For previous occupants of the White House, close observers could guess what actions a President might take in any given situation based on his ideology, personality, personal history, etc.
No one seems to to have a working mental model for President Donald Trump.
Let’s take a look at two sequential posts by Dilbert-creator and dedicated Trump-watcher Scott Adams. (And I’m picking on Scott Adams not because of his failings, but because he and his “Master Persuader” theory has heretofore been the best predictor of what Trump would do or say in any given situation.)
My guess is that President Trump knows this smells fishy, but he has to talk tough anyway. However, keep in mind that he has made a brand out of not discussing military options. He likes to keep people guessing. He reminded us of that again yesterday, in case we forgot.
So how does a Master Persuader respond to a fake war crime?
He does it with a fake response, if he’s smart.
Watch now as the world tries to guess where Trump is moving military assets, and what he might do to respond. The longer he drags things out, the less power the story will have on the public. We’ll be wondering for weeks when those bombs will start hitting Damascus, and Trump will continue to remind us that he doesn’t talk about military options.
As I blogged yesterday, the claim that Assad ordered a chemical attack on his own people in the past week doesn’t pass my sniff test. For Assad to order a gas attack now – while his side is finally winning – he would have to be willing to risk his life and his regime for no real military advantage. I’m not buying that.
But let’s say the world believes Assad or a rogue general under his command gassed his own people. What’s an American President to do? If Trump does nothing, he appears weak, and it invites mischief from other countries. But if he launches 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian military air base base within a few days, which he did, the U.S. gets several benefits at low cost:
1. President Trump just solved for the allegation that he is Putin’s puppet. He doesn’t look like Putin’s puppet today. And that was Trump’s biggest problem, which made it America’s problem too. No one wants a president who is under a cloud of suspicion about Russian influence.
2. President Trump solved (partly) for the allegation that he is incompetent. You can hate this military action, but even Trump’s critics will call it measured and rational. Like it or not, President Trump’s credibility is likely to rise because of this, if not his popularity. Successful military action does that for presidents.
3. President Trump just set the table for his conversations with China about North Korea. Does China doubt Trump will take care of the problem in China’s own backyard if they don’t take care of it themselves? That negotiation just got easier.
4. Iran might be feeling a bit more flexible when it’s time to talk about their nuclear program.
So in less than 24 hours, Adams went from “Trump is too smart to take that fishy bait” to “Trump is sure smart to have taken that fishy bait, and here’s why.”
I opposed the Syrian strike but, like Adams, think it may have beneficial results in strengthening Trump’s hand in dealing with other world leaders.
But the big takeaway here is that no one has a functioning mental model of what Trump is likely to do faced with any given situation. And that includes America’s foreign adversaries, who must of necessity tread more cautiously than they did under Obama.