The U.S. president’s statements seem contradictory, shifting between disengagement and offers of cooperation. There is a reason behind this behavior — a behavior that is very likely to continue for a long time.
Almost all of the signals the White House sent to Europe in the last few days were reassuring. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met the Russian foreign minister in Bonn, but also had a long and friendly talk in Washington with Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs. During a press conference in Brussels with President of the European Council Donald Tusk, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence expressed “the strong commitment of the United States to continued cooperation and partnership with the European Union” in Trump’s name.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis urged NATO members to revise the alliance’s budget. However, he also denied the hypothesis of a military cooperation with Putin’s Russia and insisted that Russia respect the Minsk agreement on Ukraine. The tones are not the same as the ones used in the Obama administration, but there is a considerable difference when one compares them to Donald Trump’s public statements before and after his election. Some believe that these changes depend mostly on the president’s electoral cynicism, and that further, even more reassuring improvements are on their way. That may be the case. However, there are other circumstances — the ban against Muslim migrants and visitors, the campaign against the “malevolent and lying” press — where the president’s language remains intolerant and provocative.*
Additionally, there are people in the White House, some of whom are his major advisors, who make no mystery of their racist and illiberal leanings. An unscrupulous role-play may be behind these contradictions. Collaborators with relations to the outside world have the task of reassuring and appeasing. Strategists working on Trump’s domestic policy — immigration, deregulating Wall Street, reducing taxes and progressively dismantling Obama’s health care policy — have to implement his presidential agenda. No matter what the answer to these doubts is, it is not reassuring to know that the man leading the best-armed power on the planet is represented on the international scene by officials who, in a best-case scenario, can only be partially trusted.
The old international order urgently needs to be corrected and mended. Is it possible to start working on this while the U.S. is governed by a president who seems to be embroiled in an endless election campaign? There is another reason why Trump will keep alternating contradictory statements. All American presidents have their critics and adversaries, but this president knows he has an opposition that puts his legitimacy into question and ardently hopes to remove him from office via impeachment, the American Constitution’s way of dealing with presidents guilty of treason, corruption, and other crimes or transgressions. According to a recent poll Nicholas Kristof referenced in the New York Times, 46 percent of respondents are wishing for impeachment.
However, it does not end there. Trump’s election has prompted many Americans to reread an amendment to the Constitution (the 25th Amendment, 4th Section, adopted after Kennedy’s assassination) concerning the possible causes for an interruption of the president’s term. One of these involves the major members of the president’s cabinet reaching an agreement to strip the head of state of his powers and replace him with the vice president. At first, it gives the impression of a legalized coup. However, the amendment also allows the president to appeal to Congress and ask it to confirm the decision of the presidential cabinet with a weighted vote (two-thirds majority).
Is this just the chatter of frustrated constitutionalists? Perhaps it is. However, it does explain why Trump needs to watch his back and, from time to time, moderate his tirades. He does not want to lose his voters, but he cannot keep angering the considerable mass of his critics. The one lesson Europe should take from these mixed signals is that it should continue walking down its own path toward greater unity, without waiting for America to decide what to do about its president.
*Editor’s Note: It is unclear whether the original author intended “malevolent and lying” to be a direct quote, or simply a paraphrasing of Trump’s attitudes toward media coverage of his administration.