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Trump Continues To Shift Positions On Key Campaign Issues


President Trump told The Wall Street Journal this week that dealing with North Korea is not as easy as he thought. He said he came to that conclusion after getting a 10-minute history lesson from China's president. It's one of a number of lessons the president has gotten in recent days, and he's been shifting his positions on many issues, from NATO to Chinese currency. NPR's Scott Horsley begins our coverage on the education of a new president.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: There's been a lot of reporting over the last week or so on policy reversals by President Trump - his change of thinking on Syria, his embrace of NATO, his falling out with Russian President Vladimir Putin. For supporters like Chris Ruddy, a friend of the president who is CEO of Newsmax Media, Trump is simply showing that he's not a rigid ideologue but rather a leader who's flexible and pragmatic.

CHRIS RUDDY: I was on NPR and other shows saying this a few months ago. Give the man a chance. He will learn. He will adapt. And sure enough, that's exactly what's going on. And I think he will be finding a more center position as long as that center position brings results.

HORSLEY: Ruddy thinks as Trump's staff settles in, the president is getting a better flow of information. Foreign policy scholar Daniel Drezner of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy says that was sorely needed.

DANIEL DREZNER: Now, a lot of presidents when they're campaigning say things that they find out they can't implement or are harder to implement. But in Trump's case, it's literally basic facts that he's learning.

HORSLEY: Facts such as China hasn't been depressing its currency for a long time despite what Trump said on the campaign trail or the fact that NATO has been busy battling terrorism ever since the 9/11 attacks.

Like every president, Trump's also had to respond to new information like last week's chemical weapons attack in Syria. The president has spoken passionately about the graphic images of Syrian victims he saw on TV.

DREZNER: Trump might be the president most vulnerable to what political scientists call the CNN effect of any president I've ever seen.

HORSLEY: Drezner says that CNN effect is the idea televised images can have a powerful emotional pull on public opinion which can then sway government action. In Trump's case, he says, the president cuts out the middleman and reacts to TV images on his own.

DREZNER: We'd have to rename it. It's the Fox News effect more than the CNN effect now.

HORSLEY: In many of these shifts, Trump seems to be moving away from the nationalistic platform he campaigned on towards a more traditional approach. Hal Brands, a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies, says that may reflect a shift in which of his competing advisers Trump is listening to.

HAL BRANDS: Real, true-believer America Firsters (ph) like Steve Bannon are apparently on the outs with the president, and more mainstream advisers - H.R. McMaster in the security realm, Gary Cohn in the economic realm - are on the ascent. And so that's pushing American policy back toward the mean as well.

HORSLEY: To be sure, some of Trump's hardline policies on immigration, for example, and criminal justice have not changed since the campaign, and Brands says it's too early to put Trump in a conventional box.

BRANDS: What this last week has also confirmed is that Trump is himself a very unpredictable and volatile actor.

HORSLEY: Drezner agrees, saying there's no reason to think Trump's recent policy adjustments will be the last.

DREZNER: I don't think it's like musical chairs where the music is now stopped and he's in the final fixed position. It's going to continue to change over time.

HORSLEY: Trump does pay attention to poll numbers, Drezner says. If his more mainstream positions produce results and his ratings improve, that could reinforce the recent policy changes. If not, expect the president to keep shifting. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.