“With Donald Trump we are playing with fire.”
Roger Cohen is a journalist and author who joined The New York Times in 1990. He worked as a foreign correspondent in fifteen different countries before becoming acting foreign editor on September 11, 2001, and foreign editor six months later. Since 2004, he has written a column for The International New York Times, formerly known as The International Herald Tribune. In 2009 he was named a columnist of The New York Times. His columns appear every Wednesday and Saturday.
What are the main things that concern you today?
The principal issue is that the Trump presidency seems to be dismantling the State Department. The staff of the State Department are completely demoralised and there is a lot of dysfunction. At the same time there is a vast increase in military spending and in my experience it’s very important to have both tools, diplomacy and a strong military. When the only thing you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. Right now the United States is dismantling its diplomatic arm and vastly strengthening its military arm and this is very worrying. The presidential Oath of Allegiance is to preserve and protect the Constitution of the United States. The American idea is that allegiance is pledged by the President to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, under the law.
What do you observe about Trump?
Trump is impulsive, he is extremely needy, he’s irascible, he’s bullying, he has a very short attention span. But at the same time when he became President of the United States he had this extraordinary intuition about the anger there was in the country.
What results from his presidency?
The United States becomes an unreliable power, and an unreliable partner to the point where both the Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland and Angela Merkel the Chancellor of Germany said recently that Europeans and Canada have to forge their own destiny and take fate into their own hands, because they can no longer rely on the United States. When the United States is unreliable everything is more volatile.
Do you think that Trump will be impeached?
Impeachment is political, more than it is judicial. It is a question of whether the Congress determines that there have been “high crimes and misdemeanors” by the President and right now we have a Republican controlled Congress until the mid-term. I imagine the President will wake up every morning worrying about the enquiry by the Special Counsel who is examining possible collusion between the Trump entourage (and conceivably the president himself) and Russia. We have indications, but nothing is proven. If there is some kind of smoking gun then it can change, but the Republicans want to try and ride this out for as long as they can, get tax cuts, maybe a new health bill. They want to use the President as long as they can. I would say that the chances of impeachment are fairly low, but it’s not impossible. I would put it at around 10%. Before the appointment of special counsel I would have put it even lower, but if the political alignment of the country changes and more facts emerge then the possibility grows.
Do you think he is going to make disasters in the world?
I don’t know. The situation with Iran is very volatile. We have had the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, saying that the United States is pursuing regime change in Iran. That is a very clear break with Obama’s policy, and even President Bush was not explicit in that way. It is very provocative to say that Iran is an instigator of terrorism. General James Mattis the Defence Secretary, who generally is a voice of sanity, is very hawkish and is very hard on Iran. And in North Korea they say they have a new missile….
Are the checks and balances of the Constitution working?
I am concerned that Donald Trump has attacked the free press and attacked the independence of the judiciary – the ‘so-called judges’. If something bad happens he could ask for emergency powers of some kind, and the powers of the President are already very great. The checks and balances put in place by the founding fathers have worked until now. A strong press is capable of holding authority to account. There are 600,000 new subscribers to the New York Times in the last six months and that’s very important for the future of the country. More vigilance is required right now than almost at any other time since the creation of the Republic.
Who is this Donald Trump who was elected President of the United States of America?
In the last six months when I travel people all over the world say to me, “Who is this guy?” In my view Donald Trump is a lucky man. He won the election with a few thousand votes, he has escaped the law at various times, and under Donald Trump for six months we have not had a proper global crisis and the stock market is up. Depends how long he can ride the luck.
Why does he want to dismantle everything?
They want to cut down the size of government. The State Department was Hillary Clinton’s department and some of her appointments are still there. There is an ideology on reducing taxation and regulation. It is a very right wing project. The dismantling is to do with that ideology.
Is it all only words, or did he actually achieve anything?
He did withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Does he know what he wants? I am not sure he does. This abandonment of the American idea of human dignity, of the rule of law, of democracy and so forth worries me – the foreign service is a good force in the world and has certain values. The US stands for certain things. Every single day there is this kind of sullying and undermining of the Oval Office and what it represents, and that’s not good. Then there is this almost daily assault on the truth, what is a fact and what is a lie. Donald Trump wants 2+2 to equal 5, for people to be disoriented. Any dictator wants disoriented people. He thinks that the press is an enemy, and he’s an enemy of the press.
Does he want to be a dictator?
He is very comfortable with autocrats. He likes to rule in a very autocratic way and he always did it during his life. He likes it better to be in Saudi Arabia or being around General Sisi in Egypt than in Europe.
What about his relationship with China and with Russia?
Russia is curious because the relationship is simply frozen, it’s paralysed. He never wants to judge Russia because of the allegations and suspicions that the Russians have some material that compromises Trump or his entourage. There can be no criticism so it’s frozen – and that’s not good for global security.
On China he started out with the phone call to Taiwan and now he’s sold a billion dollars of weapons to Taiwan and the Chinese are very angry. Relationships with China are on a roller coaster and there’s no coherence in China policy. They want to contain China, but they don’t really know how to do it. China has been very assertive in the South China Sea – and what was the first thing Donald Trump did? He ripped up the wide ranging Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was much more than a trade deal and was also a strategic deal. His first act was a huge gift to the Chinese and worries the countries that were hedging their bets against China, which was not in the TPP.
Why does Trump want to worry his friends, including the European leaders?
For the last two years we have seen disruption at any cost, the system is broken. We have seen growing inequality, growing anxiety, so just blow it up and who cares. He understood that before anyone else and he wants to shake things up. There were things going wrong in our democracies but to embrace unreliability is pretty dangerous.
Turning to Europe, is the Macron election and Brexit going to change the map?
I am a passionate European. I think that peace in Europe is genius, although of course the EU has faults. After the British decision to leave the EU, Marine Le Pen committed suicide live on TV on the issue of Europe. The French want to remain European and she lost connection with the people. Now there is Macron, and probably Merkel will continue to be elected, and this is a bit of a revival of the European spirit.
How would you characterise Brexit?
The most strange and most conspicuous act of self-harm committed by any country, especially a developed and civilised country, in a very long time.
What is going to happen in the UK? Is Corbyn going to win the next election?
I would be very surprised if Theresa May survived even one more year. The whole situation in Britain is unpredictable and fragile. The people in favour of Brexit argue amongst themselves. Leaving the EU will be very costly and not bring any obvious rewards. The polls suggest that in a new referendum Remain would win. The vote was based on lies, but the vote happened and they will try to negotiate. It is foolish to try to predict what’s going to happen, but I will say that it’s going to be very difficult.
Will there be peace between Israel and Palestine?
I don’t take seriously what the Trump administration is doing, and I don’t believe there will be any change in the Israel Palestinian impasse in the foreseeable future. The Saudis, Jordanians and Egyptians may share a hatred of Iran with Israel, and that’s the basis of a rapprochement between them, but that’s just not enough. Netanyahu has to make some concessions to the Palestinians but he will not make them.
And how will Syria conclude?
On Syria I am sorry to be a pessimist, but I believe nothing will happen until Russia and the US, and maybe Iran, are prepared to work together towards stabilisation. And nothing happens in my view until Bashar al-Assad leaves. On Syria, Barak Obama made some very serious mistakes and bears some real responsibility for the current debacle.
Ultimately would you say we are in a mess?
Right now things are holding together somehow. As compared to the 20th century the main difference is openness. Things happened in closed situations then, and today we have this openness and this hyper connectivity, and there are lots of things happening at non-governmental level. But how do you explain the size of youth unemployment in Spain and Greece in a period of relative stability? The post war institutions that Donald Trump attacks are hanging in there, and I hope we don’t find ourselves in much worse shape. I do think that with Donald Trump we are playing with fire.
And does he know it?
I don’t think he knows to what extent.
What will you be writing about in the future?
The situation in the State Department concerns me a lot, and I will write about that. There is the row that has broken out between the women of the American Jewish community and Netanyahu about men and women praying together and having access to the Western wall. Netanyahu has done what he always does, which is break an agreement.
Does journalism still have life to it?
There hasn’t been a moment like this in American journalism since Watergate. The New York Times has 600,000 new subscribers as I said before, and the Washington Post has revived in the very big Trump story. I think it is an important moment for strong voices.
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