Guest Opinion: Trump is learning, believe it or not

The Arizona Republic
April 13
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White House press secretary Sean Spicer tiptoed into the twin minefields of Hitler and Holocaust analogies last week and blew himself up.

What he meant to say was that even Hitler didn’t use poison gas on the battlefield, yet last week Syrian strongman Bashar Assad used it on his own people.

And what he actually conveyed was that he is so ignorant he didn’t know Hitler gassed millions of Jews, including his own people, and other victims of the Third Reich.

No doubt Spicer has heard of Auschwitz and Treblinka; he simply face-planted in his own press conference.

What he did next, however, was more important. He went on CNN and abased himself before Wolf Blitzer and a national viewing audience.

Without qualification and with what seemed pained sincerity, Spicer apologized for his enormous blunder and the distress he caused people, particularly the Jewish people celebrating Passover.

Compared to the Sean Spicer who in his very first press conference screamed at the media and accused them of “deliberately false reporting,” this Sean Spicer was contrite, not arrogant. Decent, not disturbing.

In January, you could not imagine Spicer or anyone in this administration humbly acknowledging a mistake.

But things are changing in the Trump White House.

Out of the horror show that was the transition and the first months of the new administration, we are starting to see something we had stopped expecting — progress.

Past the scorched-earth inaugural, past the disastrous ban on Muslim travel, past the serial lies and tweets, and the attacks on judges and journalists, comes fresh evidence that this White House actually learns.

Someone is imposing adult behavior on Pennsylvania Avenue, and the results are promising.

Press reports point to the president’s son-in-law and chief adviser Jared Kushner and other Manhattan financiers close to Trump pushing back against the staff firebrands who came to town and started breaking the furniture of establishment Washington.

Trump himself appears chastened by some of the worst polling numbers in modern presidential history.

“(He) initially believed he could bend the presidency to fit his pugnacious, freewheeling style,” aides and friends told the Wall Street Journal. “Now, Mr. Trump is slowly conforming to a more traditional approach to the office after recognizing that the infighting has been detrimental.”

Said one friend to the Journal, “He loves chaos when it’s beneficial to him, but not so much when it’s to his detriment.”

If relationships are any judge, Trump is moving in the right direction. Russian-American relations remain “at the lowest possible point,” a Kremlin spokesman told ABC News.

That is actually good news after Trump spent the election and transition tossing garlands to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The same Russians who undermined the American election and opposed U.N. condemnation of Syria for its poison-gas attack is not a nation worthy of good relations.

Trump’s missile attack on a Syrian air base was an important message to the Assad regime and their Russian patrons that American patience has its limits.

On the flip side, U.S. relations with Mexico, our valued ally, are improving. Trump has stopped attacking and insulting the Mexicans on Twitter and in speeches, the Wall Street Journal reports. And Kushner has been working back channels to smooth feelings.

The president no longer seems eager to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement and is signaling only modest changes.

“The relationship is much more constructive,” a senior Mexican government official told the Journal. A senior U.S. official agreed.

On Wednesday, Trump reassured NATO he no longer believes the alliance is “obsolete” and will work with it to combat global terrorism.

And inside the White House, the president has begun to push chief strategist Steve Bannon to the margins, stripping him of his seat on the National Security Council’s principals committee and undercutting him in an interview with the New York Post, declaring, “I am my own strategist.”

Perhaps Trump discovered that Bannon’s combative style, once described by a former Breitbart editor as “malevolent,” is a liability.

Honest critics of any White House must give them their due when they move in constructive ways. With the Trump administration, you praise them knowing their potential for bad behavior is only a news cycle away.