Viewpoints

Even Latin America worries that White House chaos is a sign of U.S. instability

Minutes after we learned that President Trump had fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week, a recent Mexican ambassador to the United States tweeted that “total chaos” in the White House is making it incredibly difficult for his country to do business with the United States.

It’s a complaint I hear more and more from diplomats from all over the world. Increasingly, the United States – which had long been a symbol of stability and seriousness – is being seen as a banana republic or, rather, a once-serious nation run by an unstable egomaniac.

 
Opinion

Tillerson, a former Exxon Mobil CEO whom Trump brought into his Cabinet as proof that he would pick only “the best people,” was one of four senior administration officials to leave in the past two weeks. Days earlier, Trump’s top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, communications director Hope Hicks and longtime personal aide John McEntee left or were fired.

Since Trump took office, there have been more departures of newly appointed White House officials than in any administration in recent history. Among the departed were former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price.

Incidentally, almost all of these departures were anticipated by what Trump calls the “fake media.” Again and again, Trump has denounced journalists for putting out these stories and claimed that there is “no chaos, only great energy” in the White House. And over and over, the media reports turned out to be right.

In Latin American diplomatic circles, the pandemonium in the Trump White House is causing big headaches. In February, more than a year after taking office, Tillerson had made his much-delayed first official tour of Latin America, visiting Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, and also Jamaica.

During that trip, he had discussed the Venezuelan crisis and several other key issues. Now, Latin American officials feel they wasted their time talking to him.

What’s just as bad, with the recent announcement that senior State Department official Tom Shannon will leave for personal reasons in coming weeks, seven of the top nine positions at the State Department will be vacant. The empty posts include the top officials in charge of U.S. trade policy, nuclear weapons and refugee issues.

“For Mexico, it has become very difficult and unpredictable to interact with a country this has fallen into such a profound administrative crisis, and where top officials change almost any other week,” former Mexican ambassador to Washington Arturo Sarukhan told me after tweeting his view following Tillerson’s firing.

When I interviewed Chile’s President Rafael Pinera last week shortly before his inauguration, I asked him about Trump’s claim that a trade war would be good for America. Pinera said that, “The world is upside down.” He recalled that at the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year, Chinese president Xi Jinping came across as the champion of free trade, while Trump defended protectionist policies.

Pinera, a center-right president and – like Trump – a billionaire, was not talking about the turmoil in the Trump administration. But his comment reflected a widespread view among Latin American officials that this is a different United States from the one they have been dealing with for decades.

Trump’s despotic leadership style reminds me of that of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who, according to press reports, fired or reassigned more than 80 cabinet members in the first two years after he took office in 2013. He has since fired or reshuffled dozens of others, often – like Trump did with Tillerson – announcing the changes by tweet or at a public speech before letting his sacked officials know in advance.

For U.S. allies around the world, it’s hard to make plans with an unstable U.S. administration. The danger is that, as time goes by and Trump shows himself to be incapable of running a serious government, they will turn to China and Russia. They may not like their dictatorial regimes, but they may like the fact that they can make long-term trade, investment or environmental plans with them.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com.

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