The Trump Doctrine is made of mixed messages

Here’s a quick primer for Washington-based foreign diplomats trying to explain the Trump administration’s global views to folks back home:

The United States isn’t seeking to overthrow the North Korean regime, but all options are on the table, and, for the record, there is a strong, looming possibility of a “major, major” conflict between the two countries.

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Ending Bashar Assad’s ruthless rule in Syria isn’t a priority for the United States. Except for when he makes it a priority, for example by deploying chemical weapons. But destroying the Islamic State is still the bigger priority.

The Trump administration is sticking by the Iran nuclear deal, and Iran is holding up its end, too. But the deal, struck by former President Barack Obama’s administration, is obviously a failure of epic proportions.

As President Donald Trump marks 100 days in office, his administration is still struggling to articulate its foreign policy vision in a clear and consistent way. Conflicting messages frequently emanate from various power centers in the administration, among them Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, and the always-mercurial president himself. All of this has left foreign officials scratching their heads about what the new administration really believes.

“It’s challenging,” one European diplomat told POLITICO. “It makes me feel that I’m in front of an adolescent. It’s not a baby anymore. And we hope that it will grow up and become a responsible adult soon.”

Victoria Coates, a top National Security Council aide to Trump, said the president encourages Cabinet aides to speak publicly, even if their messages don’t fully align, because “it’s not like he wants to be the only voice.”

At the same time, Coates added, foreign leaders seeking clarity can always go directly to Trump. “The president has invested a significant amount of time in foreign leader outreach – at this point there are a large number of them who feel perfectly comfortable calling him,” Coates explained. “So the idea that we have a globe watching him in confusion is inaccurate.”

The Mexicans and Canadians might beg to differ.

For weeks, the two U.S. neighbors had been led to believe that Trump was willing to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. But then word leaked Wednesday that Trump may pull out of the deal entirely, a step apparently pushed by nationalist-leaning factions in the White House. After talking to his Mexican and Canadian counterparts, Trump changed his mind about withdrawing, but he also managed to escalate tensions along the way.

“You plan, and you prepare, and then something like what happened yesterday happened, and then you have to take a step back and mobilize other actors to get back where you want to be,” an exasperated Mexican government official told POLITICO on Thursday. “We are trying to find out every day a delicate balance into moving forward as to what is important for us, and then dealing with the realities of what is happening in the United States.”

The concerns about the mixed messages are shared by U.S. lawmakers as well as federal employees tasked with carrying out Trump’s orders. Asked if the president’s gyrations on NAFTA were surprising to his subordinates, a U.S. official familiar with Latin America said: “Yes and no. Yes, surprised as we thought we were now firmly on the path of renegotiation. No, because I think we’re beginning to lose capacity to be surprised.”

On many issues, Trump and his team have been largely silent, leaving foreign governments in the dark about where they stand.

“Iran? Yeah, that’s great. But what have they said about Africa?” asked Richard Boucher, a former U.S. diplomat who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations. “More and more as people feel the absence of the United States, the U.S. voice, they’ll just go off and do their own thing.”

In other cases, the administration is slow to weigh in, and when it does, it says so little that other countries can seize control of the narrative.

In mid-April, Trump held a phone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The White House issued a 28-word readout of the discussion, the most substantive line of which stated: “It was a very productive call.” In contrast, the Chinese government – not exactly a paragon of transparency – issued a much lengthier statement detailing the subjects discussed, including the need to coordinate more on cybersecurity.

The uneven U.S. voice is most apparent at the State Department, which has been left to wither in the Trump era. Tillerson, the new secretary of state, has filled almost none of state’s top leadership positions. The administration wants to drastically cut State’s budget, and Tillerson is planning to restructure the department as a result. Thousands of jobs could be cut.

The department has already scaled back its number of what used to be daily press briefings, and Tillerson himself has only recently begun to grant interviews, part of a new approach to media relations pushed by top aides. It’s not yet clear if the incoming State spokeswoman, former Fox News anchor Heather Nauert, will adhere to the tradition of regular interaction with the diplomatic press corps.

But since Tillerson took over as secretary of state in early February, the number of news releases issued by State has fallen by almost half when compared to Tillerson’s two immediate predecessors, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. That may be partly because there are so few top diplomats saying and doing things due to the lag in hiring. It also may be a deliberate strategy by Tillerson to have the department be more selective about when it weighs in.

At times, however, State looks like it is trying to avoid touchy subjects.

After the Turkish people voted in favor of an April 16 referendum to vastly expand their authoritarian-leaning president’s powers – a hugely important moment for a NATO ally – the State Department didn’t issue an official comment through the usual channels of email and website postings. Instead, only journalists who requested a statement got one, and it differed remarkably in tone from one publicly released by the White House.

The White House statement had Trump congratulating Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on pushing through the referendum. The State Department’s take was far more critical, pointing out alleged irregularities in the vote and urging the Turkish government to “protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens” – a less-than-subtle reference to Erdogan’s crackdown on a range of perceived enemies.

The administration later scrambled to reconcile the varying takes.

An Asian diplomat said it was clear that U.S. foreign policy, at least for now, is not being driven by the State Department, but rather by the White House. Still, he was forgiving of the administration’s seemingly contradictory messages, stressing that it was still early in Trump’s tenure.

“There could be differences in words. but one doesn’t really need to look at the semantics. It’s the deeper meaning and the actions that matter,” he said. “Any mature diplomat would try and read between the lines.”

Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has appeared to be on a different page than Tillerson and Trump on multiple occasions. The former South Carolina governor, whom some Republicans view as a potential future presidential candidate, has sought the spotlight more than the secretary of state. But at times, her comments have come across as over the top.

On March 30, Haley, speaking about Syria, declared that America’s “priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.” It was a far more blunt assertion than what Tillerson said the same day – that Assad’s fate “will be decided by the Syrian people.”

Within days, after Assad allegedly used chemical weapons to kill dozens of people, the pair were both backtracking. But even as Tillerson insisted that fighting the Islamic State terrorist group was America’s No. 1 focus, Haley seemed to suggest that regime change in Syria was also a top goal of the United States – leading to more confusion.

A few days later, after Russia blocked a U.N. resolution condemning the Syrian chemical attack, Haley wrote on Twitter: “A strong day for the US, a weak day for Russia, a new day for China & doomsday for Assad.” It was a peculiar comment given that Assad is clearly still in charge in Damascus.

The New York Times reported Thursday that State Department officials had asked Haley to clear her public remarks with them. A spokesman for Haley did not respond to a request for comment.

Former U.S. officials said it appeared the Trump team hasn’t nailed down how to coordinate the talking points used in public by key administration players, even if they’re not all on the same page.

“It’s healthy to have disagreements, but those are best done behind closed doors,” said Jen Psaki, a former White House communications director under Obama.

Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, also has had to walk a fine line in messaging during the still-rare occasions when he speaks up.

For instance, after informing Congress that Iran was adhering to the nuclear deal, Tillerson nonetheless held an April 19 press conference in which he declared that the nuclear deal was a failure and lambasted Iran for its non-nuclear activities.

On April 4, as word spread that North Korea had tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile Tillerson issued a terse statement that left Washington bewildered: “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”

But since then Tillerson had spoken at length about the threat North Korea poses, including in interviews with NPR and Fox News this past week, and during a U.N. Security Council session Friday.

In his statements, Tillerson didn’t rule out military action, but stressed that the U.S. isn’t trying to overthrow the government in Pyongyang and wants to talk things through.

But around the same time, Trump used far more jarring language of his own about North Korea, grabbing headlines and overshadowing Tillerson’s comments.

“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” the president told Reuters. “We’d love to solve things diplomatically, but it’s very difficult.”

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