How Donald Trump’s autocratic actions are getting in the way of his successes

Robert Delaney says Donald Trump’s assaults on institutions threatening his presidency may overshadow his potential breakthrough on North Korea and strengthen China’s hand

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 March, 2018, 12:47pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 March, 2018, 6:28pm

US President Donald Trump has so far spent his tenure raging against the institutions that, over the past century or so, put America at the forefront of global leadership. His appetite for destruction only seems to gather momentum, which threatens to obscure his one possible foreign policy triumph: he made Kim Jong-un blink. Developments around North Korea could be his big chance to make fools of his detractors, who counselled against using insults and militaristic threats to subdue Kim.

Internationally, Trump’s targets include the United Nations, even though it was within this body that US envoy Nikki Haley managed to get support from China and Russia for the sanctions crippling Pyongyang.

Trump has also directed fire at the World Trade Organisation and free-trade deals that have more firmly integrated many previously isolated countries into the global economy. Domestically, the institutions in his cross hairs include the US Department of Justice and the FBI because of their roles in the investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russian government operatives.

The latest twist in the drama surrounding this investigation came when Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, a classic Trumpian move that would have autocrats around the world applauding.

Fired FBI deputy Andrew McCabe has given the memos he wrote about Donald Trump to Robert Mueller’s probe

That McCabe was fired two days before his 50th birthday, when he was to retire with full pension benefits, only revealed the depths of Trump’s sadism.

This, amid news that Trump’s personal lawyer paid hush money to a porn actress and that his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner was taking meetings with financiers in the White House, will not win him allies in the battles he is fighting on multiple fronts.

Trump built a strong following on threats to tear into political elites, but his transgressions have wandered far beyond that popular mandate. The longer headlines on these scandals dominate the news cycle, the more they will overwhelm his achievements.

Which brings us back to North Korea.

Assuming Kim’s qualified pledge to denuclearise was reflected accurately by South Korea’s envoys to Washington and that both sides sincerely intend to follow through with this meeting, Trump will have proven that he knows how to play his cards when it comes to threats against the US.

What key players want from Trump-Kim talks (and what they’ll get)

But what could be one of the most stunning diplomatic breakthroughs in decades has been pushed below the fold by controversies of Trump’s own making.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the controversies swirling around the White House is Chinese President Xi Jinping. Beijing has come in for criticism for eliminating presidential term limits, a move that could, at least theoretically, make Xi a leader for life.

But Trump’s White House is silent on the issue.

We’ve been exposed to Trump long enough to know that the US leader is an autocrat, who would like nothing more than to have the kind of power that Xi now possesses. The administration’s communications staff – at least those not yet purged – know how badly any criticism of China’s constitutional amendment would play from an increasingly autocratic White House.

A nasty US-China fight is inevitable. But it needn’t be terminal

The assured silence from Washington is one less hill Beijing’s foreign diplomats need to fight on.

Meanwhile, Trump will continue to fan the flames of suspicion around the role his associates played in Russian election meddling, pushing his authority as far as he can, as he wages war on those who have dirt on him. This is a dangerous game that could spark a backlash from Republicans, who have so far been reluctant to draw their knives.

Trump had better hope that his meeting with Kim happens and leads to a permanent defusing of the nuclear stand-off that has rattled the world’s nerves.

Robert Delaney is a US correspondent for the Post based in New York