It’s the tale of two scandals.
Republicans are apoplectic over President Trump’s decision to abandon America’s Kurdish allies and allow Turkish forces to move into northern Syria. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.) harrumphed that “a precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran and the Assad regime.” Rep. Liz Cheney (R.-Wyo.), the No. 3 Republican in the House, echoed his criticism. As did Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R.-S.C.). His sycophancy toward Trump has become legendary, but in the case of Syria, Graham pulled out what is for Republicans the ultimate insult: He compared Trump to President Barack Obama. “No matter what President Trump is saying about his decision,” he tweeted, “it is EXACTLY what President Obama did in Iraq with even more disastrous consequences for our national security.”
Yet the same Republicans who chastise Trump over Syria have nary a negative word to say about his attempts to persuade Ukrainian and Chinese leaders to interfere in the U.S. election on his behalf. McConnell is raising funds as we speak to save Trump from impeachment — or, as he puts it, from “the clutches of a left-wing mob.” Cheney has darkly intimated that Trump’s infamous phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is “starting to seem like a political set up.” Graham, for his part, vows to expose the identity of the intelligence community whistleblowers and says, “I think it’s ridiculous to say the president did something wrong based on the phone call.”
Why do Republicans care so much that Trump has sold out the Kurds — and care so little that he has sold out the Constitution? Blame the corrosive partisanship and extremism that have led to the closing of the Republican mind.
The reason Republicans feel free to disagree with Trump over Syria — but not Ukraine — is, first, that it’s not a partisan issue. Support for the Kurds and opposition to the Islamic State is one of those rare issues that unites Republicans and Democrats, and if anything, Republicans feel more strongly about it than do Democrats. So Republicans don’t feel a reflexive need to defend Trump from Democratic attacks.
The second reason Republicans are willing to criticize Trump’s Syria policy is related to the first: It’s not a very important issue in the greater scheme of U.S. politics. Nobody imagines that Trump’s fate in 2020 turns on his Syria policy.
The third reason is that Trump could easily change his mind regarding Syria. That’s what happened after Trump decided in December to completely pull U.S. troops out of Syria. Then-national security adviser John Bolton managed to talk him off the ledge in part because the move had sparked such overwhelming opposition from Republicans.
For all these reasons, Republicans think they have a “pass” to attack Trump’s decision on Syria without risking his wrath. And, indeed, so far Trump has not lashed out against critics of his Syria policy in personal terms.
Trump’s attempts to get Ukraine and then China to provide dirt on Joe Biden is a much more fraught situation. Trump can’t admit he did anything wrong or else he will risk accelerating an impeachment inquiry that is already in overdrive. Instead, he’s offering lame excuses such as claiming that it’s legitimate for him to investigate corruption (even though the only corruption he is interested in involves his political foes) or arguing that he is the victim of a vast conspiracy by Ukraine, the Deep State and Democrats to reverse his 2016 victory.
Republicans feel compelled to echo Trump’s asinine justifications and even add some of their own — witness their pathetic attempts to recycle the “he was just kidding” defense of Trump’s dead-serious demand that China investigate Biden. They do this, even though they would be advocating capital punishment if a Democratic president had asked for foreign help to investigate a Republican, because they know it’s a matter of political life or death. If Republicans criticize Trump for inviting foreign election interference, they are raising the pressure on themselves to vote for impeachment — and risking the wrath of Trump’s rabid base. That is something these political invertebrates lack the courage to do.
But most Republican lawmakers secretly harbor contempt for Trump and resent that he has forced them to defend his indefensible conduct. In their heart of hearts, they know he’s unfit for office and would much prefer to replace him with Vice President Pence. This is the terrible truth they dare not utter out loud. Instead, they sublimate their frustration and let it come bubbling out only in the “safe space” of Syria policy where the political stakes are low.
Republicans rationalize their cult-like devotion to Trump because, by fighting to save the president from impeachment, they are also fighting against their arch-foes — the dreaded liberals who, they are genuinely if absurdly convinced, are going to destroy America. Anything that Nancy Pelosi is for, Republicans will be against — even if what Pelosi is for is preventing the president from abusing his power.
So don’t expect Republican criticisms of Trump for abandoning the Kurds to lead them to support impeachment. They’re criticizing his Syria policy not as a prelude to supporting impeachment but as an alternative to it.