There are too many unanswered questions about the White House’s role in advancing Saudi ambitions.
Jared Kushner slipped quietly into Saudi Arabia this week for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, so the question I’m trying to get the White House to answer is this: Did they discuss American help for a Saudi nuclear program?
Of all the harebrained and unscrupulous dealings of the Trump administration in the last two years, one of the most shocking is a Trump plan to sell nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia that could be used to make nuclear weapons.
Even as President Trump is trying to denuclearize North Korea and Iran, he may be helping to nuclearize Saudi Arabia. This is abominable policy tainted by a gargantuan conflict of interest involving Kushner.
Kushner’s family real estate business had been teetering because of a disastrously overpriced acquisition he made of a particular Manhattan property called 666 Fifth Avenue, but last August a company called Brookfield Asset Management rescued the Kushners by taking a 99-year lease of the troubled property — and paying the whole sum of about $1.1 billion up front.
Alarm bells should go off: Brookfield also owns Westinghouse Electric, the nuclear services business trying to sell reactors to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi swamp, meet American swamp.
It may be conflicts like these, along with even murkier ones, that led American intelligence officials to refuse a top-secret security clearance for Kushner. The Times reported Thursday that Trump overruled them to grant Kushner the clearance.
This nuclear reactor mess began around the time of Trump’s election, when a group of retired U.S. national security officials put together a plan to enrich themselves by selling nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia. The officials included Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, and they initially developed a “plan for 40 nuclear power plants” in Saudi Arabia, according to a report from the House Oversight and Reform Committee. The plan is now to start with just a couple of plants.
As recently as Feb. 12, Trump met in the White House with backers of the project and was supportive, Reuters reported.
No one knows whether Prince Muhammed will manage to succeed his father and become the next king, for there is opposition and the Saudi economic transformation he boasts of is running into difficulties.
Trump and Kushner seem to be irresponsibly trying to boost the prince’s prospects, increasing the risk that an unstable hothead will mismanage the kingdom for the next 50 years. Perhaps with nuclear weapons.
Republican leaders need to mount an intervention.
Up to now I have not favored removing President Trump from office. I felt strongly that it would be best for the country that he leave the way he came in, through the ballot box. But last week was a watershed moment for me, and I think for many Americans, including some Republicans.
It was the moment when you had to ask whether we really can survive two more years of Trump as president, whether this man and his demented behavior — which will get only worse as the Mueller investigation concludes — are going to destabilize our country, our markets, our key institutions and, by extension, the world. And therefore his removal from office now has to be on the table.
I believe that the only responsible choice for the Republican Party today is an intervention with the president that makes clear that if there is not a radical change in how he conducts himself — and I think that is unlikely — the party’s leadership will have no choice but to press for his resignation or join calls for his impeachment.
It has to start with Republicans, given both the numbers needed in the Senate and political reality. Removing this president has to be an act of national unity as much as possible — otherwise it will tear the country apart even more. I know that such an action is very difficult for today’s G.O.P., but the time is long past for it to rise to confront this crisis of American leadership.
Trump’s behavior has become so erratic, his lying so persistent, his willingness to fulfill the basic functions of the presidency — like
- reading briefing books,
- consulting government experts before making major changes and
- appointing a competent staff — so absent,
his readiness to accommodate Russia and spurn allies so disturbing and his obsession with himself and his ego over all other considerations so consistent, two more years of him in office could pose a real threat to our nation. Vice President Mike Pence could not possibly be worse.
The damage an out-of-control Trump can do goes well beyond our borders. America is the keystone of global stability. Our world is the way it is today — a place that, despite all its problems, still enjoys more peace and prosperity than at any time in history — because America is the way it is (or at least was). And that is a nation that at its best has always stood up for the universal values of freedom and human rights, has always paid extra to stabilize the global system from which we were the biggest beneficiary and has always nurtured and protected alliances with like-minded nations.
Donald Trump has proved time and again that he knows nothing of the history or importance of this America. That was made starkly clear in Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s resignation letter.
Trump is in the grip of a mad notion that the entire web of global institutions and alliances built after World War II — which, with all their imperfections, have provided the connective tissues that have created this unprecedented era of peace and prosperity — threatens American sovereignty and prosperity and that we are better off without them.
So Trump gloats at the troubles facing the European Union, urges Britain to exit and leaks that he’d consider quitting NATO. These are institutions that all need to be improved, but not scrapped. If America becomes a predator on all the treaties, multilateral institutions and alliances holding the world together; if America goes from being the world’s anchor of stability to an engine of instability; if America goes from a democracy built on the twin pillars of truth and trust to a country where it is acceptable for the president to attack truth and trust on a daily basis, watch out: Your kids won’t just grow up in a different America. They will grow up in a different world.
The last time America disengaged from the world remotely in this manner was in the 1930s, and you remember what followed: World War II.
You have no idea how quickly institutions like NATO and the E.U. and the World Trade Organization and just basic global norms — like thou shalt not kill and dismember a journalist in your own consulate — can unravel when America goes AWOL or haywire under a shameless isolated president.
But this is not just about the world, it’s about the minimum decorum and stability we expect from our president. If the C.E.O. of any public company in America behaved like Trump has over the past two years —
- constantly lying,
- tossing out aides like they were Kleenex,
- tweeting endlessly like a teenager,
- ignoring the advice of experts —
he or she would have been fired by the board of directors long ago. Should we expect less for our president?
That’s what the financial markets are now asking. For the first two years of the Trump presidency the markets treated his dishonesty and craziness as background noise to all the soaring corporate profits and stocks. But that is no longer the case. Trump has markets worried.
.. The instability Trump is generating — including his attacks on the chairman of the Federal Reserve — is causing investors to wonder where the economic and geopolitical management will come from as the economy slows down.
- What if we’re plunged into an economic crisis and we have a president whose first instinct is always to blame others and
- who’s already purged from his side the most sober adults willing to tell him that his vaunted “gut instincts” have no grounding in economics or in law or in common sense. Mattis was the last one.
We are now left with the B team — all the people who were ready to take the jobs that Trump’s first team either resigned from — because they could not countenance his lying, chaos and ignorance — or were fired from for the same reasons.
I seriously doubt that any of these B-players would have been hired by any other administration. Not only do they not inspire confidence in a crisis, but they are all walking around knowing that Trump would stab every one of them in the back with his Twitter knife, at any moment, if it served him. This makes them even less effective.
Indeed, Trump’s biggest disruption has been to undermine the norms and values we associate with a U.S. president and U.S. leadership. And now that Trump has freed himself of all restraints from within his White House staff, his cabinet and his party — so that “Trump can be Trump,” we are told — he is freer than ever to remake America in his image.
And what is that image? According to The Washington Post’s latest tally, Trump has made 7,546 false or misleading claims, an average of five a day, through Dec. 20, the 700th day of his term in office. And all that was supposedly before “we let Trump be Trump.”
If America starts to behave as a selfish, shameless, lying grifter like Trump, you simply cannot imagine how unstable — how disruptive —world markets and geopolitics may become.
We cannot afford to find out.
President Trump so alarmed his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, during a discussion last January of the nuclear standoff with North Korea that an exasperated Mr. Mattis told colleagues “the president acted like — and had the understanding of — a ‘fifth or sixth grader.’”
At another moment, Mr. Trump’s aides became so worried about his judgment that Gary D. Cohn, then the chief economic adviser, took a letter from the president’s Oval Office desk authorizing the withdrawal of the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea. Mr. Trump, who had planned to sign the letter, never realized it was missing.
.. book by Bob Woodward that depicts the Trump White House as a byzantine, treacherous, often out-of-control operation — “crazytown,” in the words of the chief of staff, John F. Kelly — hostage to the whims of an impulsive, ill-informed and undisciplined president.
.. The White House, in a statement, dismissed “Fear” as “nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the president look bad.”
.. Mr. Woodward portrays Mr. Mattis as frequently derisive of the commander in chief, rattled by his judgment, and willing to slow-walk orders from him that he viewed as reckless.
.. Mr. Trump questioned Mr. Mattis about why the United States keeps a military presence on the Korean Peninsula. “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Mr. Mattis responded, according to Mr. Woodward.
.. In April 2017, after President Bashar al-Assad of Syria launched a chemical attack on his own people, Mr. Trump called Mr. Mattis and told him that he wanted the United States to assassinate Mr. Assad. “Let’s go in,” the president said, adding a string of expletives.
The defense secretary hung up and told one of his aides: “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.” At his direction, the Pentagon prepared options for an airstrike on Syrian military positions, which Mr. Trump later ordered.
.. another layer to a recurring theme in the Trump White House: frustrated aides who sometimes resort to extraordinary measures to thwart the president’s decisions — a phenomenon the author describes as “an administrative coup d’état.” In addition to Mr. Mattis and Mr. Cohn, he recounts the tribulations of Mr. Kelly and his predecessor, Reince Priebus, whose tensions with Mr. Trump have been reported elsewhere.
.. Mr. Cohn, Mr. Woodward said, told a colleague he had removed the letter about the Korea free trade agreement to protect national security. Later, when the president ordered a similar letter authorizing the departure of the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mr. Cohn and other aides plotted how to prevent him from going ahead with a move they feared would be deeply destabilizing.
.. Last January, Mr. Woodward writes, Mr. Dowd staged a practice session in the White House residence to dramatize the pressures Mr. Trump would face in a session with Mr. Mueller. The president stumbled repeatedly, contradicting himself and lying, before he exploded in anger.
.. Mr. Woodward told Mr. Trump he interviewed many White House officials outside their offices, and gathered extensive documentation. “It’s a tough look at the world and the administration and you,” he told Mr. Trump.
“Right,” the president replied. “Well, I assume that means it’s going to be a negative book.”
President Trump, in concert with several European leaders, including those of Hungary, Poland, Austria and Italy, is intent on dehumanizing immigrants and refugees. The aim is to equate them with terrorists and criminals ready to “infest” — Trump’s word — American and European civilization, defined as a threatened white Judeo-Christian preserve.
It’s a consistent policy buttressed by insinuation and lies about the supposed threat, and designed to manipulate fear and nationalism as election-winning emotions in a time of rapid technological change, large migrant flows and uncertainty. Vermin infest, not humans.
Every utterance of Trump on immigration is meant to conflate immigration with danger. This is a direct repudiation of America’s distinguishing essence — its constant reinvention through immigrant churn.
The immigrant brings violence. The immigrant brings terror. The immigrant’s humanity is lesser or nonexistent. These are tropes about “the other” whose capacity to galvanize mobs, and wreak havoc, was proved in the first half of the 20th century. Trump does not hesitate to use them.
.. Viktor Orban, the right-wing Hungarian leader, who has said that “every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk.”
.. The Hungarian parliament has just passed legislation that would throw people in jail for providing assistance to asylum seekers and migrants.
.. Matteo Salvini, the rightist Italian interior minister
.. Before taking office, he said Italy was packed with “drug dealers, rapists, burglars,” whom he wants to send home.
.. the destabilizing impact of globalization on Western democracies; stagnant middle-income wages; growing inequality; fear of an automated future
.. the ease of mob mobilization through fear-mongering and scapegoating on social media.
.. Trump is strong because of a global nationalist lurch; that his feral instincts make him dangerous; and that he may well win a second term, just as Orban has now won four terms.
To ridicule Trump will achieve little absent a compelling social and economic alternative that addresses anxiety. The Democratic Party, for now, is nowhere near that.
.. Trump likes to go for the jugular. He sees opportunity in a Europe that is split down the middle between nations like Hungary and Poland that make no attempt to sugarcoat their anti-immigrant nativism and states like Germany that have not forgotten that the pursuit of racially and religiously homogeneous societies lay at the core of the most heinous crimes of the last century.
.. Orban is the most formidable politician in Europe today. It’s no coincidence that Trump called him last weekend. Their aims overlap.
.. Trump tweeted this week that “Crime in Germany is way up” and that allowing immigrants in “all over Europe” has “strongly and violently changed their culture.”
.. Trump (whose stats on German crime were wrong) backs Orban against Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in the continuing bid to make racism and xenophobia the new normal of Western societies.
.. the greatest danger is within. A two-term Trump presidency would likely corrode American institutions and values to the point at which they could scarcely be resurrected.
One of the paradoxes of Donald Trump’s election was that it seemed like a dramatic repudiation of Barack Obama — after the first black president, a birther; after a cool liberal academic, a roaring populist; after a multicultural “world man,” an American nationalist — and yet it happened at a time when Obama was quite popular.
Ben Rhodes, the bright young salesman for Obama’s foreign policy, offered this explanation for the paradox in his recent book: “When you distilled it, stripped out the racism and misogyny, we’d run against Hillary eight years ago with the same message Trump had used: She’s part of a corrupt establishment that can’t be trusted to bring change.”
.. Trump is trying to make a deal with North Korea, a last Cold War holdout, much as Obama did with Cuba. Trump is angering a traditional set of allies (the Europeans and now Canada) while pining for a détente with an authoritarian rival (Russia); Obama had a similar approach to realignment in the Middle East, angering the Israelis and Saudis while seeking an accommodation with Iran.
.. clear overlap in the two presidents’ approach to the global war on terrorism they inherited from George W. Bush: Both are willing to be aggressive with drones and bombs and special forces, both claim expansive executive authority to determine battlefields and targets, but both are wary of wider wars and ready to feud with their own advisers about anything that involves ground troops.
.. In all things Trump is cruder than Obama, more willing to make subtext into text, less (or not even remotely) detail-oriented, more careless of diplomatic norms and dismissive of humanitarian concerns. But if the two men use different rhetoric and often favor different alliances, they have both pursued the same kind of bigger-picture strategy — seeking to extricate the United States from some of its multiplying commitments, to shift our post-Cold War position away from a Pax Americana model of peace-through-hegemony and toward an “offshore balancing” approach that makes deals with erstwhile enemies and makes more demands of longtime friends. “America First” and “leading from behind” may sound very different, but they can reflect similar impulses and produce similar results.
.. the fact that the pursuit of offshore balancing has been sustained across two quite different administrations suggests that in some form it’s here to stay, and that the expert class should recognize its merits.
.. That recognition doesn’t mean shrugging off the Pax Americana. But it means acknowledging that neither the “pay any price, bear any burden” Cold War model of American leadership nor the “unipolar moment” model from the late 1990s and 2000s fits current realities very well.
.. hawkish politicians of the center-left and center-right — a Hillary Clinton, a Jeb Bush, a Marco Rubio — tend to foster an unrealistic view of what the United States can accomplish through idealistic pronouncements and military might.
.. Obama and Trump triumphed politically in part because they seemed more sensible than Clinton and her Republican counterparts about the need to make strategic choices, to cut losses and to cut deals... often when the hegemon pulls back the new equilibrium turns ugly enough to pull us right back in... the wooing of Kim represents a gamble that the North Koreans really want to change their posture, to reap the possible benefits of normalization, even to enter America’s orbit instead of Beijing’s. (If Kim’s regime became merely authoritarian rather than totalitarian, imitating the House of Saud instead of Stalin, the last scenario isn’t entirely fanciful.).. We also don’t know how the Chinese (and their potential allies of convenience in Moscow) would react to North Korea swinging into our orbit; there are ways in which peninsular stabilization could lead to regional destabilization.
.. given that Trump is a longtime huckster who’s feeling his way entirely by instinct, there should be a lot of skepticism about how well this is likely to turn out.
.. more important he was constrained institutionally, in roughly the ways that Republican politicians had promised that he would be — surrounded by a conventional Republican cabinet and (after a while) a conventional White House that essentially governed for him, letting him play the authoritarian on Twitter while the business of the presidency was conducted elsewhere.
.. Donald Trump: a septuagenarian cable-TV addict ill-suited for the responsibilities of his office but still fully capable of attempting to exercise its powers. Which meant that the containment game had to last, not weeks or months, but three more long years to work.
.. And it may not last that long. From his exciting new steel tariffs to his promised summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, Trump has been acting lately like a man less inclined to listen to his handlers — and now those handlers have begun to disappear.
.. it seems less like something happening to Trump and more like chaos orchestrated from the Oval Office: “The narrative of Trump unglued is not totally wrong but misses the reason why — he was terrified of the job the first six months, and now feels like he has a command of it. So now he is basically saying, ‘I’ve got this, I can make the changes I want.’”
.. What would Trump becoming a real president mean in practice? In terms of personnel, it might mean that instead of easing out the hacks and cranks and TV personalities, as his staff managed to do during the year of constraint, Trump will begin to usher out his more qualified personnel and replace them with, well, TV personalities — Cohn with Larry Kudlow, perhaps, or H. R. McMaster with John Bolton.
.. But it also promises to further multiply the number of important vacancies within the government
.. will encourage Trump to take more counsel from the shadow Trumpland of his campaign, where his more misfit-toy advisers tend to congregate.
.. the main Trumpian qualities that have been constrained to date are his impulsiveness and anger and impatience with rules and norms and limits.
.. if he actually begins to exercise the full powers of his office, it’s not so much that the odds of any particular policy course go up as that it becomes more likely that we get more extreme and destabilizing outcomes, somewhere.
That could mean war with North Korea, or it could mean some sort of unexpected and possibly disastrous treaty with Kim Jong-un’s regime; both become more likely the more Trump alone takes responsibility for our peninsular diplomacy.
.. It could mean the real détente with Russia that Trump’s harshest critics think he’s obliged by some corrupt bargain to seek out … or it could mean the kind of military conflict with Moscow that we sometimes seem to be stumbling toward in Ukraine and Syria.
.. different coterie of advisers find new ways to contain and soothe their boss.
.. Maybe Mike Pompeo .. and some combination of TV personalities can do better at managing the president in the long run than the Cohns and Tillersons and McMasters, because Trump will feel that he picked them all by himself.
.. Maybe this president will spend his administration going through periodic frenzies of “I’m in charge” activity, before subsiding back into the virtual presidency of his Twitter feed and Fox injections.
.. if the first year of Trump’s presidency vindicated Republicans who argued that he could be contained, it didn’t tell us anything definitive about whether he will be.
.. a week like this one, with a president chafing against his bonds and snapping some of them, is how a descent from farce to tragedy might begin.
Roy Mooreism was distilled Trumpism, flavored with some self-righteous moralism. It was all there: the aggressive ignorance, the racial divisiveness, the disdain for governing, the contempt for truth, the accusations of sexual predation, the (just remarkable) trashing of America in favor of Vladimir Putin, the conspiracy theories, the sheer, destabilizing craziness of the average day.
.. Most of the party remains in complicit silence. The few elected officials who have broken with Trump have become targets of the conservative media complex — savaged as an example to the others.
.. This is the sad logic of Republican politics today: The only way that elected Republicans will abandon Trump is if they see it as in their self-interest. And the only way they will believe it is in their self-interest is to watch a considerable number of their fellow Republicans lose.
.. In the end, the restoration of the Republican Party will require Republicans to lose elections.
.. It will require Republican voters — as in Alabama and (to some extent) Virginia — to sit out, write in or even vote Democratic in races involving pro-Trump Republicans.
.. victory for Republicans will look like: strategic defeat
.. Trump and his allies are solidifying the support of rural, blue-collar and evangelical Christian whites at the expense of alienating minorities, women, suburbanites and the young. This is a foolish bargain, destroying the moral and political standing of the Republican Party
.. It is the emergency method for Republicans to detach themselves from Trump, create a new party identity and become worthy of winning.
.. Trump’s Republican opponents will not be to blame. It would be Trump and his supporters, who turned the Republican Party into a sleazy, derelict fun house, unsafe for children, women and minorities.
.. A healthy, responsible, appealing GOP can be built only on the ruins of this one.