With each passing day, Donald Trump’s Cabinet looks more like a clean-up crew.
The president’s undiplomatic comments are repeatedly forcing his foreign policy and national security appointees into the awkward position of telling an anxious world that, basically, their boss didn’t really mean what he said.
The latest example came Thursday, as Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Mexico, a frequent target of Trump’s ire. Trump declared in the morning that the U.S. deportation program he wants to ramp up is “a military operation.”
Later in the day, Kelly insisted to Mexican officials that it was no such thing. “No — repeat — no use of military force in immigration operations. None,” the secretary said in a public statement.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer dismissed questions about Trump’s use of the term “military,” saying the president was using the word as an adjective to describe how efficiently his immigration-related orders are being implemented.
Still, whether it is Mexico, America’s NATO allies in Europe, or major Asian partners such as Japan and South Korea, Trump aides are scrambling to reassure counterparts that the U.S. is committed to friendships it has long sustained and policies it has long championed. As a result, many leaders in those other countries often don’t know who to believe.
“Of course we listen to them, but at the end of the day the fact remains that the president is the president, we’re not sure what the connection is between these people and the president, and so we have doubt, because they may not be able to implement the policies they’re talking about with us,” a European official told POLITICO.
Meanwhile, some fear the contradictions will take a toll on the credibility of everyone who works for Trump.
“We’re all trying to figure out what’s the way this is going to work,” said one U.S. diplomat. “We don’t know what to say, because you don’t want to say something that makes our country look foolish, our agency look foolish or just yourself look foolish because you’re so out of the loop.”
Asked to comment on the broad issue of Trump and his subordinates’ contradicting positions, a White House spokesman pointed to examples of Trump making favorable comments about some of the unnerved allies and told a reporter: “You are off base.”
The mixed messages are piling up, some with roots that stretch back to the tumultuous 2016 presidential campaign.
In early February, Defense Secretary James Mattis used his first overseas trip to head to Asia, where he reassured U.S. allies that America’s commitment to its military partnerships in the region was “ironclad.” The clear implication was that Asian partners should not read too much into Trump’s past questioning of the value of having U.S. troops in places such as South Korea.
Trump has repeatedly raised similar questions about America’s involvement in NATO, although he has acknowledged the importance of the military alliance. Not long before he was sworn in, the Republican was quoted calling NATO “obsolete” and restating his complaint that other countries in the alliance do not spend enough on defense.
Since Inauguration Day, several top Trump appointees have visited various European cities to try to assuage fears that the U.S. was backing off its commitments to their continent and NATO in particular.
At the Munich Security Conference earlier this month, Vice President Mike Pence said he was speaking on behalf of Trump when he said, “I bring you this assurance: The United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in our commitment to this trans-Atlantic alliance.”
Pence tried to have it both ways when it came to the issue of Russia, with which Trump is seeking friendly relations. U.S. allies in Europe, especially the Baltic states, fear that the Trump administration will look away if Russia moves against them as it has against Ukraine.
“Know this,” Pence said. “The United States will continue to hold Russia accountable, even as we search for new common ground, which as you know, President Trump believes can be found.”
Another key moment of contradiction involved the Middle East, after Trump, during a mid-February appearance alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seemingly dropped the longstanding U.S. commitment to a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.
“I am looking at two-state, and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” the president said.
The next day, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said, “We absolutely support a two-state solution.” Although Haley noted that the administration was “thinking out of the box,” her comments were strikingly forceful in their opposition to what Trump said.
Several of Trump’s Cabinet appointees made it clear during their confirmation hearings that they did not agree with everything the president has said. The question is, how long are they willing to keep rushing to repair relationships that Trump can damage with a tweet or an off-hand remark?
“This is a tremendous waste of time and energy for his subordinates,” said Eliot Cohen, a prominent Trump critic who served in the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. “It diverts them from doing their real jobs.”