Opinion

Donald Trump's moment of crisis

The economy is failing. Foreign challenges loom. The president isn't ready.

The moment of crisis has finally arrived for President Trump. Does anybody think he is prepared to handle it?

This week, the stock market sank more than 800 points on fears that a recession is in the offing. Across the Pacific Ocean, China's confrontation with Hong Kong protesters appears to be coming to an inflection point — with results that could reverberate throughout the world economy. And in India, a decades-old stalemate over control of Kashmir seems to be ending badly and dangerously. This isn't just a moment of crisis. It's moments, plural.

So far, Trump has reacted precisely as you'd expect. Which is to say, badly.

He's blaming the pending recession on the Federal Reserve. Publicly, he's shrugging at the conflict in Hong Kong — "I hope it works out for everybody," he said. But privately, he's reportedly deferential to the possibility of a Chinese military crackdown and offered a "personal meeting" with Chinese President Xi Jinping to resolve the matter. As for Kashmir, Trump has already withdrawn his offer to mediate that crisis.

Most of this leadership — if you can call it that — has taken place on Twitter. None of it seems to be working.

If the president has a real plan to deal with these events, it is not readily apparent. Instead, Trump is acting as he always has, relying on an unshakeable belief in his own personal charm and negotiating skills to solve long-intractable issues — "I alone can fix it" was his unforgettably hubristic campaign promise — and blaming everybody but himself when things go badly.

For all the controversies and rage stirred up by his two-and-a-half-year presidency, you could argue that Trump has been a lucky man. There have been plenty of crises during his tenure — a government shutdown, mass shootings, the separation of migrant families, the rise of racism — but so far he has avoided the kind of historical catastrophe by which we often judge our presidents. There have been no economic collapses and no major outbreaks of war, no national or international crises that require him to prove his mettle.

George W. Bush spent his presidency reacting to 9/11. Barack Obama started his tenure trying to solve the worst recession since the Great Depression. Trump has stumbled from one mess to another, steadfastly proclaiming victory at every point, but so far he has not had to face a comparable challenge.

Until now.

Before he was elected, observers looked at Trump and wondered how he would respond to what Hillary Clinton in 2008 famously called a "3 a.m. phone call" event that demanded clear, sharp, and thoughtful leadership. Trump seemed like a bully and a braggart, thin-skinned and shallow, reliant on bluster and star power. He didn't appear equal to the worst that the times can throw at a president. If faced with a 9/11-style disaster, one historian told Politico in 2016, it seemed likely Trump would "would simply withdraw to his Twitter account, riding out the threat with a lot of talk and little action." That sounds about right.

Trump has a limited toolbox when it comes to dealing with the challenges before him. His fondness for authoritarians leaves him little moral standing — even if he were inclined — to support the Hong Kong protesters or challenge a possible Chinese crackdown. He passed a giant tax cut when the economy was still growing, so that particular bit of economic stimulus probably won't be available to him now that it is really needed. It is possible his trade wars have helped bring on economic instability. As far as Kashmir, it's likely the president simply doesn't understand the stakes or the history of the region.

These shortcomings might be glossed over if Trump had a strong executive team in place. But the State Department has been hollowed out since the beginning of his presidency — it lost more than 1,200 positions by March 2018 — making it more difficult for that agency to provide the expertise and resources to deal effectively with challenges abroad. And on the economy, one of Trump's chief advisers is Larry Kudlow, best known until now as a cable TV news host. The bench is thin.

President Trump has not yet risen to the challenges of the times — instead, the times seem to have descended to his level. Bluster and tweets helped make Trump one of the most powerful men in the world. But to effectively address problems, he will have to do more than be loud at them.

We often judge our presidents by how they handle the big moments. So far, Trump is failing the test.

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