WASHINGTON - For those who hadn’t yet figured it out, the price of having a U.S. president who disdains expert opinion and who is impulsive, mendacious, not very smart, disturbed, uninformed, incurious, incompetent, intemperate, corrupt and a poor negotiator became irrefutably clear in recent days.
Three large developments from last Wednesday through Saturday unnerved even some of Donald Trump’s Republican protectors, who had rationalized that, after all, he had cut taxes (mainly on the rich and corporations) and put two conservatives on the Supreme Court bench. But the dangers of having such a person in the Oval Office were now becoming harder to ignore.
All three big events were alarming, and on a bipartisan basis: Each was damaging to U.S. national interests, and each was avoidable. Worse, because they came in rapid succession, they created the sense that now (as opposed to previous alarms) the Trump presidency was truly spinning out of control.
On Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted that Islamic State radical group had been defeated and that the United States would, therefore, withdraw its troops from Syria. The decision came as a bolt from the blue for all but a small number of government officials — every one of whom had tried to dissuade him. Key members of Congress hadn’t been informed, much less consulted; nor had America’s allies, some of whose troops have been dependent on the presence of the U.S. military. Major foreign policy decisions simply aren’t made that way: Allies are consulted beforehand; relevant congressional figures are at least informed before any such announcement. Such precautions are about more than good manners: An administration might learn something as it consults and informs.
The decision was immediately and widely denounced. Trump’s usual Senate ally, Lindsey Graham, said, “ISIS has been dealt a severe blow but are not defeated. If there has been a decision to withdraw our forces in Syria, the likelihood of their return goes up dramatically.” The withdrawal, to begin immediately, abandons the Kurds, whom the U.S. had been protecting from Turkey, and pre-empted a planned joint attack on IS. The withdrawal leaves Syria to the mercies of Bashar Assad, Russia (Assad’s patron), and Iran.
The only foreign leaders who welcomed the decision were Turkey’s authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It later emerged that Erdogan had persuaded Trump, who had said earlier, as a general proposition, that he wanted to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, to do so. Then came the news that Trump had also decided — again with scant consultation — to withdraw half the U.S. troops in Afghanistan, despite the U.S. being in the midst of negotiations with the Taliban.
The announcement of the sudden withdrawal from Syria was too much for Defense Secretary James Mattis, the most respected member of Trump’s Cabinet — though it was far from the only provocation. On Thursday, Mattis, widely seen as the only hope for reining in Trump’s most dangerous impulses, stunned almost everyone by resigning. His eloquent resignation letter made clear that he objected not just to the Syrian blunder, but to a pattern of behavior: Trump’s confusion of allies and opponents; his willingness to abandon friends, such as the Kurds; and his trashing of alliances, such as NATO. Mattis’s friends explained in television interviews that what most troubled the retired four-star general and defense intellectual was not just that he could no longer affect policy, but also that his remaining in the Cabinet was taken as an affirmation of Trump, a position he could no longer bear.
Even that doughty loyalist, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, issued a statement Thursday afternoon that he was “distressed” by the departure of Mattis (a significant sign, many believe, of McConnell’s private worry about Trump’s effect on the Republican Party.) Members of Congress expressed outright fear of a Trump presidency without any guardrails.
The list of departures from Trump’s administration is unprecedentedly long. Though some were forced out for blatant corruption (and shouldn’t have been hired in the first place), others have been fired because Trump has turned against them, and some left because of the president’s abusive treatment. He screams at subordinates at will and scapegoats them with abandon. At first, Trump treated Mattis with respect and even some affection; but he gradually tired of his most distinguished Cabinet member’s almost across-the-board disagreement with his policies.
So fickle are Trump’s loyalties that he reportedly “soured” on his third chief of staff before his pick had even started in the position. To fill the job, which no one else seemed to want, Trump had turned to Mick Mulvaney, a conservative former congressman who had already held two high government positions simultaneously. Mulvaney, it turned out, had said in a televised debate during the 2016 election that he would vote for Trump over Hillary Clinton, even though Trump is “a terrible human being.”
Then, at midnight on Friday, a large part of the federal government shut down because Trump had been seeking a fight over the refusal of the Congress (albeit Republican-controlled) to spend billions of dollars to fund his campaign promise to build a wall across the long U.S.-Mexico border. (Trump’s midterm election stunt of ordering troops to the border, purportedly to fend off approaching immigrants from Central America, had deeply rankled Mattis.)
The wall is very unpopular among the public, and only Trump’s most devoted followers view it as the answer to illegal immigration (or drug smuggling). But by using it to cultivate his political base — at most around 35 percent of the electorate — Trump could corner himself. In a televised White House meeting, he fell into a trap set by Democratic leaders by angrily insisting he would be “proud” to own a government shutdown if he couldn’t get billions to fund at least part of the wall. Under strong pressure from right-wing media figures to keep his promise, Trump made and abandoned budget deals until time ran out.
So, just before Christmas, hundreds of thousands of federal workers — real people all over the country with bills to pay — were either furloughed or forced to work without knowing when they would be paid. And Trump is now a hostage in the White House, because even he understands that it would be terrible “optics” to be seen playing golf and hobnobbing with his rich friends at his Palm Beach estate while, just before Christmas, government workers were idled.
But while Trump must figure out how to climb down from his fanciful wall, so far he has ratcheted up his pettiness, removing Mattis two months ahead of schedule and tweeting insults to politicians who have criticized his recent blunders. His mood is reportedly fouler than ever, and the holiday season has become suffused with an increased sense of danger emanating from the White House.
Elizabeth Drew is a Washington-based journalist and the author, most recently, of “Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.” ©Project Syndicate, 2018