Over the weekend, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham insisted that President Donald Trump's unannounced visit to share turkey dinner with American troops in Afghanistan was "truly about Thanksgiving and supporting the troops." Grisham is right: Trump's trip was all about the season—but not Thanksgiving season. Instead, the president's trip signaled that his reelection campaign is now in full swing. With his approval rating stuck in the low 40s, half the country now favoring his impeachment and removal from office, and suburban Republican women deserting the GOP, Trump is attempting to showcase his foreign policy achievements while conveying the image of a less chaotic presidency.
The result has been some decidedly "un-Trumpian" conduct, including the trip itself—his first to Afghanistan after nearly three years in office. Notoriously averse to foreign travel, even on Air Force One, Trump could have announced the reopening of talks with the Taliban—talks he scuttled three months ago, after Islamists staged a terror attack that killed an American soldier—from the comfort of Mar a Lago, his new official residence. But the military is one of his core constituencies, and to win next November, he'll need his base to turn out in high numbers. Breaking bread and sharing stuffing with the troops was aimed at enhancing his personal standing among them.
A second "un-Trumpian" action came just prior to his trip. Last week, Trump signed into law a measure supporting the protesters in Hong Kong. His show of support for democracy, though a departure from his often-sympathetic rhetoric for dictators, risks harming his already-rocky effort to strike a deal with Beijing and end a trade war, but the measure was veto-proof at home, passing the House by a vote of 417-1 and the Senate by unanimous consent. The measure requires the U.S. to impose sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong and orders the State Department to conduct an annual review of the special autonomous status it grants Hong Kong in trade. Though symbolically important, it has few tangible damaging consequences for China. Nevertheless, it has strained relations with Beijing at a delicate point in the trade negotiations. Though Trump announced last month that the U.S. and China had reached the first stage of what he called a "historic" agreement, securing a deal has proved elusive. Clearly, Trump is eager to avoid the imposition of another punishing round of reciprocal tariffs, which could dampen economic growth next year.
Before his Thanksgiving Afghan visit, Trump followed presidential tradition by pardoning two turkeys. He also participated in a Rose Garden ceremony honoring Conan, the hero canine who helped trap and kill Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The tribute was especially unusual, since Trump, who has never owned a pet, is clearly no fan of man's best friend. Former Republican rival Marco Rubio was "sweating like a dog" during a 2016 presidential debate, candidate Trump asserted. He has suggested that a female challenger was "barking like a dog," said that Republican challenger Carly Fiorina had a "face like a dog," and described a cabinet secretary being "fired like a dog." So it was surprising to see Trump hailing Conan on the White House lawn as "brilliant," "smart," "excellent," "fantastic," and an "incredible fighter." Trump awarded Conan a medal and a plaque for his outstanding service. What the Belgian Malinois did not get from POTUS was a treat or even a head pat; Trump left the touchy-feely part of the ceremony to Vice President Mike Pence, a self-described "pet person."
The significance of the Conan tribute: it's a reminder of how closely Trump follows opinion polls. Half of all American households have dogs. And last week, Trump signed into law another measure aimed at pleasing pet-lovers—the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act, which makes mistreatment of animals a federal crime punishable with stiff fines and up to seven years in jail. Whether he was trying to refresh his image or simply distract attention from the weeklong House impeachment hearings that he repeatedly denounced as a "witch hunt," Trump won praise not only from animal-welfare groups but also from law enforcement organizations like the National Sheriffs' Association and the Fraternal Order of Police. Spokesmen for both endorsed the measure, citing a "documented connection" between animal cruelty and other violent crimes.