John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Trump talks tougher than he acts, thankfully

By the time this is published something disastrous might have been happened on the Korean peninsula but I doubt it. Donald Trump appears to have changed his spots.

Its more than the disappearance of the yellow hair and orange skin, for all I know that is what users of hair dye and fake tan do in winter. With a grey thatch and natural pallor he is not just looking more presidential, he is behaving more like a President. He is taking good advice.

It first became apparent when he fired missiles into a Syrian air base in response to the use of chemical weapons and it is apparent again in his approach to North Korea.

Both operations bear the stamp of carefully calibrated military and diplomatic decisions, the sort of decisions taken in the White House "situation room" where the Secretaries of State and Defence, the heads of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council and the directors of the intelligence agencies (at least two of whom are said to be in Queenstown this weekend) all discuss the options available to the President.

Devotees of that well informed television drama The West Wing will remember a scene in the situation room when the fictional President, early in his first term, was asking for a response to an outrage much like the incident in Syria that appalled Trump. Presented with a "proportionate response", he thumped the table and said: "Damnit, they know we will do this, they expect this, right? Give me a disproportionate response."

The brass raising their eyes to the ceiling, drew up a retaliatory strike with a heavy likely death toll and the President saw sense. The missiles Trump fired into Syria did little more than temporary property damage but they made the essential statement. Those who asked, "What next?" missed the point.

On North Korea, Trump is being even more circumspect. He is putting diplomatic pressure on China to do what it can stop a dependant state improving its nuclear capability. This is what the US has always done in response to a missile or weapon test, but Trump is doing it his own way. It's becoming clear his "art of the deal" is to talk tough, scare people, then turn reasonable to get what you want.

It is pretty crude, it might have worked with contractors in the construction business but it is unlikely to work in international relations.

After talking tough on China right through the election campaign, Trump turned reasonable when he hosted President Xi Jinping at his Florida home two weeks ago. Trump looked awkward and cheesy as he does in sit-downs for photographs with visiting leaders but he followed a diplomatic script.

That same weekend it was announced a US Naval carrier group was being diverted to the Korean peninsula, which put world media into high excitement. That was two weeks ago. The ships are taking their time.

The decision to send an "armada" is said to have been taken at a much lower level than the Commander in Chief but Trump has been happy to pretend otherwise. He is clearly enjoying foreign affairs, having discovered the presidency does not call all the shots in domestic politics.

If there was a moment he began to change his spots it was probably the failure to replace to put a healthcare bill through the Congress. The astonishing thing to all observers of American politics was not just that he failed but that he put so little effort into it and gave in so quickly. He doesn't have the patience, application or temperament for democratic government, as predicted.

He is shaping up to be a figurehead President, content to leave most decisions to those who know what they are doing. He gave indications of this in the election campaign. Whenever pressed to explain how he proposed to do what he promised he would say he had tremendous people, the best, who would come up with a terrific plan.

He also gave us ample warning that his words should not be taken too seriously. When they got him into trouble he would cheerfully contradict himself the next day.

The first 100 days often define a government and Trump reaches that checkpoint next weekend. If the worst many feared was that he might commit impetuous acts of war, his actions so far suggest he will not. Conversely, the concern that he would disengage the United States from global tensions has been dispelled by Syria and North Korea.

The worst he may yet do is in economics and trade but US stockmarkets have fallen on the realisation Trump is all talk. On tax cuts and excessive spending wiser counsels may prevail. Trump will never grace the office but so far he is not breaking the furniture.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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