Donald Trump promised to be open-minded on a number of issues. Over the past week, he’s delivered.
The man who pledged to cut deals rather than adhere to any ideology — or to any detailed policy platform — has, in recent days, demonstrated an incredible willingness to bend his past positions, or abandon them entirely. Sometimes he offers an explanation; sometimes not. But after an embarrassing failure to deliver on his promise to repeal Obamacare, Trump is making sure the world knows he does not share the hardline proclivities of the House conservatives who derailed the health care deal and have proven a thorn in the side of Republican leaders.
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From health care and the Export-Import Bank to NATO and China’s alleged currency manipulation, Trump has made moves that would leave a more traditional politician labeled a flip-flopper. But for Trump, who sold himself in part on a businessman’s flexibility, the moves fit his reputation for unpredictability.
“I said it was obsolete,” Trump said of NATO during a news conference with Jens Stoltenberg, the body’s secretary general on Wednesday, referring to a comment he made during the campaign. “It’s no longer obsolete.”
Trump chalked up the change to what he said is a new NATO focus on terrorism. But NATO has long made combating global terrorism a priority, and fought alongside the U.S. in its campaigns against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and many NATO member states have aided the campaign against the Islamic State.
On China, too, Trump has changed his posture. He regularly, and gleefully, lambasted China on the campaign trail, painting it as a prime culprit for Americans’ economic woes and vowing to toughen up trading policy with the world’s second-largest economy — first and foremost by labeling the nation a currency manipulator.
“They’re not currency manipulators,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. He said any currency manipulation has ceased and suggested such a label would hurt the prospects of working with China to declaw a nuclear and increasingly belligerent North Korea.
And, after a few days with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Trump is now praising Xi as a willing partner.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with him over the last two days,” Trump said at Wednesday’s news conference, referring to last week’s meeting. “President Xi wants to do the right thing. We had a very good bonding, I think we had a very good chemistry together. I think he wants to help us with North Korea. We talked trade, we talked a lot of things.”
“I was very impressed with President Xi and I think he means well and I think he wants to help,” Trump added. “We’ll see whether or not he does.”
In another change in the Wall Street Journal interview, Trump declared he now supports the Export-Import Bank. The bank, which guarantees loans for U.S. companies, has become a target of many conservatives but is supported by major American companies like Boeing.
“It turns out that, first of all, lots of small companies are really helped, the vendor companies,” Trump told the WSJ on the Ex-Im bank.
In his most significant shift, Trump — who pledged to keep the United States out of protracted conflicts in the Middle East — deepened U.S. military involvement in Syria last week with a barrage of missile strikes on a Syrian air base in response to a poison gas attack on civilians.
Trump explained that shift by pointing to the images of those killed in the attack, particularly the children, who he mentioned again at his news conference on Wednesday. Trump was by no means alone in the Syria shift. A number of Republicans in Congress who opposed airstrikes in response to chemical weapons usage under former President Barack Obama have supported Trump’s move.
And on health care, Trump also seems to be waffling. After telling congressional Republicans he would abandon repeal efforts and move on to tax reform if they couldn’t reach an agreement on the American Health Care Act, he now seems to be mulling a return to health care.
“We’re going to have a phenomenal tax reform, but I have to do health care first,” Trump told Fox News this week. “I want to do it first to really do it right.”
Even Trump’s media habits shifted on Wednesday. After sticking to friendly reporters in his previous news conferences with foreign leaders, including conservative media outlets and Mark Halperin, Trump on Wednesday called on two mainstream reporters from prominent national outlets — Jeff Mason of Reuters and Anita Kumar of McClatchy newspapers.
He deftly handled both questions, as well as those from the foreign press, avoiding any of the eyebrow-raising comments that have emerged at his past news conferences, like when he made a joke about the U.S. wiretapping German chancellor Angela Merkel.
But on one weighty foreign policy issue, Trump has declined to move. That’s his stance toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, who throughout the campaign Trump declined to attack and often praised. The Russian government conducted an influence campaign to aid Trump during the presidential election, the US intelligence community concluded. But tensions with Russia have increased in recent days as Moscow continues to support Bashar Assad’s ruthless campaign in Syria.
Trump was asked multiple times Wednesday if his opinion of Putin has changed. He avoided the question, though he left the door open for a future shift.
“I’ll also see about Putin over a period of time,” Trump said of the Russian strongman.
“It would be a fantastic thing if we got along with Putin and if we got along with Russia,” Trump added. “And that could happen, and it may not happen, and it may be just the opposite. I can only tell you what I would like to do. I would love to be able to get along with everybody.”