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Week In Politics: Trump's Changing Policy Views


Joining us now to talk more about this and the rest of the Week In Politics is Reihan Salam of the National Review and Slate. He's in New York. Hey there, Reihan.

REIHAN SALAM: Hi. Good to be here.

CORNISH: And Kimberly Atkins, the chief Washington reporter and columnist at The Boston Globe. She joins me here in the studio. Hi there, Kimberly.

KIMBERLY ATKINS: Hi there - Boston Herald.

CORNISH: Oh, sorry, Boston Herald. So the president's position continues to evolve on many issues, but how are these shifts impacting how other countries view and treat the U.S.? Kimberly, I know you've written about North Korea this week. I want to start with you.

ATKINS: Yeah. Well, we're seeing this shift happening as the president is confronting new challenges, right? I think part of this is him learning on the job and realizing that at times he will need the help of other countries in carrying out some of his task. So for example, his switch on China being a currency manipulator. That was something he needed to say during the campaign because he knew his supporters had this nationalistic view, and it fit right into his message that he would fight against these other countries that are stealing American jobs. But now he needs China to deal with North Korea and whatever he decides to do on it. And so we've seen that shift. And I think other countries are starting to get that message.

CORNISH: Around the headline of your Slate column this morning was not so suddenly titled "Stumbling Towards Coherence." So I kind of want to ask you about the idea of a Trump doctrine. What are you seeing here?

SALAM: Well, that column is particularly about what Trump has been saying about China. And if you look at the China case, I actually think that this isn't necessarily inconsistent with the idea that we ought to have a more interventionist trade policy. We ought to be more mindful of our manufacturing sector, our traded sector. But really saying that China is a currency manipulator today - well, that's simply false. Saying that, hey, the EXIM Bank might actually be a very effective tool to use on behalf of U.S. exporters - that is actually in keeping with a message of economic nationalism.

Similarly, if you look at the Syria strikes, I definitely think that that's a big reversal. On the other hand, Trump has been very careful to say that the strikes were in service of stability. He has not said that they're in service to democratization or regime change. So that might sound like a subtle distinction, but it is one way to make sense of what's been happening. Some of these are true out-and-out flip flops. Others are flip flops towards greater coherence and greater consistency with the larger message he's trying to advance.

CORNISH: But what about people who signed on with Trump in part because of his America-first stance? You know, Trump booster and commentator Ann Coulter wrote in Breitbart this week, quote, "we want the president of America back not the president of the world." She also called his Syrian - she called it a misadventure and that it was immoral and violates every promise he ran on. I mean, that perception there and I know people look to Breitbart as looking at the tea leaves.

SALAM: Well, economic nationalism, to start with that, can mean a bunch of different things. It can mean protectionism. It can mean imposing tariffs. Or it can also mean, hey, we're going to have an industrial policy. We're going to have an industrial strategy.

People who are more orthodox free marketers are going to object to both of those things, but they really are quite different. And the latter is a little bit more pragmatic, something that actually a fair number of Democrats have talked about. Chuck Schumer, for example, is another person who's railed against China's currency manipulating ways.

Now, when we look at the case of Syria, you're on to something. That is a place where this is a much bigger break with what he said before about his America-first policy. But it's also worth noting that 86 percent of self-identified Republicans in a new Washington Post poll have said that they endorse the strikes. So it looks as though Trump supporters - maybe his elite intellectual supporters or some voices in the world of commentary are objecting. And by the way, I think that they have good reason to object. But when it comes to rank-and-file supporters, it doesn't appear that he's losing them just yet.

CORNISH: Since I brought up Breitbart, I also want to talk about White House adviser Steve Bannon. There's been a lot of writing this week about the White House and possible tension and feuding between he and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and others. Kimberly, take this beyond beltway gossip. Why do I need to care about who's in favor in the White House today?

ATKINS: Well, because it seems that the person who Trump is listening most to is the most affecting his policy or having the greatest influence on it. And I think it sort of plays into the point I was making before about how Trump sees a task to complete, a deal to make, and he listens to the people around him. And the one who he thinks has the best idea in how to close that deal, suddenly, they come into his inner circle, and the folks on the other side kind of fall out.

And we saw that happen with Steve Bannon just as the Syria strike was happening - the chemical attack in Syria and the following strike. And so we saw Steve Bannon, someone who is very against that sort of globalistic (ph) intervention strategy, sort of fell to the - by the way. And we have other people coming in closer more - giving a more "establishment," quote, unquote, position on that. So - but it's also worth noting that none of these things are permanent.

We know that nothing in the Trump administration is permanent. Tomorrow, Steve Bannon can come back into the inner circle. And there can be more tension, and the others can fall out. I think that's what the president calls flexibility, but it is a little bit of instability. But it's important to know who has his ear because they're making a big impact on his decisions.

CORNISH: Reihan, at one point Bannon was called by Time magazine as the second most powerful man in the world.

SALAM: Well, there is one thing that I do think is - if not permanent, then close to permanent - it's that, really, with any president, it's really hard to make new friends when you're the White House. There are tons of people coming importuning you to do this or that thing, and so people tend to go back to the people they trust the most. And the difference between Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon, you could say, is that, in the case of Kushner, his fortunes rise and fall with those of President Trump and the Trump family and the Trump brand. Whereas, Steve Bannon is in a different position. He's someone who could flourish in opposition. He's someone who, thus, will at some level at least always be suspect.

Now, it's true that Bannon and Trump had something of a hive mind. But then when you're faced with these new challenges - they're extraordinarily difficult, lots of new information - I think that there's always a tendency to go back to the people you trust the most. And, you know, in the case of Jared Kushner - look, I mean, other presidents, including Barack Obama - he's someone who had in his close circle people who were deeply expert in the ways of policy. Donald Trump does not necessarily have those folks around him. So a lot is riding on whether or not Jared Kushner and some other folks who are - or, you know, Trump conciliaries (ph) are truly wise and far sighted.

CORNISH: I want to ask you guys about one more thing, which is the decision from the White House not to disclose visitor logs for the White House or Trump's properties where he does business, Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach and Trump Tower in Manhattan. Kimberly, this is a break from the Obama years, but how big a deal is it?

ATKINS: It is a major break, and it is a big deal at a time when transparency issues about this White House continue to be raised. There's an ongoing lawsuit over the release of these visitor logs, and it's coming at a time where this probe is trying to determine who had contact with the White House and if there were connections to nefarious things. So this isn't a good look for the White House right now. The fact that they couched it as a way to protect Americans privacy when they visit the White House I thought was particularly interesting.

CORNISH: Reihan use your last 20 seconds wisely.

SALAM: Well, you know, the Trump administration said that this is about security. But, of course, those concerns apply to previous administrations, too. I think the concern is that this is a pretty leak-prone White House, so those names might get out regardless.

CORNISH: Reihan Salam executive editor for The National Review and columnist for Slate. Kimberly Atkins, chief Washington reporter and columnist at The Boston Herald. Thanks to you both.

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