If you were to have a drink for each instance when Donald Trump had a woeful week over the past 20 months since he exploded upon the American political scene, you would wake up with a serious hangover. Just short of completing a month as President of the United States, he is providing little reason for that pain to subside.
Trump is given to boxing analogies. For instance, he has often cited the “champ” who went into a fight knowing the referee was biased. But he told Trump that the simple way to settle matters was to knock out the opponent, so the decision could not be settled on a technicality. That’s the mantra Trump repeated through the primary season and into the general election. His camp has spoken of his tendency to use the rope-a-dope tactic of the late legend Mohammad Ali, essentially allowing opponents to wear themselves out delivering a flurry of blows before felling them with a telling hit. Trump, of course, also describes himself as a counterpuncher.
The resignation of Trump’s national security advisor General (retired) Michael Flynn over inappropriate contact with the Russian ambassador to Washington during the transition phase and misinforming vice-president Mike Pence in that regard, could be considered a body blow to any administration. We are yet to witness a counter from Trump, though he has flailed about. But what it does highlight is the amateurish nature of how some of his appointees have approached governance.
There’s a larger danger in this approach — undercutting foreign relations. Flynn’s resignation came hours after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau left Washington. Any positivity from that visit vanished in the haze of Flynn’s folly, even as White House spokesperson Sean Spicer referred to Trudeau as “Joe” during a confused briefing. And the NSA was also departing, and leaving a critical position unmanned, soon after Trump stood by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the face of some missile-flexing from the North Korean regime. It also came just as Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu was to arrive in Washington. The NSA is missing in action as the Trump administration, in its brief tenure, has provoked China, Iran, and even Venezuela.
The unsettled nature of the administration will worry many around the globe who are invested in security ties with the US, including India. Much of bilateral business is boosted through the forging of personal ties. That was evident during the days of the Obama administration, as strategic connectivity between the two countries boomed once Ashton Carter replaced Chuck Hagel as defence secretary. The efforts of the past three months in building a bridge to Flynn by Indian officials have just been blown up.
The role of the NSA is particularly important given how the nature of the beast has evolved: From evaluating threats, domestic and foreign, to also covering economic, trafficking and cyber infrastructure spaces. The lack of such a figure cannot be compensated for through a series of executive orders.
But that upheaval within the Trump White House or its winter version at his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, may not be limited to just Flynn. There are already rumours over Trump’s displeasure over Spicer’s performance as spokesperson, over his unhappiness with chief of staff Reince Priebus and the possible ethics issues involving adviser Kellyanne Conway.
This is the most critical juncture, the outset of an administration, where stability is most required, before a couple of years of normalcy and then a period of churn as the term winds down. But the Trump administration does not appear to offer much respite from a sense of unease.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s schedulers are looking ahead to a potential September meeting with Trump, they could well be stumped at the interlocutors to invest in because of this tempest.
As the White House keeps absorbing all the punches thrown its way, the result could be to leave the American body politic concussed. There’s a reason for that term punch-drunk. And that’s cause enough for another global headache.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed are personal