This week has been the tale of two Trumps. In dueling speeches Monday and Tuesday, we saw two sides of President Donald Trump. On Monday night, we saw a subdued, serious, very conventional president speaking from a TelePrompTer, announcing that he will order more troops to Afghanistan — a reversal of Mr. Trump’s campaign pledge to pull out. On Tuesday evening, we got Trump the unhinged populist, shooting from the hip and tossing red meat to his base.
One can almost imagine a bargain struck between Trump and his new Chief of Staff, John Kelly. On Monday Trump was made to eat his vegetables, on Tuesday he got his desert. As ABC’s Matthew Dowd observed on Twitter, AMC was airing the “release the Kraken” scene from Clash of the Titans just as Mr. Trump’s speech was getting underway. Fitting.
Mr. Trump clearly enjoyed himself Tuesday night. But, there’s a political angle here too. Mr. Trump’s plan to send more troops to Afghanistan was a rebuke of the isolationist nationalism championed by ousted White House advisor Steve Bannon and embraced by a large swath of his base supporters. Sending more troops to Afghanistan didn’t sit well with the alt-right. Bannon’s Breitbart News ran scathing articles declaring that Trump’s announcement was merely a reheated version of President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan policy (they weren’t entirely wrong.)
Much of Tuesday’s speech was aimed at reassuring the alt-right wing of the President’s base unhappy about Bannon’s ouster, a softening of the President’s tone on race, and the Afghanistan announcement. For them, Mr. Trump played all the hits. He assailed trade deals, suggesting he might pull out of NAFTA after all. He hinted that a pardon might be forthcoming for Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the stridently anti-immigration Maricopa County, AZ sheriff convicted of contempt for defying a Federal court order to cease racially profiling hispanics on suspicion of being in the country illegally. And of course, there was nearly a half hour devoted to a blistering attack on the “very dishonest media.” He assailed journalists as “really bad people,” who dislike America, determined to prevent him from Making America great again.
On Monday night, from behind the TelePrompTer, a much different scene played out. Mr. Trump announced a very difficult decision to add to U.S. troops in Afghanistan and did it well, looking very much the conventional President.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump assailed the Afghanistan campaign, now entering its 16th year, as a “total disaster,” calling for a “speedy withdrawal.” As he announced that he was reversing that position Monday, he showed flashes of humility, a trait not usually associated with Mr. Trump.
“My original instinct was to pull out,” Mr. Trump said. “And historically, I like following my instincts. But all my life, I heard decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”
The Afghanistan announcement came on the heels of a lengthy policy review into U.S. force posture in the Central Asian country amid a deteriorating situation there. President Trump faced only bad choices, abandon progress made so far to the Taliban insurgents, risking the possibility that terrorists would once again establish a safe-haven in the country, or double down in hopes of succeeding where his predecessors failed.
Nothing about this decision was easy. Staying means taking responsibility for an unpredictable situation and reversing his campaign pledge to end America’s longest war. Mr. Trump will now own the casualties and the outcome. Leaving means allowing terrorists to take advantage of the chaos left behind. The rise of ISIS following the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq demonstrated that this is a very real risk. He’ll own that too.
For all the criticism of Mr. Trump in the wake of his response to Charlottesville, the President’s Afghanistan decision was as thoughtful and deliberative as his response to Charlottesville was impulsive. Those who thought they were seeing a new side to President Trump in his scripted speech Monday were soon disabused of that notion.
Mr. Trump’s rally in Phoenix Tuesday night was a reminder that there is no Trump 2.0, no matter how much Republicans wish it. While Mr. Trump may occasionally put on the clothes of a conventional Republican president, on him they are an ill-fitting and uncomfortable garment that he will always cast off at the first available opportunity. If anyone doubted this, in Arizona Tuesday night there stood Donald J. Trump stark naked and howling at the moon.