Trump and The Wizard of Oz

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Columnist, The Cipher Brief

In this GOP presidential nomination campaign, when the issue is national security, Donald Trump reminds me of the Wizard of Oz.

I thought of that movie after watching Trump’s appearance last Wednesday on the CBS Morning News and felt it again watching his performance during Saturday’s Republican debate and his interview broadcast Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation.

My question, after absorbing all that, is who is going to play Toto, Dorothy’s faithful dog, who finally pulls back the green curtain and exposes the fraudulent wizard vigorously ringing bells, creating belches of fire, and shouting into a microphone.

Trump is a media savvy guy, and journalists have had plenty of opportunities to pin him down on his approach to foreign policy and issues of national security, but they sometimes don’t seem to pull the curtain back far enough.

One example: there were plenty of chances last Wednesday for the CBS morning team to expose Trump as he tossed out his normal number of inaccurate and questionable statements when the conversation moved to foreign policy.

Asked by Nora O’Donnell about how he would deal with the nuclear threat from North Korea, Trump blithely replied: “I would get China to make that guy [North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un] disappear in one form or another very quickly.”

O’Donnell jumped in to ask: “How do you make him disappear? Assassinate him?” Trump responded, “No,” but quickly added, “You know, I’ve heard of worse things, frankly,” thereby having it both ways. He wouldn’t assassinate the North Korean leader, but assassination wasn’t such a bad idea because, as Trump said, “This guy is a bad dude…This is not somebody to be underestimated.”

Think of a future President Trump making a similar remark and its impact around the world. It recalls 1963 and the assassination of President Kennedy and allegations that his death was tied to CIA efforts during the Kennedy administration to assassinate Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

While plotting an assassination is not barred by U.S. law, an executive order emerged out of those times that says, “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”

Neither O’Donnell nor her colleagues followed up on that Trump remark.

Instead they listened as he presented his view of why China could “make that guy [Kim Jun Un] disappear.”

“China has control, absolute control of North Korea. They don’t say it, but they do, and they should make that problem disappear,” Trump said. He then added one of his favorite remarks, “China is sucking us dry. They’re taking our money, they’re taking our jobs and doing so much. We have rebuilt China with what they’ve taken out. We have power over China. China should do that.”

In Trump’s world, China has control over North Korea, China is destroying the U.S. economically, but the U.S. has power over China.

Here, CBS’ Charlie Rose interjected, “You would leave it up to the Chinese?”

To which Trump replied: “No, I wouldn’t leave it up to them. I say, you have got to do it.”

Rose then asked, “And if they said no, you would do what?” To which Trump replied, “I would be very tough with them on trade.”

Not put off, Rose continued, “And if they said no, what would you do?” Not used to being pushed, Trump did what he often does when asked to be specific, he diverted the questioner. “I would very strongly stop them from ripping — I’m going to stop them anyway to a certain extent. But maybe I’d do it a little bit more forcefully.”

He immediately followed this non sequitur by saying, “One other thing. We make that horrible deal with Iran. The closest partner of North Korea is Iran. Why didn’t we put something in there? When we are making a deal and we’re giving them $150 billion, why didn’t we do something with Iran?”

At that point, he added, “When we made the deal with Iran, why didn’t [Secretary of State John] Kerry say, look, you’ve got to help us out. We have a problem. North Korea, he’s playing around with nukes.”

Trump’s mind then again switched. “Because nukes, that is the whole game-changer, Charlie. You know, if it weren’t for that, we shouldn’t be in the Middle East but we can’t take a chance at somebody playing the nuclear game.”

Of course, the U.S. is not in the Middle East because of nuclear weapons. There is a long U.S. history in the area: World War II, there is oil, there is Israel, there are dozens of other reasons the U.S. is in the Middle East but not at that moment in Trump’s mind.

The New York businessman’s ignorance of the world was shown again when O’Donnell asked his about committing U.S. ground troops to the Syrian and Iraq fighting.

“I view ISIS [the Islamic State] as very important. And I love the fact that Russia is hitting ISIS. And as far as I’m concerned, they’ve got to continue to hit ISIS,” Trump said.

When O’Donnell says, “Russia is hitting the groups that we [the U.S.] are backing,” that seemed to surprise Trump. He again diverts, saying, “Sure and why are we backing the groups? We don’t know who they are. I speak to generals [of course without naming any]. They’re saying, we are giving billions of dollars of equipment to people we haven’t met. Here we go again.” Of course the U.S. is not supplying “billions,” unless Trump is including support in Iraq as well as Syria.

When Rose says that President Obama has also argued against giving too much support to Syrian rebel groups, Trump responds, “Well, I think that’s good.”
However when Rose says, “That we don’t know who the weapons could fall into who’s hands,” Trump again diverts, attacking first Obama, “Well why is he doing it? I mean, he’s giving them a lot of weaponry,” which is not true.

Trump then goes on to say, “We’re backing people that want to knock out Assad. Russia and Iran, which is now a power. We’ve made them a power. They’re backing Assad. We’ve got to get rid of ISIS. We’ve got to get rid of the people that are chopping off everybody’s head.” Of course there is no mention that Assad, now with Russian help, is the cause of not only unprecedented refugees but also ISIS recruitments.

A question from O’Donnell about whether Trump could influence Russian President Vladmir Putin to get Assad to step aside generates stream-of-conscience responses that pick up disconnected and sometimes incorrect facts as he bounces from one topic to another.

 

The first is “I don’t think it’s that important to be honest with you. I think, frankly, let’s say you get rid of Assad or knock out that government. Who is going to take over?”

That leads Trump to bring up “you’re going to have it like we have in Libya? Right? You take Gadhafi. Oh, we have to get rid of Gadhafi. Look what happened after we got rid of Gadhafi.” Of course “we” – the U.S. – did not “get rid of Gadhafi,” the Libyan people did. The Libyans since then have failed to come to a political agreement on a new government.

When Rose says, “So getting rid of Gadhafi was a mistake?” Trump adds, “Yes. To me it was a total mistake,” describing today’s situation in Libya as “a mess.”

He’s right, but he doesn’t stop there. He goes back to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which he says he was against, as well as getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Repeated historical checking shows no record that Trump talked publicly against invading Iraq.

Instead, in his January 2000 book, “The America We Deserve,” Trump described Saddam Hussein as having missiles and enriched uranium, adding: “We still don’t know what Iraq is up to or whether it has the material to build nuclear weapons. I’m no warmonger. But the fact is, if we decide a strike against Iraq is necessary, it is madness not to carry the mission to its conclusion. When we don’t, we have the worst of all worlds: Iraq remains a threat, and now has more incentive than ever to attack us.”

It was more than four years later that Trump apparently changed his mind.

Fifteen months after the March 20, 2003 invasion, during a July 2004 Esquire interview about his TV shows, Trump veered off from talking about a pro basketball player to mention Iraq and “the mess we’re in.” He doubted Iraq would turn into a democracy and predicted after the U.S. left there would be a revolution and the “most vicious guy will take over and he’ll have weapons of mass destruction, which Saddam didn’t have.”

Last Wednesday during the CBS interview Trump said: “Saddam Hussein, no good guy. But Saddam Hussein killed terrorists.” Trump added what he often repeats, “Now Iraq is the Harvard of terror. You want to be a terrorist? Go to Iraq, they will teach you how, OK?”

Trump also said that while “Saddam Hussein was a bad guy…one other thing he did, he blocked Iran. Once you knocked out that section…now you have a total destabilization in the Middle East because we knocked out one of the blocks.” The Arab Spring had many roots the main ones being a younger, restless, unemployed “Arab Street,” along with intellectuals and opposition groups dissatisfied with tyrannical rulers and aided by modern communications. That was what triggered events initially in Tunisia, then in Egypt, and not Iraq.

In foreign policy, however it appears Trump appreciates strong, dictatorial leaders such as Putin without having to explain how he would deal with their ambitions that are counter to U.S. national interests.

At the close of the Wednesday interview, Trump was asked by CBS co-host Gayle King to come back again. His answer initially was, “I will. I’d love to do it by phone.” When that drew no’s and O’Donnell said it was good to have him “in person,” Trump responded, “How about some phoners? Ring, Charlie, it’s great to hear you.”

That same morning he appeared on CBS News, Trump did at least four other post-New Hampshire morning telephone interviews. He also has kept his public appearances limited, mostly in big crowd venues, the debates, but mostly reaches out to his public through “phoners,” and tweets multiple times a day.

Like the Wizard of Oz, Trump is using electronic tools, his TV reality show experience, and bluster to keep up the facade of having wide knowledge and power. But when it comes to national security, he may really just be a snake oil salesman — much like the character that actor Frank Morgan played in the movie.

 

It’s time for the curtain to be pulled back — by other candidates and the media getting out facts not slogans – so the American people, before they vote, can get a better idea of what kind of leader Trump would be when it comes to national and global security.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at wpincus@thecipherbrief.com.

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