Business Insider Edition

Trump's roller coaster week of insults, denials, and bungled messaging paints a damaging portrait of a White House in chaos

Sonam Sheth , Business Insider US
 Aug 22, 2019, 03:38 PM
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 16: U.S. President Donald Tr
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
  • It has been a hell of a week for President Donald Trump, even by his own standards. (And the week isn't over.)
  • In just two days, Trump snubbed a key NATO ally (again), made remarks about Jews that were widely criticised as being antisemitic (again), flip-flopped on a key economic proposal (again), and backed off from supporting stronger background checks for firearm purchases amid pressure from the NRA (again).
  • The avalanche of reversals, denials, and bungled messaging adds yet another layer to a portrait of a White House in constant chaos and disarray.
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It's been a roller coaster of a week for President Donald Trump, even by his own standards. And the avalanche of public reversals, denials, and bungled messaging adds yet another layer to a portrait of a White House in constant chaos.

Things were already rocky heading into the week, following reports that the president wanted to purchase Greenland, the world's largest island and an autonomous territory of Denmark, for the US.

It wasn't entirely clear at first how serious Trump was about the idea. One person close to him described it to The Wall Street Journal less as a serious inquiry and more as a joke to showcase how powerful he is. The person noted that since Trump hadn't floated the idea at a campaign rally yet, he probably wasn't really considering it.

But on Sunday, Trump confirmed his administration has contemplated the proposal to buy Greenland because of its strategic location and rich supply of natural resources like coal and uranium. He also suggested that Greenland is a financial liability to Denmark.

By late Tuesday evening, the president had chimed in about the idea on Twitter and said he was postponing a meeting with Mette Frederiksen, the prime minister of Denmark, because she had no interest in selling Greenland to the US.

The move likely caught Carla Sand, the US's ambassador to Denmark, off guard. Earlier that day, Sands tweeted, "Denmark is ready for the POTUS ... Partner, ally, friend." Hours later, after Trump's abrupt reversal, Sands reassured others that the president "values & respects" Denmark and "looks forward to a visit in the future."

Trump snubs a key NATO ally (again)

Though Trump initially tried to strike a friendly tone, he soured after learning that Frederiksen described his suggestion as "an absurd discussion."

"Greenland is not Danish," Frederiksen told a Danish newspaper this week. "Greenland belongs to Greenland. I strongly hope that this is not meant seriously."

Trump fired back at Frederiksen on Wednesday, calling her rejection of the idea "nasty." He added: "All they had to do is say, 'No, we'd rather not do that,' or 'We'd rather not talk about it.' Don't say, 'What an absurd idea that is.'"

"You don't talk to the United States that way," he said. "At least not under me."

Asked about Trump's remarks, Frederiksen said, "I'm not going to enter a war of words with anybody, nor with the American president."

Trump, in characteristic fashion, responded by falling back on a familiar and misleading line of attack when he criticised Denmark for not meeting NATO's defense spending target of 2% relative to GDP.

"For the record, Denmark is only at 1.35% of GDP for NATO spending," Trump tweeted. "They are a wealthy country and should be at 2%. We protect Europe and yet, only 8 of the 28 NATO countries are at the 2% mark. The United States is at a much, much higher level than that."

He added: "Because of me, these countries have agreed to pay ONE HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS more - but still way short of what they should pay for the incredible military protection provided. Sorry!"

Trump has repeatedly railed against European members of the alliance and accused them of not spending enough on their own defense and relying instead on the US military's protection. But defense experts say Trump's transactional approach to foreign policy represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the strategic role NATO plays in preserving the global order.

Trump: American Jews who vote Democratic show 'great disloyalty'

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the president stunned the public when he said American Jews who vote for Democrats display either "a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty."

The comment sparked immediate and sustained backlash, as well as accusations that he was invoking one of the oldest anti-Semitic tropes in the book by suggesting that American Jews have a dual loyalty to Israel.

"Where has the Democratic Party gone?" Trump asked reporters Tuesday at the White House. "Where have they gone, where they're defending [Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar] over the state of Israel? And I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty."

Jewish voters in the US tend to support the Democratic Party: roughly eight-in-10 voted for Democrats in the 2018 midterms. American Jews also have unfavorable views of Trump, with just 26% approving of the job he's doing as president, according to Gallup.

But Trump's comments on Tuesday painted Jews as a monolith and a group that should somehow be treated differently than others.

Trump defended his remarks on Wednesday when a reporter asked if they were anti-Semitic.

"No, no, no. It's only in your head. It's only anti-Semitic in your head," Trump said to the reporter.

After clarifying that the "disloyalty" he meant was to Israel and fellow Jews, Trump said, "If you vote for a Democrat, you're very, very disloyal to Israel and to the Jewish people."

On Wednesday, as the controversy around his comments continued to rage, Trump added fuel to the fire when he retweeted a prominent right-wing conspiracy theorist who claimed Israeli Jews "love him like he's the King of Israel" and "the second coming of God."

(Fact check: Jews don't believe that a Messiah or Messianic Age has come yet - let alone a second one. Additionally, the teachings on the subject vary differently among Jews.)

Following Trump's remarks this week, Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote on Twitter that the president "made it clear he thinks Jews have a dual loyalty to Israel. This anti-Semitic trope has been used to persecute Jews for centuries & it's unacceptable to promote it. He should apologise immediately."

"Jews have had a long history of being in countries where we are accused of being disloyal," Aaron Keyak, the former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council said in a statement to Insider. "Just because President Trump is deeply unpopular in our community is no reason to slander us with echos of some of the most insidious attacks against our people."

Trump bungles his economic messaging

There was no dearth of policy blunders from the Trump administration this week either.

The president spurred confusion when he flip-flopped on whether he was considering payroll tax cuts to boost the economy amid fears of a recession.

On Monday, the Washington Post reported that administration officials were weighing the option. A White House official publicly denied the story.

The next day, Trump undercut that denial when he said in the Oval Office that the measure was on the table.

But he reversed his position on Wednesday, telling reporters a payroll tax cut isn't necessary because the American economy is doing well.

"I'm not looking at a tax cut now," he told reporters at the White House. "We don't need it. We have a strong economy."

Trump has touted the US economy's strength throughout his presidency and believes it will be a key pillar of his 2020 platform. But the Trump administration has struggled to keep its economic message straight in recent days. That's been compounded by the president's frustration with reports saying the economy is flashing warning signs of another recession.

The president has since complained in private conversations with aides and allies that his opponents are conspiring against him to skew economic data and damage his chances in the upcoming election. In particular, according to The New York Times, Trump has privately claimed that "forces that do not want him to win" are exaggerating the effects that his trade war with China have had on the global economy.

Trump backtracks on background checks

Trump also reversed his position on expanding background checks for firearm purchases in the wake of two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. In the days following the shooting, the president emphasised that he was interested in taking measures to curb the US's astronomical rate of gun violence.

It wasn't the first time Trump had floated the idea of strengthening background checks, and there was significant skepticism from within and outside the White House about whether he'd follow through on his pledge. Indeed, he appeared to lay the groundwork to backtrack when he said in recent days that the background check system is effective enough the way it's currently configured.

But according to The Atlantic, Trump's eldest daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, believed that she could convince her father to back universal background checks if the measure was paired with a flashy Rose Garden ceremony where Trump signed a document and called it "historic" and "unprecedented" - an event that would draw exactly the type of positive media attention the president craves.

The Atlantic reported that Trump "loved" the idea and was "all spun up about it." But after a phone call Tuesday with Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the National Rifle Association, during which he floated the idea to LaPierre, Trump backed down.

LaPierre reportedly gave an unequivocal "no" when Trump asked him if the NRA was willing to back stronger background checks. And with that, The Atlantic reported, "the Rose Garden fantasy" went up in smoke and Trump told LaPierre background checks were off the table.

Trump denied on Wednesday that he'd indicated anything of the sort to LaPierre.

John Haltiwanger contributed to this report.

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