Vacancy

In January, I began this series of articles on the current administration by making the observation that the problem with Donald Trump begins and ends with his character. It is difficult to get to a consideration of the merits of his policies when you cannot get past the fact that he simply lacks the common decency required to be a functioning adult — never mind president of the United States.

His decision last week on climate change only confirms my view.

I’m not going to take you on a point by point argument about the merits of the Paris climate accord, because it is not necessary and it is not the point. The flaw in the president’s decision to withdraw is based in a violation of a fundamental principle of broadly accepted human behavior: You don’t go back on your word.

Representing all of us, the president stepped to a podium in the Rose Garden and told the world that we as a nation made a promise, we shook hands on a deal, and now that deal is off even though there has been no change in circumstances that would justify such a decision. This is the kind of behavior that quickly ruins your reputation in your personal or business life and does the same kind of damage to the reputation of a nation in international relations. Once again, the Trump administration has damaged the credibility of the White House and our country.

In his business life, Donald Trump has been described as an unreliable partner. Now, as president, he is draping that same reputation over the United States of America. We should not be surprised, because during his campaign he bragged about his business strategies which include; pulling out of deals at the last moment to win better terms, using bankruptcy laws to his advantage, using tax laws to his advantage, refusing to pay contractors after arbitrarily declaring their work sub-standard and — as a rule — moving forward with transactions only when he was sure he had secured the greatest possible advantage over the other parties. It is not enough for Trump to make a good deal, the other side must be humiliated and by definition those terms are never a good deal.

Who would want to work with a business partner like Trump? Very few. Probably only businesspeople of a similar ilk. The unscrupulous. Perhaps this explains emerging trends in his foreign policy.

Well before the decision on the Paris climate agreement, President Trump’s art of the deal approach to international relations has been causing problems for the United States. In the first month of his first 100 days he disturbed relations with Mexico, Canada and Australia. It is still hard to believe any U.S. president could put those reliable partnerships at risk, but Trump did. At the same time he has cozied up to the president of the Philippines, disrupted relations with China, ignored the threat posed by Russia, tried to woo the leader of North Korea, and sword danced with the Saudis.

In a pre-cursor to his climate decision, he traveled to Europe and strained our partnership with the nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, prompting the leaders of Germany, Britain and France — among others — to express disappointment and suggest they are willing to go their own way.

Some of Trump’s supporters believe his willingness to go against the established order shows America will no longer be taken advantage of on the world stage. This view pre-supposes that the most powerful nation on earth, the nation with the strongest economy, the nation best positioned to lead in the future, cannot stand up for itself. An unlikely fact. If sending the signal that America is not a push-over is the goal, then the right way to do it is to take a hardline approach in future negotiations without un-doing previous agreements.

Republicans in particular were very critical of President Obama for announcing a “red-line” on the issue of the use of chemical weapons in Syria and then refusing to take action when that red-line was crossed. They argued that as a matter of principle, when a president makes such a declaration, or gives his word on behalf of the United States, he is obligated to follow through. The same standard should apply to President Trump. The Paris agreement represents approximately 200 nations giving their word to work together on a shared challenge and we have now turned our back on that agreement for a set of poorly argued indefensible reasons.

Which brings me to my final point. Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris agreement is being hailed by his advisers as an example of Trump following through on his campaign promises. Therefore, it is supposed to be viewed as a smart political move. But it is not a smart political move, because it does nothing to expand his base of support and it gives ammunition to his political opposition at home and around world. The decision has allies turning against us and that will be reflected in Trump’s approval ratings. While hardcore Trump supporters love to push back against the establishment, most Americans prefer order to disorder.

Since the Paris climate agreement is aspirational, and completely voluntary, there were multiple ways Trump could have modified it or expressed displeasure with its terms short of pulling out. He is demanding new negotiations, but the rest of the world has no incentive to go back to the table. This makes America look weak. The decision was supposed to make Trump appear strong domestically, but the immediate reaction from many U.S. business leaders, governors and mayors was to announce they will ignore the president’s decision, making him look ineffectual.

The smart political move would have been to leave the agreement in place and make adjustments in its implementation. This approach would have satisfied his base of supporters without strengthening or expanding the opposition. During his speech in the Rose Garden, Trump said he was elected to represent “the people of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” but in political terms most Americans were not spending their days, prior to last Thursday, worrying about the Paris climate accord. Trump spent political capital on an issue no one was asking him to address adding to the perception that his administration is a tangle of chaos. As a politician he failed and the costs are only beginning to be tallied.

It is said that in America anyone can be president. Trump has certainly proven that anyone can hold the office of president, but he has also shown not everyone can exhibit presidential leadership. The sad fact is that in America, the position of president is currently vacant.

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Dean Pagani

Dean Pagani

Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.