Fire and fury in the White House

The new year began with high expectations for U.S. President Donald Trump. Passage of the tax bill was heralded as a turning point and was anticipated to provide momentum for a successful second year. Instead, the White House has been consumed with the publication of a tell-all book about the inner workings of the Trump administration. Its salacious details — some of which are disputed — and the administration’s response have prompted public speculation about the president’s mental health and made plain the challenges that U.S. friends, allies and partners face as they work together to tackle global challenges.

“Fire and Fury,” journalist Michael Wolff’s expose of the Trump campaign and presidency, provides little that is new or unsuspected about the president and his team. The key theme is the haphazard nature of presidential decision-making. The president seems to have little background on issues, little appetite for details, no ideology to guide him and embraces a management style that encourages competition (or worse) among staff. This is compounded by a desire to disrupt the status quo in Washington. The result is a lurching policy machine that is often out of sync with the president and is invariably playing catchup with his pronouncements. The book’s most quoted comment is that all White House staff see the president as “a child” who needs “immediate gratification.”

The White House has denounced the book as “fake news” and calls its negative comments fabrications. In an unprecedented move, the White House let the press attend the first hour — rather than the first five minutes — of a meeting with congressional representatives as they discussed immigration to show that the president was in charge. Trump’s lawyers tried to halt publication of the book, charging that it contained falsehoods and they added that they were considering libel charges. The president has not helped his case by responding to charges that “his mental powers were slipping” with tweets insisting that he is a “very stable genius” whose “two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.”

This is an extraordinary, if not revealing, exchange. If nothing else, it proves the president’s impulsiveness and inability to ignore criticism, which keeps contentious issues alive and even raises their visibility. While this inclination is disturbing — no individual with the president’s power and stature should be so easily goaded or manipulable — it is not a revelation. During the campaign, Hillary Clinton warned about this tendency and the dangers it could produce.

This spectacle may be a distant drama, amusing (or sad) in the abstract, but little related to the daily lives of most Japanese. That is a false sense of security given the capacity of Trump’s decisions to impact lives here, especially when it comes to dealing with North Korea.

It is of greater immediacy and more challenging still for the Japanese government. As its sole security ally and most important diplomatic partner, Tokyo must be trusted by — and trust — Washington and ensure that both countries’ policies are coordinated and complementary. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has done exceptional work establishing a positive relationship with Trump. The two men often discuss issues, the U.S. appears to weigh and value Japanese interests, and there has been close coordination between the two governments on many topics. While there were worries about trade issues derailing the partnership when Trump was elected, that prospect has not yet materialized.

Japan confronts two sets of concerns, however. The first is that a mercurial, disruptive Trump will change course on an issue — such as engaging North Korea — and Tokyo will not get warning. Such a shift would not only threaten Japanese interests but it would weaken the Japanese government by demonstrating that the relationship is not as close as advertised, that Tokyo is not necessarily informed of U.S. policy and that it cannot shape those deliberations. This would do great damage to perceptions of Japanese standing and status.

A second concern is how the Japanese government will deal with the inevitable divergences with the U.S. For many reasons, Japanese policy on some issues will differ from that of the U.S.: Japan’s commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership is one example. Japan is right to advance its national interests even when they risk a public rift with the U.S. Yet there is also concern that Trump will see such differences as a rebuke. He should not. In speeches at the United Nations and APEC, he encouraged other leaders to safeguard their national interests as they see fit — but there is no guarantee that he will be high-minded when differences emerge. The prime minister and all members of his administration must be ready for those tensions and figure out how to head them off. That is always a challenge, but it will be even more difficult in a White House full of fire and fury.