President Donald Trump, setting out on the European leg of his first international tour, might like to take some local advice on how to rescue his presidency from the maelstrom into which it appears to be descending. He visits Brussels on Thursday for a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation summit before travelling to Sicily for a meeting of the G7 industrial countries. On his stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel, Trump will have earned some welcome respite from his travails at home. And he will have seen at first hand the respect with which the holder of his office is treated in pivotal parts of the world.
A president seemingly out of control, beset by spiralling allegations of political and judicial malfeasance, is of little use to anyone. Buoyed perhaps by a week away from Washington, Trump will have had time to reflect.
One piece of advice Trump might learn from European experience: don’t be afraid to change course more often. Trump has already backtracked on labelling China a currency manipulator, repealing Obamacare, calling Nato obsolete, banning all Muslim immigration or starting immediately on his Mexican wall. Abandoning the bizarre claims that he is the victim of the ‘greatest witch hunt’ in US political history and pledging full co-operation with Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to delve into claims of Russian collusion, might be a smart move.
Angela Merkel and Theresa May, the German and British leaders with whom Trump will meet at his summits in the coming days, have both carried out their share of policy reversals. One of the favourite sayings of Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first chancellor, credited with stabilising the country after the second world war, was, ‘Why should I care about my idle talk of yesterday?’
A second piece of advice: watch out for the secret service. Harold Wilson, Britain’s prime minister between 1964-70 and 1974-76, was under surveillance by MI5, the domestic counter intelligence service, during the whole of his two premierships. His resignation in 1976 reflected at least partly the near-paranoia that he was the victim of conspiracies by MI5 officers to overthrow the government. Willy Brandt, West Germany’s chancellor in 1974, resigned after Germany’s counter espionage authorities unmasked his secretary, Günter Guillaume, as an East German spy. Brandt’s departure – also blamed on exhaustion and the nervous strain of several extra-marital affairs – was a major blunder by the East Germans. Brandt was sympathetic to the Communists and his successor, Helmut Schmidt, was less compliant. François Mitterrand, another left-winger who led France between 1981-95, was dogged by rumours of suspicious dealings with the security services. These affairs led to the suicide or downfall of several of his confidants, though Mitterrand miraculously was unscathed.
The third lesson is that, especially in times of stress, Trump should worry about who’s in charge of the central bank. The president has wisely had good things to say about Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, whom previously he seemed ready to reduce to lame duck status. Perhaps he has been thinking of the three West German chancellors – Ludwig Erhard in 1966, Kurt Georg Kiesinger in 1969 and Helmut Schmidt in 1982 – whose ejections from office were propelled, either directly or indirectly, by the steadfast monetary stance of the independent Bundesbank.
The clinching argument for Trump to keep Yellen at the central bank may be this: a strong dollar, overall, will be far more beneficial than a weak one for Trump’s own brand of ‘America first’ economics. Yellen would provide a promise of considerable protection for the president. Perhaps, when he returns from his travels, Trump will realise he needs her more than she him.
David Marsh is Managing Director of OMFIF.