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More Scenes from the Kakistocracy

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Paul already pointed our attention to the full transcript of Trump’s interview with the Wall Street Journal. Like pretty much all of Trump’s long-form interviews, it’s truly terrifying. Once again, Trump shows a complete lack of understanding of policy. Jordan Weissman flags a particularly head-desk moment.

So I’ll call, like, major—major countries, and I’ll be dealing with the prime minister or the president. And I’ll say, how are you doing? Oh, don’t know, don’t know, not well, Mr. President, not well. I said, well, what’s the problem? Oh, GDP 9 percent, not well. And I’m saying to myself, here we are at like 1 percent, dying, and they’re at 9 percent and they’re unhappy. So, you know, and these are like countries, you know, fairly large, like 300 million people. You know, a lot of people say—they say, well, but the United States is large. And then you call places like Malaysia, Indonesia, and you say, you know, how many people do you have? And it’s pretty amazing how many people they have. So China’s going to be at 7 or 8 percent, and they have a billion-five, right? So we should do really well.

As Weissman explains, Trump seems to have confused talk of why well-developed economies can’t sustain growth at 7-8 percent with the size of a country’s economy population [typographical error fixed].

He apparently thought that when whoever he was listening to said “large,” they were talking about population. Therefore, in his mind, if China grows at nearly 7 percent per year with its 1.4 billion people, the U.S. should be able to do it too.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Here’s Trump (hat tip: Jonathan Swann) on decertifying Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA):

WSJ: You mentioned the Iran deal, but it’s been certified as in compliance twice now. It comes up again in September. Would you – is there going to come a point where you just –

TRUMP: Well, we’re doing major studies. Oh, I would be very surprised if they will be – look, we’ve been extremely nice to them. We’ve been extremely nice to them in saying they were compliant, OK? We’ve given them the benefit of every doubt. But we’re doing very detailed studies. And personally, I have great respect for my people. If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago.

WSJ: Do you expect them to be declared noncompliant the next time?

TRUMP: Personally, I do. I do.

WSJ: In September?

TRUMP: I think they’ll be noncompliant. I think they’re taking advantage of this country. They’ve taken advantage of a president, named Barack Obama, who didn’t know what the hell he was doing. And I do not expect that they will be compliant.

WSJ: Will you overrule your staff on that, if they come back with a recommendation –

TRUMP: Oh, sure. Sure. Look, I have a lot of respect for Rex and his people, good relationship. It’s easier to say they comply. It’s a lot easier. But it’s the wrong thing. They don’t comply. And so we’ll see what happens. I mean, we’ll talk about this subject in 90 days. But, yeah, I would be – I would be surprised if they were in compliance.

Iran is, in any significant way, in compliance with the JCPOA. Full stop. Iran might, at some future date, materially breach the agreement. But that’s not the case now. Moreover, none of the other members of the P5+1+EU will view whatever excuse the Trump administration comes up with as credible basis for decertifying Iran.

The “major studies” Trump may reference a group within the NSC specifically tasked to come up with rationales for declaring Iran in noncompliance.

“The president assigned White House staffers with the task of preparing for the possibility of decertification for the 90-day review period that ends in October — a task he had previously given to Secretary Tillerson and the State Department,” a source close to the White House told Foreign Policy.

The agreement, negotiated between Iran and world powers, placed strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting an array of economic sanctions.

On Tuesday, Trump relayed this new assignment to a group of White House staffers now tasked with making sure there will not be a repeat at the next 90-day review. “This is the president telling the White House that he wants to be in a place to decertify 90 days from now and it’s their job to put him there,” the source said.

It’s possible, I suppose, that this is a good faith effort to “Red Team” the findings of experts in the United States government—and, for that matter, the international community—but it seems rather unlikely. The interview is eerily reminiscent of Trump’s admission that he had decided to fire Comey, and was just looking for his subordinates to supply a pretext. Given the current facts on the ground, it’s hard to believe that any such ‘study’ will produce a compelling justification. Most important: none of our partners will believe it. The fact that Trump is telegraphing his intentions so clearly only makes things worse.

A decision to decertify Iranian compliance under these conditions is, to say the least, extremely risky. It would further shred American credibility—including with key allies—when it comes to abiding by agreements. It would leave the United States internationally isolated. And it would likely increase the risk of Iranian nuclear proliferation.

The weird mixture of self-aggrandizement and disparagement of Obama as specifically someone “who didn’t know what the hell he was doing” serves as a reminder that Trump embodies the Dunning-Kruger Effect. First, his consistent inability to understand that international bargains aren’t just a matter of will, but of leverage. Second, his confidence that his ill-informed impressions reflect deep, considered knowledge. His priors are simply immune to updating. If you don’t like the information, you get new information.

There are plenty of smart people who don’t like the Iran deal. There are even ways to unravel the JCPOA that might actually not leave the United States in such a poor position. I don’t endorse these, but Trump’s attitude—and his willingness to make it obvious to everyone—provides yet another piece in a mountain-high pile of evidence that he’s simply unfit for the job. More than unfit, a danger to US national security.

But at least he’s using the platform of the presidency to push the Trump brand, so that’s all good. From the signing statement on the sanctions bill:

I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars. That is a big part of the reason I was elected. As President, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.

This timeline stinks. I want out.

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