This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on 20170129.
Typically, we’ve had to read between lines of speeches to gain an understanding of American policy positions. Not so with Donald Trump.
It was as contentious a beginning to a presidency as it was inauspicious. With the world already on edge, Donald Trump’s administration spent much of its first week arguing with the media and, by extension, the public over the size of the crowd at his inauguration compared to that of the one at Barack Obama’s.
In a spectacular display, Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer was sent out on Saturday to insist to a crowd of disbelieving journalists that their eyes had deceived them and that they had, in fact (or perhaps in ‘alt fact’), witnessed the largest crowd ever seen at an inauguration.
It was blatantly untrue. In actual fact, it was a bald-face lie. Watching Spicer haplessly try to convince a room of experienced journalists — from the presidential press secretary’s lecturn, no less — of what both he and they knew to be a fabrication was as surreal as it was disorienting.
It was pure Trumpian politics.
But as we have come to expect in this Trump era, petty spectacle over optics occludes other far more significant stories. In the days since the Jan. 20 inauguration, Trump has issued a number of executive orders that fundamentally alter long-standing positions of the U.S. government.
A wall between Mexico and the U.S. has been authorized. The Keystone XL pipeline has been revived, along with the Dakota Access Pipeline. The U.S. has immediately withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Funding has been withdrawn from international groups that perform abortions or lobby to legalize or promote abortions.
And there is more. Late Friday afternoon, Trump announced that the issuing of visas to people from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen will be suspended for 90 days.
Each of these is a significant and abrupt policy shift from the Obama era. But none should be a surprise. After all, Trump had made it clear again and again that this is exactly what he would do as president.
Trump’s actions may well be belligerent, but they are transparent as well. Transparent in way we have never seen before.
In the past, we have often been left guessing as off-the-cuff remarks from former presidents have set the world on edge. Now, we have a president who cheerfully offers every thought to open scrutiny. His tweets act like a window into his mind, a roadmap to his policies.
This presents Canada with an advantage we’ve not had before. Typically, we’ve had to read between lines of speeches, parse conversations, and spend hours analyzing congressional positions to gain an understanding of American policy positions.
In fact, the Obama administration was one of the most opaque in recent memory. Led by a man who defined himself by being measured and even-tempered, it operated in a manner that kept its opponents and allies guessing as to its true intentions.
Take, for example, the Obama administration’s slow push against Israel, which developed over the course of eight years. Only in its dying weeks did the administration truly unveil how much it believed Israel to be hampering the peace process, implicitly supporting an unprecedented reprimand of Israel at the United Nations that represented a major break with historical U.S.-Israel unity.
A second example was Obama’s approach on the Keystone XL pipeline, which provided significant challenges for the Canadian government. For close observers of the deal, it was obvious that his administration was always uncomfortable with its approval. In spite of this, Obama delayed making a decision for years out of a desire to avoid making concrete commitments. Only in his last days in office did his administration formalize its opposition and kill the process.
Viewed through the prism of traditional government communications, Trump’s administration can be seen, in one sense at least, as a breath of fresh air. His pettiness and aggressive use of Twitter offend the senses of many — for good reason, of course — but such a novel approach lends clarity for the purposes of figuring out the administration’s view on any given piece of public policy.
There is rarely a question on where Trump stands on an issue. A quick scroll through his Twitter history reveals his thoughts on an entire range of topics.
As Carl Bernstein says, it provides an ‘MRI of his brain.’ It lets us understand his temperament, the way he thinks and, ultimately, his policy positions.
For the Canadian government, it is akin to playing poker with all of the cards face-up on the table.
And that, regardless of what we think of the man personally, provides a never before seen advantage to Canada in dealing with our single most important bilateral relationship.
Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.