The decline of discourse in the anti-Trump echo chamber.
Donald Trump is impulse-driven, ignorant, narcissistic and intellectually dishonest. So you’d think that those of us in the anti-Trump camp would go out of our way to show we’re not like him — that we are judicious, informed, mature and reasonable.
But the events of the past week have shown that the anti-Trump echo chamber is becoming a mirror image of Trump himself — overwrought, uncalibrated and incapable of having an intelligent conversation about any complex policy problem.
For example, there’s a complex policy problem at the heart of this week’s Iran episode. Iran is not powerful because it has a strong economy or military. It is powerful because it sponsors militias across the Middle East, destabilizing regimes and spreading genocide and sectarian cleansing. Over the past few years those militias, orchestrated by Qassim Suleimani, have felt free to operate more in the open with greater destructive effect.
We’re not going to go in and destroy the militias. So how can we keep them in check so they don’t destabilize the region? That’s the hard problem — one that stymied past administrations.
In the Middle East, and wherever there are protracted conflicts, nations have a way to address this problem. They use violence as a form of communication. A nation trying to maintain order will assassinate a terrorism leader or destroy a terrorism facility. The attack says: “Hey, we know we’re in a long-term conflict, but let’s not let it get out of hand. That’s not in either of our interests.”
The attack is a way to seize control of the escalation process and set a boundary marker.
These sorts of operations have risks and rewards. A risk is that it won’t cease the escalation, just accelerate it. The radicals on the other side will get enraged and take to the streets. Their leaders will have to appease that rage.
A reward is that maybe you do halt the escalation. The other side implicitly says: “Message received. We’ll do some face-saving things to appease the streets, but we don’t want this to get out of hand, either.” Another reward is that you’ve managed to eliminate an effective terrorist like Soleimani. Talent doesn’t grow on trees.
The decision to undertake this sort of operation is a matter of weighing risk and reward. And after the Soleimani killing, you saw American security professionals talk in the language of balancing risk and reward. Stanley McChrystal, a retired general, and Michael Mullen, a retired admiral, thought it was worth the risk. Susan Rice, a former national security adviser, thought it wasn’t.
But in the anti-Trump echo chamber, that’s not how most people were thinking. Led by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, they avoided the hard, complex problem of how to set boundaries around militias. Instead, they pontificated on the easy question not actually on the table: Should we have a massive invasion of Iran?
A great cry went up from the echo chamber. We’re on the brink of war! Trump is leading us to more endless wars in the Middle East! We’re on the precipice of total chaos! This was not the calibrated language of risk and reward. It was fear-stoking apocalyptic language. By being so overwrought and exaggerated, the echo chamber drowned out any practical conversation about how to stabilize the Middle East so we could have another righteous chorus of “Donald Trump is a monster!”
This is Trump’s ultimate victory. Every argument on every topic is now all about him. Hating Trump together has become the ultimate bonding, attention-grabbing and profit-maximization mechanism for those of us in anti-Trump world. So you get a series of exaggerated fervors —
- the Mueller report!
- The Steele dossier!
— that lead ultimately nowhere.
Most of this week’s argument about the Middle East wasn’t really about the Middle East. It was all narcissistically about ourselves! Democrats defend terrorists! Republicans are warmongers! Actual Iranians are just bit players in our imperialistic soap opera, the passive recipients of our greatness or perfidy.
The world is more complicated than this cartoon. Love or hate him, Trump has used military force less than any other president since Jimmy Carter. When it comes to foreign policy, he is not like recent Republicans. He is, as my colleague Ross Douthat put it, a Jacksonian figure, wanting to get America out of foreign entanglements while lobbing a few long-distance attacks to ensure the crazy foreigners stick to killing one another and not us.
And this is the final paradox. For all the Sturm und Drang that surrounds Trump, populist Republicans and Democrats are gravitating toward the same foreign policy: We’re in the middle of a clash of civilizations; the Middle East is so screwed up, we should just get out; we’re too stupid/ineffective/racist/imperialistic to do any good there anyway.
We fight viciously about Trump, but underneath, a populist left-right curtain is descending around America, separating us from the Mideast, China, even Europe. The real high-risk move is the one both parties are making together: that if we ignore the world it will ignore us. (It won’t.)
Maybe once the Inflammatory One is finally gone from the scene we can have an intelligent conversation about that.
The position of director of national intelligence was created after the 9/11 terror attacks to prevent another such assault on the American homeland. The DNI, as the director is known, must oversee 17 intelligence agencies with a total budget of about $60 billion. There are few jobs more important in the federal government — or the entire country. Yet President Trump treated the selection of a DNI with less care and forethought than he would give to picking an interior designer for Mar-a-Lago.
When Dan Coats decided last month that he had suffered enough as Trump’s DNI, Trump reportedly called Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to ask what he thought about Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) as a replacement. “Burr responded that he didn’t know much about the lawmaker but would consult with a few people,” Politico reported. “But less than a half hour later, Trump tweeted that Ratcliffe was his choice.”
Trump picked Ratcliffe, it seems, because he liked the congressman’s obnoxious questioning of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in July hearings and his role in spreading cuckoo conspiracy theories about a nonexistent “secret society” of FBI agents supposedly out to get the president. But it soon emerged that Trump didn’t know much about his new nominee.
In the days after Trump impetuously announced Ratcliffe’s nomination on July 28, The Post and other news organizations discovered that the three-term congressman from Texas had greatly embellished his résumé. He had boasted that he had “arrested over 300 illegal immigrants in a single day” and had “firsthand experience combating terrorism. When serving by special appointment in U.S. v. Holy Land Foundation, he convicted individuals who were funneling money to Hamas behind the front of a charitable organization.” Turns out that Ratcliffe had played only a small role in a sweep of undocumented immigrants and an even smaller role in the Holy Land case; an aide told the New York Times that Ratcliffe only “investigated side issues related to an initial mistrial.”
With Senate opposition growing, Trump withdrew Ratcliffe’s nomination on Friday just five days after putting him forward. He had lasted less than half a Scaramucci. In pulling the plug, Trump both credited and blamed the media, saying, “You are part of the vetting process. I give out a name to the press and you vet for me, we save a lot of money that way. But in the case of John [Ratcliffe], I really believe that he was being treated very harshly and very unfairly.”
Ratcliffe was treated “very harshly and very unfairly” — but by Trump, not the news media. There’s a reason presidents normally vet nominees before, not after, they’re announced. It’s better both for the prospective appointee and for the president to have any skeletons uncovered before swinging the closet door wide open.
By ignoring the traditional way of doing things, Trump subjected his personal physician, Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson, to considerable embarrassment in 2018 by nominating him to become secretary of veterans affairs and then having to withdraw the nomination after stories emerged accusing Jackson of “freely dispensing medication, drinking on the job and creating a hostile workplace.” The Defense Department inspector general even launched an investigation of Jackson. Learning nothing, Trump repeated the same mistake this year when he nominated Herman Cain and Stephen Moore to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors — posts for which they were utterly unqualified. Facing Senate resistance, Trump had to withdraw their names — but not before unflattering details of Moore’s divorce became public.
And those are the good-news stories: the nominees who never took office. Much more common for Trump has been his discovery, after the fact, that his appointments were terrible mistakes. His clunkers have included a secretary of state
- (Rex Tillerson) who devastated morale at the State Department; a national security adviser
- (Michael Flynn) who was convicted of lying to the FBI; three Cabinet officers (Interior Secretary
- Ryan Zinke, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, Health and Human Services Secretary
- Tom Price) who were forced out for improper travel expenses and other ethical improprieties; a secretary of labor
- (Alexander Acosta) who had given a sweetheart deal to a wealthy sex offender; and of course a communications director
- (Anthony Scaramucci) who was fired after 11 days for giving a profanity-filled, on-the-record interview to a reporter.
Coats is the 10th Cabinet member to leave the Trump administration. In President Barack Obama’s first two years in office, not a single Cabinet member departed. Trump also has a record-setting rate of 75 percent turnover among senior, non-Cabinet officials. The cost of this constant churn and chaos is high: It becomes nearly impossible to develop or pursue coherent policies.Trump is a president straight out of “The Great Gatsby.” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of his protagonists: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” In Trump’s case, the thing that he has smashed up is America’s government, and the cleanup cannot begin until January 2021 at the earliest.
The bombastic and narcissistic former mayor of London and foreign secretary is the favorite to become the next prime minister. Brexit here we come.
The front-runner to become Britain’s next prime minister is a portly white man with unkempt blond hair, an adoring base of supporters, disdain for Europe, a dodgy private life and a loose relationship with truth and principle. There are also differences between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, but the similarities have been much noted in some European circles, with no small misgivings.
The biggest difference is that Mr. Johnson, who is 55, has been around politics all his life, as a journalist, member of Parliament, mayor of London and foreign secretary. His forte has not been conservative conviction, major achievement or great vision, but one of the sharpest tongues in British politics.
Like Mr. Trump with his tweets and rants, Mr. Johnson delights his followers with outrageous statements that they take as straight talk — even when he has gone so far as to describe Africans as “piccaninnies” or to ascribe President Barack Obama’s opposition to Brexit to an “ancestral dislike” of Britain as the son of a Kenyan.
His most commonly quoted quip these days is the one summing up his position on Brexit as having one’s cake and eating it. Curiously, Mr. Johnson was initially unsure of his position on leaving or remaining in the European Union — an unpublished article he wrote days before he came out in favor of leaving made a strong argument in favor of staying. Mr. Johnson says he was simply sorting out his thoughts.
Once he did that, Mr. Johnson swiftly became a premier campaigner for “Vote Leave,” touring Britain in a double-decker bus emblazoned with the claim that Britain pays 350 million pounds a week into the E.U.’s collective budget. That the claim was false did not trouble Mr. Johnson. He was fired from an early job in journalism for making up a quote, and one of his journalism colleagues once wrote of him, “Boris told such dreadful lies / It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes.”
All that has made for great political theater and has positioned Mr. Johnson as likely to defeat Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt when the roughly 160,000 Conservative Party members — 70 percent men, 97 percent white, average age 57 — vote for their new leader, who then becomes prime minister because the Conservatives control the largest number of seats in Parliament. The winner will be announced on July 23, shortly before Parliament goes into recess.
Mr. Johnson could still founder — his standing dropped after a well-publicized recent altercation with his partner, Carrie Symonds, that prompted neighbors to call the police. But the more likely scenario is that Mr. Johnson will become prime minister with three months left before the current Oct. 31 deadline to reach a separation agreement with the European Union and avoid a chaotic no-deal Brexit.
And so, once again, a question mark hovers over Britain. Campaigning for Conservative votes, which are largely pro-Brexit, Mr. Johnson has spoken of renegotiating Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, which Parliament rejected three times, while pledging that no matter what, Britain will leave the E.U. on Oct. 31. “Being ready to do so,” he wrote in an open letter to Mr. Hunt on Tuesday, challenging his rival to take the same position, “is the best way to convince our European friends that we are serious in these negotiations and to get a better deal.”
It strains credulity that the European Union would reopen the agreement or that any wholly new set of terms for leaving the union would pass Parliament — or that the E.U. would show any sympathy and patience for Mr. Johnson, whom the French newspaper Le Monde called a “small-scale Trump.” Whether Mr. Hunt, who has campaigned as the responsible adult, could do better is another open question.
The answer will not be long in coming. But if the chaotic history of Britain’s Brexit debate is any guide, whatever it is will only bring on the next vexing questions.
Last Monday, when President Trump tweeted that his Administration would stage nationwide immigration raids the following week, with the goal of deporting “millions of illegal aliens,” agents at Immigration and Customs Enforcement were suddenly forced to scramble. The agency was not ready to carry out such a large operation. Preparations that would typically take field officers six to eight weeks were compressed into a few days, and, because of Trump’s tweet, the officers would be entering communities that now knew they were coming. “It was a dumb-shit political move that will only hurt the agents,” John Amaya, a former deputy chief of staff at ice, told me. On Saturday, hours before the operation was supposed to start in ten major cities across the country, the President changed course, delaying it for another two weeks.
On Sunday, I spoke to an ice officer about the week’s events. “Almost nobody was looking forward to this operation,” the officer said. “It was a boondoggle, a nightmare.” Even on the eve of the operation, many of the most important details remained unresolved. “This was a family op. So where are we going to put the families? There’s no room to detain them, so are we going to put them in hotels?” the officer said. On Friday, an answer came down from ice leadership: the families would be placed in hotels while ice figured out what to do with them. That, in turn, raised other questions. “So the families are in hotels, but who’s going to watch them?” the officer continued. “What happens if the person we arrest has a U.S.-citizen child? What do we do with the children? Do we need to get booster seats for the vans? Should we get the kids toys to play with?” Trump’s tweet broadcasting the operation had also created a safety issue for the officers involved. “No police agency goes out and says, ‘Tomorrow, between four and eight, we’re going to be in these neighborhoods,’ ” the officer said.
The idea for the operation took hold in the White House last September, two months after a federal judge had ordered the government to stop separating parents and children at the border. At the time, the number of families seeking asylum was rising steadily, and Administration officials were determined to toughen enforcement. A D.H.S. official told me that, in the months before the operation was proposed, “a major focus” of department meetings “was concern about the fact that people on the non-detained docket”—asylum seekers released into the U.S. with a future court date—“are almost never deported.” By January, a tentative plan had materialized. The Department of Justice developed a “rocket docket” to prioritize the cases of asylum seekers who’d just arrived in the country and missed a court date—in their absence, the government could swiftly secure deportation orders against them. D.H.S. then created a “target list” of roughly twenty-five hundred immigrant family members across the country for deportation; eventually, the Administration aimed to arrest ten thousand people using these methods.
From the start, however, the plan faced resistance. The Secretary of D.H.S., Kirstjen Nielsen, argued that the arrests would be complicated to carry out, in part because American children would be involved. (Many were born in the U.S. to parents on the “target list.”) Resources were already limited, and an operation on this scale would divert attention from the border, where a humanitarian crisis was worsening by the day. The acting head of ice, Ron Vitiello, a tough-minded former Border Patrol officer, shared Nielsen’s concerns. According to the Washington Post, these reservations weren’t “ethical” so much as logistical: executing such a vast operation would be extremely difficult, with multiple moving pieces, and the optics could be devastating. Four months later, Trump effectively fired them. Vitiello’s replacement at ice, an official named Mark Morgan—who’s already been fired once by Trump and regained the President’s support after making a series of appearances on Fox News—subsequently announced that ice would proceed with the operation.
Late last week, factions within the Administration clashed over what to do. The acting secretary of D.H.S., Kevin McAleenan, urged caution, claiming that the operation was a distraction and a waste of manpower. Among other things, a $4.5 billion funding bill to supply further humanitarian aid at the border has been held up because Democrats worried that the Administration would use the money for enforcement operations. McAleenan had been meeting with members of both parties on the Hill, and there appeared to be signs of progress, before the President announced the ice crackdown. According to an Administration official, McAleenan argued that the operation would also threaten a string of recent gains made by the President. The Trump Administration had just secured a deal with the Mexican government to increase enforcement at the Guatemalan border, and it expanded a massive new program called Remain in Mexico, which has forced some ten thousand asylum seekers to wait indefinitely in northern Mexico. “Momentum was moving in the right direction,” the official said.
On the other side of the argument were Stephen Miller, at the White House, and Mark Morgan, at ice. In the days before and after Trump’s Twitter announcement, Morgan spoke regularly with the President, who was circumventing McAleenan, Morgan’s boss. In meetings with staff, Morgan boasted that he had a direct line to the President, according to the ice officer, who told me it was highly unusual for there to be such direct contact between the agency head and the White House. “It should be going to the Secretary, which I find hilarious, actually, because Morgan was already fired once by this Administration,” the officer said.
Over the weekend, the President agreed to halt the operation. But it’s far from certain whether McAleenan actually got the upper hand. Officials in the White House authorized ice to issue a press release insinuating that someone had leaked important details about the operation and therefore compromised it. “Any leak telegraphing sensitive law-enforcement operations is egregious and puts our officers’ safety in danger,” an ice spokesperson said late Saturday afternoon. This was a puzzling statement given that it was Trump who first publicized the information about the operation. But the White House’s line followed a different script: some members of the Administration, as well as the former head of ice, Thomas Homan, were publicly accusing McAleenan of sharing information with reporters in an attempt to undermine the operation.
For Homan, his involvement in the Administration’s internal fight marked an unexpected return to the main stage. Last year, he resigned as acting head of ice after the Senate refused to confirm him to the post. Earlier this month, Trump announced, on Fox News, that Homan would be returning to the Administration as the President’s new border tsar, but Homan, who hadn’t been informed of the decision, has remained noncommittal. Still, according to the Administration official, Homan and the President talk by phone regularly. Over the weekend, Homan, who has since become an on-air contributor to Fox News, appeared on television to attack McAleenan personally. “You’ve got the acting Secretary of Homeland Security resisting what ice is trying to do,” he said.
Meanwhile, the President spent the weekend trying to leverage the delayed operation to pressure congressional Democrats. If they did not agree to a complete overhaul of the asylum system at the border, Trump said, he’d greenlight the ice operation once more. “Two weeks,” he tweeted, “and big Deportation begins.” At the same time, his Administration was under fire for holding immigrant children at a Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas. Two hundred and fifty infants, children, and teen-agers have spent weeks in squalid conditions; they have been denied food, water, soap, and toothbrushes, and there’s limited access to medicine in the wake of flu and lice outbreaks. “If the Democrats would change the asylum laws and the loopholes,” Trump said, “everything would be solved immediately.” And yet, last week, when an Administration lawyer appeared before the Ninth Circuit to answer for the conditions at the facility, which were in clear violation of a federal agreement on the treatment of children in detention, she said that addressing them was not the government’s responsibility. Michelle Brané, of the Women’s Refugee Commission, told me, “The Administration is intentionally creating chaos at the border and detaining children in abusive conditions for political gain.” (On Monday, Customs and Border Protection transferred all but thirty children from the Clint facility; it isn’t yet clear where, exactly, they’ll go.)
President Obama was never popular among ice’s rank and file, but the detailed list of enforcement priorities he instituted, in 2014, which many in the agency initially resented as micromanagement, now seemed more sensible—and even preferable to the current state of affairs. The ice officer said, “One person told me, ‘I never thought I’d say this, but I miss the Obama rules. We removed more people with the rules we had in place than with all this. It was much easier when we had the priorities. It was cleaner.’ ” Since the creation of ice, in 2003, enforcement was premised on the idea that officers would primarily go after criminals for deportation; Trump, who views ice as a political tool to showcase his toughness, has abandoned that framework entirely. “I don’t even know what we’re doing now,” the officer said. “A lot of us see the photos of the kids at the border, and we’re wondering, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ” The influx of Central American migrants, the officer noted, has been an issue for more than a decade now, spanning three Presidential administrations. “No one built up the infrastructure to handle this, and now people are suffering at the border for it. They keep saying they were caught flat footed. That’s a bald-faced fucking lie.”