President Donald Trump swears he’s a patriot. He hugs the flag, preaches “America First,” wages trade wars, and builds up the military. He points out, correctly, that the Mueller investigation failed to prove that he criminally conspired with Russia to win the 2016 election.
But a president can betray his country without engaging in a secret conspiracy. He can do it out in the open, just by being pathologically disloyal. That’s how Trump has sold out America to a series of dictators, starting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This week, while visiting Japan, Trump again made himself a tool of foreign influence, by joining North Korea in a verbal assault on former Vice President Joe Biden.
The Japan trip showcased three elements of Trump’s personality that make him an easy mark for foreign exploitation. The first is narcissism. Trump routinely abandons the people around him: wives, employees, officials, and aides. He applies the word treason not to betrayals of the Constitution, but to any threat to himself, including the FBI’s decision to open an investigation into his campaign in 2016, when Trump was just a candidate. He spurns NATO, scorns American war heroes, and ridicules U.S. intelligence agencies. Trump believes he is the state. Therefore, he feels nothing for any part of the state beyond himself.
This makes it easy to turn Trump against the U.S. government. Over the weekend, he flew to Japan, along with national security adviser John Bolton and other aides, to discuss regional concerns. When reporters asked about North Korea’s recent launches of short-range ballistic missiles, Bolton confirmed that the launches violated U.S.-backed United Nations Security Council resolutions. Bolton assured the press that Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would step in to protect “the integrity of the Security Council resolutions.” At a joint press conference with Trump, Abe affirmed that the launches were violations.
But Trump didn’t. Before the press conference with Abe, the president disowned Bolton’s statement. “North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me,” Trump tweeted. “I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me.” Then, during the press conference, when Trump was asked whether North Korea had “violated U.N. resolutions with the short-range missile launch,” he said no. “My people think it could have been a violation, as you know. I view it differently,” the president declared. Reporters pressed him: “You’re not bothered at all by the small missiles?” Trump replied, “No, I’m not.”
In Trump’s self-absorbed mind, U.S.-backed international resolutions don’t matter. Nor does the opinion of Trump’s host, Japan, which faces a direct threat from Kim’s arsenal. Nor do the assessments of “my people,” including Bolton. All that matters is what Kim pledged “to me.” And Trump is willing to act on his impulses. In March, he overruled North Korea sanctions that had been announced by his administration. To reverse U.S. policy, all a dictator has to do is suck up to Trump.
Second, Trump cares more about beating his domestic rivals than standing up to foreign enemies. And to win these domestic fights, the president is happy to claim America’s enemies as his allies. He consistently sided with Putin against President Barack Obama. In 2016, Trump openly urged Russia to help him defeat Hillary Clinton. This year, Trump declared that the Chinese government was “far more honorable” than U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and the rest of what Trump called “the opposition party.”
In Japan, Trump took Kim’s side against Biden. On May 22, a commentary in North Korea’s state-run news service called Biden a “fool of low IQ.” Days later, while Trump was in Japan, he tweeted that he had “smiled when [Kim] called Swampman Joe Biden a low IQ individual, & worse. Perhaps that’s sending me a signal?” (Trump was incorrect: The North Korean statement wasn’t attributed to Kim.) Later, at the press conference with Abe, Trump was asked, “Does it give you pause at all to be appearing to side with a brutal dictator instead of with a fellow American, the former vice president, Joe Biden?” Again, Trump endorsed the insult. “Kim Jong-un made a statement that Joe Biden is a low-IQ individual. He probably is, based on his record,” said Trump. “His administration, with President Obama, they were basically a disaster.”
That’s how Trump thinks: The real enemy is Biden. By insulting Biden, Kim is, in Trump’s words, “sending me a signal” of support. So the best route to getting on Trump’s good side, if you’re a foreign government, is to help the president in his domestic wars. And if you don’t, Trump will say you did anyway. Returning from Japan, he tweeted, “Numerous Japanese officials told me that the Democrats would rather see the United States fail than see me or the Republican Party succeed.” (There’s no evidence that Japanese officials said any such thing.)
Third, Trump is a reflexive liar. He’s happy to contradict U.S. intelligence when it gets in the way of his interests. He has denied intelligence on Russia’s election interference, intelligence about the persistence of ISIS, and intelligence implicating Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Trump has been lying about North Korea for a year. He consistently contradicts intelligence that shows Kim is pushing forward with nuclear and missile development. In Japan, the president compounded his lies. The Department of Defense says that on May 9, North Korea “flight-tested multiple ballistic missiles.” But when reporters in Japan asked Trump about the launches, he insisted, “There have been no ballistic missiles going out.” Trump also claimed, contrary to a Pentagon statement, that the United States was “continuing to get the remains” of U.S. military personnel from North Korea.
Trump’s corrupt habits—narcissism, deceit, obsession with domestic rivalry—have taught foreign malefactors how to manipulate him. Look at the North Korean commentary that attracted his interest during the trip to Japan. It parroted Trump’s mockery of Biden, calling the former vice president sleepy, gaffe-prone, and low-IQ. It appealed to Trump’s sense of rivalry, claiming that Biden’s criticisms of Kim were “politically motivated” and driven “by ambition for power.” It painted Bolton as a menace to Trump, calling the aide a “security-destroying adviser” who conspires with the United Nations to drag the United States into war.
Bolton foolishly imagines that he speaks for Trump. “The president’s view,” Bolton declared in Japan, was for “keeping sanctions in place and in force until North Korea shows it has made a strategic decision to give up its nuclear weapons.” At the press conference with Abe, Bolton chuckled when Trump endorsed North Korea’s insults of Biden. But Bolton has no idea what Trump’s position will be a month from now, because Trump has no true commitments. And like every aide before him, Bolton will soon be out in the street. He’s just another American in Trump’s way.