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Trump Biographer Interprets President's Foreign Policy Through His Business Mind


Now we're going to get another perspective on President Trump's foreign policy approach from someone who has a different relationship with him but also knows him well - Trump biographer Timothy O'Brien, author of "TrumpNation: The Art Of Being The Donald." We wanted to hear Mr. O'Brien's perspective on this week's events since the president has no prior experience in foreign policy and trade policy since before he took the White House, and we thought his approach to other issues might yield some clues. And Mr. O'Brien started by explaining what he thinks is behind the president's thinking on foreign policy.

TIMOTHY O'BRIEN: I think you can usually look at most of what he does, Michel, through two lenses. It's either self-aggrandizement or self-preservation. When you come into the foreign theater and foreign affairs and international issues, he doesn't bring a lot of expertise or experience to the table. And he's also put at odds by the fact that there are these two sort of warring instincts within him. One is he wants to project a very robust, muscular U.S. presence overseas. But that's coupled with a strong distaste for being caught up in a swamp of issues that military power sometimes doesn't resolve.

MARTIN: Your analysis was specifically based on economic policy, specifically tariffs. And you said that, you know, resentments, gut instinct, a belief that he knows better than most people guides a number of his moves on economic policy. But does that same approach influence decision-making on Iran, you know, Venezuela - even North Korea?

O'BRIEN: All of the above. Remember when he was asked who he would put in charge of the Defense Department and who would guide him on foreign policy? When he was campaigning, he said, I know more than the generals. So he clearly prides himself on not needing advice on a number of things. The problem with that and the parallel between both of those issues is he pursues policies that often go off the rails because they are not deeply thought out. It's happened on the southern border with immigration. It's happening now in the tariff war with China. And it's happening as well in this nascent intervention in the Gulf region.

MARTIN: But you also say in your piece that, look - you know, the tariffs on Chinese imports is punitive, but it may convince the country's leaders to open their markets and stop stealing intellectual property. And while European allies have deeply resented his rhetoric, they are increasing their defense spending. So would it be accurate to say that your criticisms of him may be stylistic, as they are - as many people's are, but that the results may yet be productive?

O'BRIEN: I would say, Michel - I'd say take that on a case-by-case basis. There may be some productive results from this heavy cudgel he's bringing to bear on China. I think we're talking about something completely different when you're talking about ancient religious, political and economic differences among the Arab states. I think people should be very humbled by what we already know has happened historically around that. And we know that obviously most recently through the Iraq War. The issue with Trump is he himself was a critic of that war. But he lacks the emotional, intellectual discipline to build a team around him who isn't actually subverting his own instincts.

MARTIN: Tim O'Brien has written for many publications. He is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion, although I think he wants us to be sure to say the opinions expressed here are his own.

Tim O'Brien, thanks so much for talking to us once again.

O'BRIEN: Always great to be with you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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