Donald Trump’s Pathetic and Dangerous Foreign Policy Reboot

Donald Trump, over the past few weeks, has grown more vocal about what his foreign policy would look like in a second administration. You might even get the impression that the former president actually cares about what is going on in the world. But you would be wrong.

Trump is indeed actively engaging with international leaders and weighing in on international issues on a regular basis as this election year heats up. But in each and every case, his foreign policy outreach has just one primary objective: helping Trump stay out of the slammer by getting himself re-elected President of the United States.

This is as pathetic and dangerous as it is predictable, it may also offer an insight for the folks who actually care about foreign policy, and who want to get MAGA to shift its positions on critical issues—like providing aid to Ukraine.

Trump’s campaign year policy “adjustments” were illustrated when Trump recently met with two Israeli journalists from a right-wing Israeli newspaper owned by a big GOP donor, Miriam Adelson. Naturally, they expected Trump to offer a strong statement of solidarity with his buddy Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. What they got instead was: “You have to finish up your war. You have to get it done. We have to get to peace. We can’t have this going on.”

Is this a sign that Trump has suddenly gone peacenik? Hardly. Trump, who is nothing if not pragmatic, sees the handwriting on the wall. U.S. sentiment on the war in Gaza is shifting. A recent Gallup poll showed a majority of people opposing Israel’s actions in Gaza.

In a close election in which he has plenty of baggage already, Trump does not want to be on the losing side of yet another issue.

Being strongly pro-Netanyahu might have been a winning move during the GOP primaries. But now Trump is the candidate and independent voters will be key to his fate. And he seems to be trying to shift to his general election footing.

Photograph of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House

Donald Trump arrives with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the South Lawn of the White House on September 15, 2020.

Saul Loeb/Getty

This was clearly demonstrated this week on the domestic front, as he attempted to distance himself from his party’s most extreme views on abortion. He made a statement—that, like the Israel statement, also irritated some in his MAGA base—arguing for abortion policy decisions to be left to the states.

This cynical move—from the guy who regularly crows that he is the reason Roe v. Wade is gone—almost immediately blew up in his face, when Arizona’s Supreme Court ruled in support of an 1864 law that effectively banned almost all abortions and imposed penalties on abortion providers. Trump on Wednesday then said the Arizona court went too far, and “I think it’ll be straightened out.”

“Based on what little is known, the core of Trump’s ‘plan’ is to give Russia a big chunk of Ukraine. In response, Ukraine’s President Voldomyr Zelensky…derided the ‘plan’ as ’primitive.’”

Judging from post-Roe election results, Trump knows the GOP’s hardline stand against abortion rights is a political loser. That’s why he is so eager to triangulate his other positions—like those on international issues—in ways that may win him more electoral support.

The foreign policy issue on which Trump is currently playing the most consequential role is Ukraine. There, his proxies—including Speaker Mike Johnson and MAGA flag-bearer Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA)—have worked tirelessly to block U.S. aid, and Trump has thus far shown little appetite to move off of his opposition to providing additional support for Ukraine.

In recent weeks, however, Trump has sought to work harder to cast his position on Ukraine as that of “peacemaker.” For example, in a March interview with his former aide Sebastian Gorka, Trump claimed to have a plan to end the war in Ukraine. Also in March, as part of his foreign policy outreach, Trump met at Mar-a-Lago with Hungary’s right-wing leader Viktor Orban—who came out of the meeting asserting Trump had a “detailed plan” to end the war in Ukraine. Orban called Trump “a man of peace.”

Based on what little is known, the core of Trump’s “plan” is to give Russia a big chunk of Ukraine. In response, Ukraine’s President Voldomyr Zelensky, in an interview with Axel Springer media outlets, derided the “plan” as “primitive.”

Photograph of Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky at the UN

Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on September 25, 2019, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

Saul Loeb/Getty

Zelensky invited Trump to Ukraine to see the situation on the ground first-hand, and also asserted that Russia has penetrated U.S. politics, a clear shot at the embrace of Kremlin talking points and pro-Kremlin policies by Trump and other MAGA leaders. (In a piece earlier this week, The Washington Post reported that “the plan” has very few known specifics.)

Despite these efforts to present himself as a man of peace, the consequences of Trump’s work as an errand boy for Vladimir Putin have however grown so dire that British foreign secretary David Cameron traveled this week to Mar-a-Lago to try to make the case to Trump that he needed to relent, and allow his Capitol Hill forces to put the Ukraine aid package to a vote.

While the former British prime minister was not persuasive enough to convince Trump to help him get a meeting with Speaker Johnson, his longer-term success (just as it is for anyone trying to change Trump’s mind on Ukraine) is likely to turn on only one set of equations—those pertaining to Trump’s own personal fate.

Does Donald Trump think withholding Ukraine aid could produce a battlefield disaster in Ukraine prior to the election for which he may pay a price at the ballot box or not? And, in a related calculus, would the losses he might suffer in such a case be offset by the benefits of active (if sub-rosa) support from Vladimir Putin?

How he answers those questions is likely to be the final determinant as to whether he allows a shift in MAGA’s position on providing much needed aid to our Ukrainian ally.

We have seen in the past, and again in recent weeks, that Trump views U.S. national interests as only important to the extent that they align directly with his personal interests. Given all available evidence, what we know of Trump’s characterand despite the illusion he is trying to create that he actually cares about America’s role in the world—that seems likely to remain the case.

From the cases cited above to propping up Truth Social or hosting the latest LIV Golf Tournament—Trump’s “foreign policy” activity has been limited to efforts to shore up his political standing, or to efforts to line his pockets and help ensure he has the financial resources to win his legal cases and/or the election.

It is a point Democrats need to hammer home. The closer Donald Trump gets to the Oval Office, the more the narrow concerns of just one desperate, venal, and corrupt man may determine the fate of this nation, our allies, and all those issues we may care about around the world.

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