What if the President Is a Secret Genius?

Machiavelli or Chance the gardener?

By Andrew R. Arthur on July 19, 2018

President Trump's actions at the Helsinki summit, at which he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, had nothing to do with immigration, but his performance there suggests a style of operating that puts the administration's recent actions on border security into context.

The president's statements in Helsinki have prompted howls of disdain from across the political spectrum, when he suggested and then unsuggested (at separate press conferences), that the Russians may not have been involved in meddling in the 2016 presidential elections.

That said, the president appeared to have defended and advanced American positions in the summit itself, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. For example, although there was no agreement on the removal of Iranian forces from Syria, "both sides discussed the need to maintain Israel's security by keeping threats off its border. They also agreed to work together to address the bitter conflict in Syria and help with humanitarian concerns." On Ukraine, the president reportedly argued "that Moscow's annexation of Crimea was illegal" (a point that the Journal noted was "the standard NATO position"), a fact that President Putin unsurprisingly disputed. The two also "appeared to lay the ground work" for a future nuclear agreement.

According to MSNBC, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has stated that "Trump's 'eagerness' to 'sell out' the United States shows that the Russian government must 'have something' on Trump." The president, however, has a funny way of "selling out" the United States to Putin if true.

For example, the Washington Post reported in December 2017 that the Trump administration "has approved the largest U.S. commercial sale of lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine since 2014," despite the fact that, the paper admitted, that sale might "complicate President Trump's stated ambition to work with" Putin. Similarly, the Journal article is accompanied by a photograph of U.S. troops training in joint military exercises with the Ukrainian army in that country this month.

Furthermore, forgotten in the controversy over the Helsinki press conference was the fact that President Trump had earlier been criticized for castigating the German government at the NATO summit, complaining that the country is "captive" to Russia as result of its dependence on Russian energy, as Vox reported. The website explains:

Germany approved and started building what's known as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline this year, with plans to complete the construction by 2020. This will help Germany import tons of Russian gas to power the country's homes, industries, and military.

What worries Trump, it seems, is that this Russia-to-Germany pipeline is being built by the Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom. That could potentially give Moscow major influence over Berlin, especially since Germany imports about 47 percent of its natural gas from Russia. But Germany imports just 9 percent of all of its energy, which undercuts Trump's claim that Germany will somehow be beholden to Moscow.

Still, Trump thinks this is a bad deal, to say the least.

Trump also noted that Germany's former leader, Gerhard Schroeder, works in the Russian energy industry. Schroeder is a close friend of Vladimir Putin and even hails him as a "flawless democrat."

That pipeline will have deleterious effects on Ukraine, which the Guardian detailed in an interesting analysis:

No country is more angry about the pipeline than Ukraine, an ally Trump is supposedly poised to abandon when he meets the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki on Monday.

Ukraine stands to lose billions of much needed dollars if Russia can transfer its gas transmissions to Europe across the Baltic Sea, away from a pipeline running across Ukrainian territory.

This week the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, said: "This is not a commercial project — it is not economical or profitable — it is absolutely a political project. There is no point, from the economic point of view, creating this project. This is absolutely a geopolitical project."

Simply put, the president's criticism of Germany's ties to Russia only makes sense if the latter country is a bad actor. If the president were a blackmail target or a Russian stooge, he likely did not make his controllers happy with his statements about Nord Stream 2.

Although there were strong calls for the president to confront Putin on Russian meddling in the elections at that press conference, it is not clear what benefit would have been gained from such an action, except to appease an American audience. My first major case as an attorney with the former Immigration and Naturalization Service involved the deportation of a purported Soviet spy, and from my experience, former KGB officers like Putin never admit their culpability for anything, even if caught in the act. Think Jimmy Durante and the elephant in Jumbo. A direct confrontation could have scuttled whatever progress the two had reached at the summit itself. Perhaps the president thought that it was better to wait until he got back to the United States to "clarify" his remarks for the folks back home.

In a similar vein, former Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for China Jeff Moon argued in a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that:

An overlooked irony of the American trade dispute with China is that Donald Trump is the first U.S. president to fight back using Chinese tactics. This time, it's the Chinese officials who are frustrated over the lack of clarity in demands, the sudden changes in negotiating positions, and the unpredictable escalation of tensions.

Usually it's the other way around, as U.S. negotiators in government and business can attest. Chinese officials often blame the foreign counterpart for any number of problems. The foreigners then have a duty, according to the Chinese, to make things right. An old proverb often cited is that a man who drops a stone on his own foot must take responsibility for picking it up.

But instead of specifying the terms for a resolution, the Chinese officials wait for foreign concessions. When the proposal arrives, the Chinese reject it as inadequate, forcing the foreigners to negotiate against themselves, offering more in each successive round. In the end, the foreigners are relieved when the struggle concludes, but they regret settling on terms much less favorable than they had planned. A 1995 Rand Corp. study traced these techniques to 1971, when Premier Zhou Enlai reportedly blamed tensions over Taiwan on the U.S. as he pressed Henry Kissinger for favorable terms normalizing U.S.-China relations.

Moon argues that the president "[u]nwittingly ... is turning China's tried-and-true approach against it." He offers no proof, however, for the fact that turning tables on the Chinese government is not part of the president's actual plan.

As noted at the outset, none of this has anything directly to do with immigration, but may nonetheless shed light on the administration's border-security moves. A former real-estate developer and show business personality, the president does not play by normal Washington rules. His statements at NATO and in Helsinki may have been more Michael Corleone in The Godfather II ("There are many things my father taught me here in this room. He taught me: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.") than Gerald Ford debating Jimmy Carter in San Francisco in October 1976 ("[T]here is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.").

With respect to border security, then-candidate Trump promised more detention and an end to "catch and release". While "catch and release" is a memorable phrase, the finer points of it really only made sense to immigration insiders. More likely than not, even most of those who opposed catch and release in principle didn't really know what it entailed or how it could be ended.

The president's "zero-tolerance" program ended that. "Credible fear", the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), and the 1997 Flores settlement agreement (particularly as interpreted in July 2016 by the Ninth Circuit) are now part of the public debate, and issues that Congress is examining. In fact, two bills (H.R. 6136, the "Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2018", and H.R. 4760, the "Securing America's Future Act of 2018" (SAFA)) that were recently voted on by the House of Representatives would have plugged these loopholes, which have led to an influx of aliens, and in particular alien minors, into the United States.

Even with setbacks by the courts, the president's efforts to end catch and release may yet gain even more traction. In my July 12, 2018, post captioned "Judge Dolly Gee Issues a New Flores Order", I argue that the most recent Flores decision "will result in more aliens attempting to enter the United States illegally." Judge Gee herself may be anticipating this eventuality: In her recent order denying the Department of Justice's "Ex Parte Application for Limited Relief from Settlement Agreement", she complains:

It is apparent that Defendants' Application is a cynical attempt, on an ex parte basis, to shift responsibility to the Judiciary for over 20 years of Congressional inaction and ill-considered Executive action that have led to the current stalemate.

What "responsibility" is she referencing? Basically, judicially and legislatively mandated catch and release.

A large influx of aliens, and in particular unaccompanied alien children (UACs) and family units, have the potential to create a humanitarian emergency at the border. As quoted by the New York Times, President Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel once stated: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." Following this maxim from another politician who played by his own rules, it is doubtful that President Trump would not renew his efforts to plug the loopholes that have led to catch and release if such an emergency were to occur, although he has done everything he could to prevent it.

The main character in the 1979 film Being There (based on Jerzy Kosiński's 1970 novel of the same name), Chance the gardener (a simple and innocent man played by Peter Sellers), quickly and unwittingly rises to power in Washington by responding to seemingly intractable policy questions with vaguely worded gardening tips. Thirty-nine years later, many in Washington treat Donald Trump as if he were Chance's evil twin, ham-handedly, mercurially, and inaptly applying his real-estate and reality-show experience in setting national policies, some of which succeed, and some of which fail.

I do not know the president, and am not privy to the thought processes that go into his policy decisions. Those critics (including some on the right) may well be correct. That said, President Trump has raised many immigration issues in addition to "catch and release" that were understood by experts as problems but that went unaddressed and largely misunderstood for years, including "chain migration" and the visa lottery. He could be the Machiavelli that conservatives have waited for to roll back the excesses of the Clinton and Obama administrations.

Respectfully, only Donald Trump knows for sure, and only time will tell whether he stumbles (or shrewdly schemes) his way into success or failure.

Topics: Politics