One of President Trump's top aides says it's hard to publicly explain the administration's foreign policy for a simple reason: The White House doesn't appear to actually have a foreign policy.
That's one of the main takeaways from an eye-opening article in Politico about the White House’s efforts to gain its footing after a rocky first three months in office.
According to the account by Shane Goldmacher, more than 30 Trump administration officials held a meeting last week in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, near the White House, to talk about improving the administration's public messaging.
Trump communications director Mike Dubke and his deputy, Jessica Ditto, began the meeting by calling for a broader “rebranding” before pivoting to foreign policy. That, per the article, was when things got frisky:
Dubke, who did not work on the campaign, told the assembled aides that international affairs would present a messaging challenge because the president lacks a coherent foreign policy. Three days later, Trump would order missile strikes in Syria in a reversal of years of previous opposition to such intervention.
“There is no Trump doctrine,” Dubke declared.
The reaction, according to Goldmacher, was fast and angry.
“It rubbed people the wrong way because on the campaign we were pretty clear about what he wanted to do,” one White House official in the room told Goldmacher. “He was elected on a vision of America First. America First is the Trump doctrine.”
Except when it isn't. Trump campaigned on a platform of avoiding overseas military engagements and had explicitly called, in his inimitable way, to stay the hell out of Syria.
That changed last week when Trump, enraged by Bashar al-Assad’s deadly use of chemical weapons against his own people, spent less than three days deliberating before ordering a missile strike on Syria.
As my colleague Zeeshan Aleem noted, Trump's aides spent Sunday trying, and largely failing, to offer a coherent explanation of the strike, including answers to such vital questions as what will happen if Assad uses chemical weapons again and whether the goal of the administration is now regime change:
Ultimately, their comments raised as many questions as they answered, reinforcing the emerging reality that the Trump administration’s approach to foreign affairs is heavily ad hoc and beholden to the president’s unpredictable whims.
It's one thing for journalists to realize that. It's another thing entirely when Trump’s own aides do too.