No, President Trump has not gone mad, I reassure Philippe, Hans and half a dozen other foreign friends who have emailed or called me in panic after the Ukraine uproar and the Syria slither. Trump knows what he is doing. It is you who are using the wrong analytical tools, I tell them.
You assume this is about foreign policy. There is no Trump foreign policy. There are only shiny foreign toys to be played with, in the single-minded reelection plan that has taken full form. He will now wage war on America’s diplomats, G-men, spies, congressional committees and other components of what Trump calls “the deep state.”
In Trump World, whether U.S. troops are actually withdrawn from Syria does not matter. He couldn’t care less if his Twitter talk about pulling out helps or hurts Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Russian President Vladimir Putin. He does not mark the scorecard the way foreign policy wonks such as Philippe, Hans and I do.
What matters to Trump is creating and burnishing his image of struggling to extract U.S. troops from the “endless wars” in which America’s foreign policy elite has plunged them. What matters to Trump is showing his supporters that he is trying to bring the boys home against the will of the deep state, which victimizes him with impeachment and victimizes them with taxes and war. The Pentagon, or the FBI, evading his orders or even fighting back against him is not a cost to be paid but a bonus to be collected for this self-described “stable genius” of branding.
This should come as no surprise. It is only a much more dramatic version of Trump’s 2016 winning campaign message of the United States being victimized by foreign countries and American globalists. What is surprising, and deeply disturbing, is that he has such high-profile willing helpers, led by Attorney General William P. Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. They join Trump in waging a dogged, destructive war on the institutions they are supposed to lead, seemingly unaware they will certainly wind up as part of the debris and destruction they are helping Trump create.
Pompeo’s acts of humiliating, repudiating and even firing career diplomats to further Trump’s foul electoral scheme seem especially disgraceful to me. That may reflect in part my many friendships in the diplomatic community and my high regard for what members of the U.S. Foreign Service do for the country. They are only so much collateral damage for Trump, Pompeo and their henchmen. (See Sondland, Gordon D.)
But it is now vital for the survival of this country’s most important institutions for the diplomats, the generals and the rest of us to understand the all-or-nothing nature of this struggle. If Trump survives in office, the rule of law will not.
Trump isn’t simply ignoring Washington customs or flouting the bureaucracy’s rules. He is playing a totally different game — one in which he overturns the board whenever things don’t go his way. Someone who tried to work closely with Trump in the White House describes him to me as being “impervious to fact.” Whatever happens in Syria, or to the suddenly doomed Kurds who have been our allies against the Islamic State, will not change his mind or his plan.
So it is pointless to criticize him for having an inconsistent foreign policy. He is incapable of relating consequences of actions to anything beyond himself and his personal, political and financial fortunes.
He has built his presidency on such selfishness and expects his followers to resemble him in that. Republican members of Congress shut up about his excesses and crimes in return for his support in primaries. Evangelical Christians forgive his amorality and blasphemous ways in return for getting Supreme Court justices who oppose abortion. And decision-makers in the electronic media have too often joined Barr, Pompeo and the others in partaking of Trumpian corruption by relentlessly covering his stunts and tweets to drive up ratings.
That may be beginning to change. Chuck Todd’s refusal on Sunday’s “Meet the Press” to let Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) carry on sliming the FBI and CIA instead of answering Todd’s fact-based questions, and the dignified but firm resistance by Reuters’s Jeff Mason to Trump’s news conference badgering are models of journalistic good behavior.
This president has not gone mad. He and his most ardent supporters have gone rogue. They weaken the country’s national security for their own gain without a second thought. Each of us, in government, politics, commerce or elsewhere, must find ways to underline that we live in extremely dangerous times and will not pretend otherwise.