Washington • In announcing a U.S. pullout from the Iran nuclear deal Tuesday, President Trump boosted exports of a product his administration manufactures in abundance: chaos.
In the Oval Office, standing beneath a portrait of George Washington, Trump spoke at length about the “very weak,” “disastrous,” “poorly negotiated” and “totally unacceptable” deal, which is a “great embarrassment,” a “giant fiction” and a “horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made” with a “sinister,” “malign” and “murderous” regime “of great terror.”
But after that torrent of adjectives, Trump had few words left to say about what would happen next, beyond working with our allies (who oppose the U.S. reversal), economic sanctions on Iran (which does little business with the United States) and threatening Iran with military action for noncompliance (“bigger problems than it has ever had before”). In other words, he has no idea.
Leaders of Britain, France and Germany had come to Washington in recent weeks to plead with Trump not to withdraw from the accord, warning this could touch off a nuclear arms race and war in the Middle East — an unnecessary risk, given that Iran was in compliance. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson argued that “Plan B does not seem, to me, to be particularly well-developed at this stage.”
But Trump does have a well-developed Plan B. It is to sow uncertainty. Chaos is not an unfortunate byproduct but a desirable end.
Will the pullout from the Iran deal result in a “better deal” — or a mushroom cloud? Stay tuned! For our European cousins who have not watched previous seasons of the Trump show, the president delights in keeping us watching a perpetual cliffhanger.
A conventional president is measured by popularity, or policy achievements, and Trump has been wanting for both. But he appears to measure himself by a different yardstick: his ability to command attention. If the metric is TV ratings, the president is winning.
This would explain his delight in constant disruption and churn, even if it produces conventionally bad news. On any given day, virtually anybody in the White House might be fired. We could find ourselves in a tiff with any foreign power, friend or foe. Rudy Giuliani might return, or Trump’s doctor, or a porn star, or the villain, Robert Mueller. Can a torture enthusiast be confirmed to run the CIA? Stay tuned!
In the Iran withdrawal, Trump had an opportunity to keep the world in suspense. He set a deadline for the decision — May 12 — and built it up for months. “Nobody knows what I’m going to do on the 12th,” he teased with the French president at his side.
He teed up Tuesday’s announcement as a coming attraction. “I will be announcing my decision on the Iran Deal tomorrow from the White House at 2:00pm,” he tweeted Monday.
This is exactly how he rolled out his decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement: “I will be announcing my decision on Paris Accord, Thursday at 3:00 P.M. The White House Rose Garden. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
It’s the same level of gravity he used to tease events such as his “MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA AWARDS” and, before he started his campaign, “The Celebrity Apprentice”: “stay tuned for the 2nd half we have one more firing tonight!”
Trump is now asking us to “stay tuned” for North Korea nuclear and hostage talks, a “great healthcare plan” to replace Obamacare, and more. The outcomes don’t matter.
Trump delights in his reality-TV presidency. “Welcome back to the studio,” he said at one Cabinet meeting.
In Trump’s view, if he brings the drama, the ratings soar — and, somehow, he wins.
This is how busting up the Iran deal is best understood: drama for the sake of drama. Trump, squinting into the camera Tuesday, recited Iran’s misdeeds — most long before the nuclear deal was signed. “We will not allow American cities to be threatened with destruction,” Trump said, an echo of pre-Iraq War claims. Using a thick marker, he scrawled an oversize signature on the pullout order.
What happens with Iran now? Who cares? Trump is skipping to the next episode: He announced, at the end of the Iran speech, that the secretary of state was arriving in North Korea.
A reporter asked: Will North Korea release its American captives? (Trump teased this in a tweet last week.)
“We’ll soon be finding out,” Trump said.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.