Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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Trump’s Left Turn

By bombing Syria, upbraiding Vladimir Putin’s client Bashar al-Assad and threatening Russia with sanctions, Donald Trump has taken the sting out of the Democrats’ campaign

Photo Credit : Reuters,

Has the Washington establishment finally checkmated United States President Donald Trump? Consider the events of the past few weeks. First, Trump did a volte-face on Syria after the chemical attack that killed over 85 people in rebel-held areas. He has publicly called Syrian president Bashar al-Assad an “animal”, a “butcher” and in private worse. A month ago, Trump was the only Western leader who supported al-Assad. Regime change in Syria was off the table. Now it’s back on.

Second, Trump has turned against Russia. Till a month ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin was a “good guy”, a man America could do business with. After the Syrian chemical attack, over which Putin has backed al-Assad, Trump is considering harsh new sanctions on Russia.

The third about-turn is on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Trump till a month ago said NATO was “obsolete”. He complained that other NATO members were not paying their fair share and that NATO must focus more on fighting terrorism. In a recent speech, however, Trump praised NATO as a bulwark of Western defence, saying it was no longer obsolete.

Trump’s mood changes have become something of a parlour joke in Washington DC. For months, the crusty old DC elite had fretted over how they could control Trump who had promised during the presidential campaign to end Washington’s cosy political-business nexus. They seem to have found a way – and the man who’s most likely to have turned Trump-the-abrasive-campaigner into Trump-the-affable-president is his son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Kushner is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka. The two are part of New York’s social set. An observant Jew, Kushner is a moderate. Ivanka went through a rigorous ritualised procedure to convert to Judaism when she married Kushner in 2009. She learnt Hebrew and today practises all Jewish rituals.

As Trump’s senior advisor, Kushner has built a team of likeminded moderates in the West Wing of the White House from where he operates in a room next to President Trump’s Oval office. They include economic czar Gary Cohn and National Security Advisor (NSA) General H.R. McMaster. Trump relies increasingly on Kushner. He once said to him, “If you can’t solve the Israel and Palestine problem, who can?” Kushner was a surprise visitor to Iraq several weeks ago along with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine General Joseph Dunford.

Kushner comes from a background similar to Trump’s. His family has built a real estate empire with $7 billion (Rs. 46,000 crore) in leveraged assets and a net worth of $1.8 billion (Rs. 12,000 core). New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, then US attorney, played a role in sending Kushner’s father Charles to prison in 2005 on tax evasion and witness tampering charges. Kushner junior hasn’t forgotten – or forgiven. Once a key member of Trump’s transition team, Christie finds himself now on the fringes.

In a New York magazine profile of Kushner, Andrew Rice wrote: “Kushner’s business dealings, like Trump’s, involve numerous partners and lenders from around the globe. Trump doesn’t really appear to listen to anyone, but he likes to hear a lot of advice. During the campaign, Trump hired and fired many aides, but Kushner was frequently the last person he consulted before making major decisions. Trump and Kushner have more in common than surface appearances might suggest. As a developer, Trump took big risks in the 1980s and faced bankruptcy in the 1990s; Kushner took big risks before the 2008 financial crash and flirted with losing his family’s flagship building, 666 Fifth Avenue. Both came back. Kushner is often called ‘soft-spoken’, in contrast to his bombastic father-in-law, but people who have worked with him say that’s deceiving: His voice is just literally soft. His opinions are anything but deferential. Above all, he and Trump share a clannish outlook on life, business, and politics. Trump prizes loyalty, especially when it flows upward, and no defender has been more steadfast during his turbulent struggle than Kushner. Neither forgets when he’s been wronged. They both appear to enjoy the metallic taste of payback, although of the two, Trump may be the more forgiving.”

The Washington establishment, like New Delhi’s Lutyens’ elite, despises outsiders who rock the boat. Vested interests, power brokers and fixers are as much part of the Washington-New York beltway as they are in Lutyens’ Delhi.

But there is more than meets the eye to Trump’s abrupt policy changes. Left-leaning Democrats have, ever since he became president, intensified a campaign to excoriate him on his Russian links. They say Trump is soft on Putin. By bombing Syria, upbraiding Putin’s client al-Assad and threatening Russia with sanctions, Trump has taken the sting out of the Democrats’ campaign.

Trump is proving to be as unpredictable a president as he was a campaigner. He criticised China on trade during the early days of his presidency. But the moment Chinese President Xi Jinping and his glamorous singer wife Peng Liyuan arrived in Trump’s Florida resort for a 25-hour summit, Trump changed his tune. He said China and the US could be “great friends” and, true to style, complimented Xi’s wife as being “very nice”.

The missile attack on Syria took place just as Xi and Trump were finishing dinner. They were eating a dessert of chocolate cake which Trump said Xi is very fond of. As he received news from his Generals about the missile strike, Trump casually told a startled Xi about it. Xi understands English perfectly well but was so taken aback by the news that he asked his interpreter to translate it once again. Trump recounted this story to an American TV journalist with a chortle but seemed more taken in by the elegant Peng Liyuan.

By unleashing the mother of all bombs (MOAB) on Islamic State (ISIS) tunnels in Afghanistan and reiterating that US policy on Syria has not changed after the missile strike, Trump is using his unpredictability to keep the fretful Washington establishment guessing as he completes an eventful if chaotic 100 days as president on April 30.

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