When President Trump held a reception for conservative media at the White House in April, he was asked whether he was being tough enough on China. Beijing was dumping steel, his interlocutor said, and should also be designated a currency manipulator.
Trump responded, according to several attendees, with a certain incredulity, asking why he would label China a currency manipulator while it is helping to contain North Korea's increasingly belligerent behavior. It's a variant of a line he debuted on Twitter earlier in the month.
"No, it's not going to be the Trump doctrine," Trump memorably said of his foreign policy approach during the campaign. "Because in life, you have to be flexible. You have to have flexibility. You have to change. You know, you may say one thing and then the following year you want to change it, because circumstances are different."
The president has come under fire from some of his fiercest defenders for saying one thing while running for office and then a year later wanting to "change it" on the core issues that got him elected. He relented on funding of the border wall with the continuing resolution to avert a government shutdown. He hasn't fully rescinded former President Obama's immigration executive actions. He ordered strikes on Syria after promising a less interventionist "America First" foreign policy.
Trump spoke favorably of Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen. He declared NATO was no longer obsolete. He signaled support for the Export-Import Bank, even as he nominated a conservative critic to run it. He endorsed a GOP healthcare bill that seemed to advance few of his campaign policy goals.
All these position changes came shortly after there were ubiquitous reports of White House palace intrigue suggesting the populist, nationalist faction associated with chief strategist Stephen Bannon was being marginalized in favor of Trump's centrist son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
"We may as well have had Jeb," lamented conservative columnist Ann Coulter, author of the election yearbook In Trump We Trust. She now tweets daily about the number of miles of border wall completed since Inauguration Day. The number is always zero. "Do you want war with Russia, all of you idiots, all of you fools who are pounding the war drums?" protested pro-Trump veteran radio talk show host Michael Savage after the Syria intervention.
Some Trump supporters think all this is a misreading of the president. Washington is used to ideologues, they say. Trump is a pragmatist. They maintain he is a master negotiator straight out of The Art of the Deal and there is a method even to his apparent Twitter madness.
"When President Trump negotiates, nothing is off the table," said a former Republican national security official. "He leverages the full resources of the American government. He brings the economy into the picture even when doing diplomacy. He outright says, 'If you want a better trade deal, you will help us with North Korea.'"
The new president is, in other words, making a bonfire of the pieties, discarding the idea, perhaps the pretense, of principled consistency, and instead does piecemeal what he believes will work at that moment.
Asked if this wasn't par for the course in presidential negotiations, the official agreed but said there were two important caveats that make Trump different: "Trump says it publicly instead of dancing around it. And don't underestimate how much our people try to make humanitarian arguments to foreign governments that just aren't very humanitarian."
A Republican diplomat concurred, saying there was an overreliance on moral arguments in difficult negotiations with foreign countries sometimes led by people who do not share our values. "These moral arguments don't work with China or Russia," the diplomat said. "They're hit or miss with Egypt or Saudi Arabia. They're not working with Turkey."
So Trump took a harder line on Russia, or at least allowed his appointees to do so. This isn't surprising from United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, for example, but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is a past recipient of the Russian Order of Friendship, and yet he said Moscow was "complicit or simply incompetent" when it came to Syria's use of chemical weapons.
And Trump has been more measured toward China, despite near-constant criticism of that burgeoning strategic rival during the presidential campaign. "President Xi wants to do the right thing," Trump said of his Chinese counterpart in a press conference. "We had a very good bonding. I think we had a very good chemistry together."
On the North American Free Trade Agreement, Trump floated an executive order terminating the United States' participation in the pact, and almost immediately received phone calls from the president of Mexico and prime minister of Canada. Having got their attention, he walked back his threat while speaking magnanimously about those two allies.
"I decided rather than terminating NAFTA, which would be a pretty big, you know, shock to the system, we will renegotiate," Trump told reporters. He had previously issued a statement praising the leaders of Mexico and Canada: "It is an honor to deal with both President Pena Nieto and Prime Minister Trudeau, and I believe that the end result will make all three countries stronger and better."
To some, this reflects the "strategic ambiguity" Trump promised last year and a willingness to make a deal wherever possible. Others regard it as the kind of incoherence one might expect from a politically inexperienced president who hasn't shown much interest in policy. The New York Times described Mexican elites as increasingly seeing Trump as a poker table "bluffer."
This is a debate that dates back to before Trump was in office and extends to domestic policy as well. Is Trump simply more flexible than your average politician or is he less aware of what he is doing?
"What elitists misinterpret as uneven principles, entrepreneurs understand as adaptability," SkyBridge Capital founder Anthony Scaramucci argued in the Wall Street Journal. He went on to claim, "Mr. Trump would be the greatest pragmatist and deal maker Washington has ever seen."
"In the political sense, pragmatists reject the traditional left/right binary, which they may derisively view as dogma," Christopher Scalia wrote in a Washington Post piece on Trump's ideological flexibility. "They are willing to sample widely from the smorgasbord of political ideas to find the best solution to a pressing problem."
Trump's critics have also described him as a pragmatist. "I … think that he is coming to this office with fewer set, hard-and-fast policy prescriptions than a lot of other presidents might be arriving with. I don't think he is ideological," Obama told reporters at the White House after the election. "I think ultimately he's pragmatic in that way, and that can serve him well as long as he's got good people around him and he has a good sense of direction."
Ben Shapiro argued in National Review that Trump was pragmatic, but that wasn't necessarily a good thing. "That's because pragmatism is a progressive philosophy," he wrote. "There is no clear consensus on 'what works.' This is why elections matter, and why political ideology matters. It's an empty conceit of arrogant politicians that they alone can determine, based on expert reading of facts, the best solution; they can't."
This tendency hampered Trump's first attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare. He negotiated with the conservative Freedom Caucus, occasionally driving a hard bargain. "I'm coming after you," Trump quipped to the group's chairman, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., at one point during the talks.
But Trump's jibes against the conservative lawmakers got more serious. The president tweeted that the Freedom Caucus would "hurt the entire Republican agenda" if they failed to get on board and that they needed to be fought as well as the Democrats in 2018.
"Tweets, statements and blame don't change facts," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. Meadows said Trump's scathing comments made it "harder" to arrive at a healthcare compromise. A Republican congressional aide said Trump's tactics merely "emboldened" GOP holdouts.
Trump and the Freedom Caucus have since reconciled on Obamacare. Some even stick up for his handling of the early healthcare discussions.
"I think he did everything he could on healthcare in round one," said Faith and Freedom Coalition chairman Ralph Reed. "The president was speed dialing members of Congress on their cellphones."
"The biggest problem you had under Bush and under Obama is that each party on the Hill thought the White House didn't talk to them," said Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist, who added that all the feedback he has gotten has indicated improved communications under this administration. "Trump's leadership is to talk about the Reagan agenda in terms of creating jobs."
Nevertheless, Trump had difficulty out of the gate because he did not understand how to strike a deal that was only partly about dollars and cents. Freedom Caucus members dissented from the first version of the American Health Care Act because of values and ideology too. Trump's pragmatic language made no allowance for that.
"He had nothing to sell us," said a GOP legislative assistant. Trump's arguments centered on Republican political survival, the need to fulfill campaign promises on Obamacare but relatively little to say about the merits of the bill.
Debates over the efficacy of Trump's methods often break down over a question that has hung over him ever since the national media began to hang on his every tweet, upending politics as we know it: is he clever or just lucky?
"Occasionally, Trump displays moments of pure genius with his use of Twitter to change the subject away from bad storylines," said Republican strategist Liz Mair. "Frequently, however, he uses Twitter to keep what are, for him, extremely bad narratives alive and to beclown himself in the eyes of most observers who are vaguely politically astute. Sometimes, he also just gets lucky and does something stupid on Twitter that coincidentally detracts from something bad, news-wise, but where you're pretty confident it wasn't intentional, it was just random."
Maybe Trump's luck will eventually run out. For now, however, when this pragmatist walks into a roomful of ideologues, he sits at the head of the table.