Trump’s Journey From Double Down to Flip-Flop

A president who has long ignored criticism is suddenly giving in, reversing course on the G7 summit and withdrawal from Syria.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Donald Trump’s administration has beat a hasty retreat from the mountains of “Get over it” to the deserts of “Never mind.”

Saturday night, two days after Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney announced that the administration would host the Group of Seven summit at the president’s Trump National Doral resort, the eponymous hotelier abruptly reversed that decision and said he would find a new site. Although he blamed “both Media & Democrat Crazed and Irrational Hostility,” most reports indicate that the president was shocked by the hostility among fellow Republicans.

Republican frustration with Trump’s moves is nothing new, however. And in his tenure at the head of the party, the president has learned that Republicans are unlikely to back up these complaints with any action; his GOP allies tend to get over it. In the past, Trump has therefore simply ignored criticism.

Not so much recently. This is the season of the Trump administration’s flip-flops.

The spree began on October 6, when Trump spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and indicated that American troops would leave northern Syria, paving the way for a long-desired Turkish invasion. Once Turkey took his clear cue and invaded, though, Trump became enraged and threatened to destroy the Turkish economy.

Faced with accusations at home that he had betrayed America’s Kurdish allies in Syria, Trump tried to reframe the decision as removing American troops from harm’s way. “I would much rather focus on our Southern Border which abuts and is part of the United States of America,” he tweeted. (Never mind that in the chaos of the rushed withdrawal, American troops were shot at by Turkish-aligned militias, left camps in the hands of marauding Russians, and were forced to bomb munitions dumps to prevent their capture.) But today brings news that Trump now wants to leave 200 members of the military in Syria.

He allowed an invasion, then fumed when it happened. He said he was bringing the troops home, then said he’d leave them in place.

The flip-flops aren’t just in matters of foreign policy, and the G7 reversal wasn’t even the only U-turn to emerge from Mulvaney’s press briefing Thursday. Asked whether the United States had demanded a quid pro quo from the Ukrainian government—investigate a phantom conspiracy theory about the 2016 election in exchange for American aid—Mulvaney said it sure had. “We do that all the time with foreign policy,” he said. Within hours, Mulvaney had issued a statement denying that he’d said what he’d said.

James Hohmann argues these cases show that conservatives have more leverage over the president than they seem to believe. But it isn’t obvious why Trump is going wobbly now. Yes, Trump needs Republican support, especially with impeachment looking ever more likely. But his first major move after Democrats veered toward impeachment was the Syria withdrawal, which of course antagonized Republicans in Congress. His reversal only brings him back to even at best.

Trump’s equivocations are rich for a president whose selling point has always been that, like it or not, he tells it like it is. “I will present the facts plainly and honestly,” Trump promised at the 2016 Republican National Convention. More often these days, he’s telling it like it ain’t. “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” he told an audience recently. It’s an apt disclaimer for any statement from the White House.