maddening part of the interview came at the very beginning, though, when Trump was asked a very good question:
PHILIP RUCKER: We wanted to start with a couple topics in the news today. Afghanistan, three troops were killed overnight in that roadside bomb. Can you explain why 17 years later we’re still there? Why are Americans still fighting there?
TRUMP: We’re there because virtually every expert that I have and speak to say if we don’t go there, they’re going to be fighting over here. And I’ve heard it over and over again.
When it comes to interest rates, Trump dismisses the Fed, telling the Post, "I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me." When it comes to climate change, Trump (and the rest of the Republican Party) blithely wave away the concerns of scientists as California burns. The GOP felt free to ignore all of Congress's own experts when Republicans were told their tax cut package would balloon the deficit—and wonder of wonders, that's exactly what happened.
But when it comes to the 17-year-long (and counting) war in Afghanistan, a quagmire that Trump vocally opposed when Barack Obama was president, all of a sudden the "experts" know best. When asked why three American soldiers were killed, Trump picked that moment to shrink so as to hide behind the alleged wisdom of the establishment.
The war can't be blamed on Trump. Obama entered office hoping to bring the Afghanistan conflict to a resolution by first bolstering the US military presence there, but departed with no end in sight, breaking a pledge to wrap up the war by 2014. And at least the Trump administration has been meeting with the Taliban, a process that could end the war at some future point. Trump brought up those talks in the Post interview, saying, "A little bit too early to say what’s going to happen. But we are talking about things."
But those baby steps aren't likely to satisfy the many critics from many parts of the ideological spectrum who have called for an end to the war. If Trump's experts insist that the US must stay in the country indefinitely, there are other experts who say otherwise. And why is Trump listening to experts on this subject of all subjects anyway?
It could be that Trump feels inadequate when it comes to making hard decisions about war. He stocked his cabinet with former generals, and it has been speculated that he could defer solely to military men when it comes to foreign policy. Woodward reported in his book Fear that Trump told his aides the war had been a "disaster" and wanted to pull out, but was persuaded by hawkish advisers to change course. Last year he agreed to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan, even as critics continue to slam the war for its vague objectives. His answer to the Post indicates that he's not thinking about withdrawing from the country, which means more Americans will die thousands of miles from home.
On Afghanistan, and maybe on nothing else, Trump's gut might have been right. And on Afghanistan, and nothing else, it's the "experts" who have his ear.
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