With Trump as President, the World Is Spiraling Into Chaos

Trump torched America’s foreign policy infrastructure. The results are becoming clear.

Earlier this week, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Asad Majeed Khan, visited The New York Times editorial board, and I asked him about the threat of armed conflict between his country and India over Kashmir. India and Pakistan have already fought two wars over the Himalayan territory, which both countries claim, and which is mostly divided between them. India recently revoked the constitutionally guaranteed autonomy of the part of Kashmir it controls and put nearly seven million people there under virtual house arrest. Pakistan’s prime minister compared India’s leaders to Nazis and warned that they’ll target Pakistan next. It seems like there’s potential for humanitarian and geopolitical horror.

Khan’s answer was not comforting. “We are two big countries with very large militaries with nuclear capability and a history of conflict,” he said. “So I would not like to burden your imagination on that one, but obviously if things get worse, then things get worse.”

All over the world, things are getting worse. China appears to be weighing a Tiananmen Square-like crackdown in Hong Kong. After I spoke to Khan, hostilities between India and Pakistan ratcheted up further; on Thursday, fighting across the border in Kashmir left three Pakistani soldiers dead. (Pakistan also claimed that five Indian soldiers were killed, but India denied it.) Turkey is threatening to invade Northeast Syria to go after America’s Kurdish allies there, and it’s not clear if an American agreement meant to prevent such an incursion will hold.

North Korea’s nuclear program and ballistic missile testing continue apace. The prospect of a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine is more remote than it’s been in decades. Tensions between America and Iran keep escalating. Relations between Japan and South Korea have broken down. A Pentagon report warns that ISIS is “re-surging” in Syria. The U.K. could see food shortages if the country’s Trumpish prime minister, Boris Johnson, follows through on his promise to crash out of the European Union without an agreement in place for the aftermath. Oh, and the globe may be lurching towards recession.

To be sure, most of these crises have causes other than Trump. Even competent American administrations can’t dictate policy to other countries, particularly powerful ones like India and China. But in one flashpoint after another, the Trump administration has either failed to act appropriately, or acted in ways that have made things worse. “Almost everything they do is the wrong move,” said Susan Thornton, who until last year was the acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, America’s top diplomat for Asia.

Consider Trump’s role in the Kashmir crisis. In July, during a White House visit by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Trump offered to mediate India and Pakistan’s long-running conflict over Kashmireven suggesting that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to do so. Modi’s government quickly denied this, and Trump’s words reportedly alarmed India, which has long resisted outside involvement in Kashmir. Two weeks later, India sent troops to lock Kashmir down, then stripped it of its autonomy.

Americans have grown used to ignoring Trump’s casual lies and verbal incontinence, but people in other countries have not. Thornton thinks the president’s comments were a “precipitating factor” in Modi’s decision to annex Kashmir. By blundering into the conflict, she suggested, Trump put the Indian prime minister on the defensive before his Hindu nationalist constituency. “He might not have had to do that,” she said of Modi’s Kashmir takeover, “but he would have had to do something. And this was the thing he was looking to do anyway.”

At the same time, Modi can be confident that Trump, unlike previous American presidents, won’t even pretend to care about democratic backsliding or human rights abuses, particularly against Muslims. “There’s a cost-benefit analysis that any political leader makes,” said Ben Rhodes, a former top Obama national security aide. “If the leader of India felt like he was going to face public criticism, potential scrutiny at the United Nations,” or damage to the bilateral relationship with the United States, “that might affect his cost-benefit analysis.” Trump’s instinctive sympathy for authoritarian leaders empowers them diplomatically.

Obviously, India and Pakistan still have every interest in avoiding a nuclear holocaust. China may show restraint on Hong Kong. Wary of starting a war before the 2020 election, Trump might make a deal with Iran, though probably a worse one than the Obama agreement that he jettisoned. The global economy could slow down but not seize up. We could get through the next 17 months with a world that still looks basically recognizable.

Even then, America will emerge with a desiccated diplomatic corps, strained alliances, and a tattered reputation. It will never again play the same leadership role internationally that it did before Trump.

And that’s the best-case scenario. The most powerful country in the world is being run by a sundowning demagogue whose oceanic ignorance is matched only by his gargantuan ego. The United States has been lucky that things have hung together as much as they have, save the odd government shutdown or white nationalist terrorist attack. But now, in foreign affairs as in the economy, the consequences of not having a functioning American administration are coming into focus. “No U.S. leadership is leaving a vacuum,” said Thornton. We’ll see what gets sucked into it.

Time for G.O.P. to Threaten to Fire Trump

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 possibleotherwise 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.

The Presidency or Prison

What happens if re-election is Trump’s best hope of avoiding an indictment?

Donald Trump — or, as he’s known to federal prosecutors, Individual-1 — might well be a criminal. That’s no longer just my opinion, or that of Democratic activists. It is the finding of Trump’s own Justice Department.

.. . The prosecutors argued that, in arranging payoffs to two women who said they’d had affairs with Trump, Cohen broke campaign finance laws, and in the process “deceived the voting public by hiding alleged facts that he believed would have had a substantial effect on the election.

.. “While many Americans who desired a particular outcome to the election knocked on doors, toiled at phone banks or found any number of other legal ways to make their voices heard, Cohen sought to influence the election from the shadows,” prosecutors wrote.

.. In other words, lawyers from the Justice Department have concluded that Trump may have committed a felony that went to the heart of the process that put him in office.

.. Trump’s potential criminality in this case, which raises questions about his legitimacy as president, creates a dilemma for Democrats. Assuming prosecutors are right about Trump’s conduct, it certainly seems impeachable; a situation in which a candidate cheats his way into the presidency is one the founders foresaw when they were designing the impeachment process. As George Mason argued at the Constitutional Convention, “Shall the man who has practiced corruption, and by that means procured his appointment in the first instance, be suffered to escape punishment by repeating his guilt?”

.. But in our current moment, removing the president through impeachment is essentially impossible, given that at least 20 Senate Republicans would have to join Democrats. Representative Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who will soon lead the House Judiciary Committee, told me he wouldn’t consider impeachment proceedings without at least some Republican support. 

.. Experts on both the left and the right believe that if Trump is voted out of office in 2020, before the five-year statute of limitations on campaign finance violations runs out, he could find himself in serious legal jeopardy.

.. The 2020 presidential election was always going to be extraordinarily ugly, but one can only imagine what Trump will do if the alternative to the White House is the big house. “It’s dangerous,” said Swalwell, who worries that Trump could become even more erratic, making decisions to save himself that involve “our troops or internal domestic security.”

.. Ordinarily, you know that a democracy is failing when electoral losers are threatened with prison. But Trump’s lawlessness is so blatant that impunity — say, a pardon, or a politically motivated decision not to prosecute — would also be deeply corrosive, unless it was offered in return for his resignation.
.. as long as Individual-1 is on the ticket, the 2020 election is set to be a banana republic-style death match. Trump will almost certainly try to criminalize his opponent — crowds at his rallies have taken to chanting “Lock her up” at the mention of virtually any Democratic woman’s name. And Democrats won’t be able to uphold the general principle that in American elections, losing doesn’t mean personal ruination, because for Trump it will and it should.
.. There are ways to lower the stakes somewhat. Nadler told me he plans to introduce legislation that would freeze the statute of limitations for crimes committed by presidents, so they could be charged when their terms end. Such a law would at least mean that Trump couldn’t evade justice forever just by winning re-election.
.. That would mitigate the peril to our democracy, but it wouldn’t come close to eliminating it. Our best hope may lie in the emergence of irrefutable evidence of further presidential crimes, enough to finally test the tolerance of at least some fraction of Republicans.
.. After two years of hearing people say we were all trigger-happy on impeachment, now I’m hearing we’re all constitutional fraidy-cats. Give us a chance to do the fact investigation and figure out what happened.”
.. But if the president has committed felonies, we also have to figure out how Republicans might be induced to care.

Trump’s Diminishing Power and Rising Rage

None of Trump’s extremist policy ideas has received public support. The public opposed last year’s

  1. Republican-backed corporate tax cut, Trump’s
  2. effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), his
  3. proposed border wall with Mexico, the decision to
  4. withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, and the
  5. imposition of tariff increases on China, Europe, and others.
  6. At the same time, contrary to Trump’s relentless promotion of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), the public favors investments in renewable energy and remaining in the Paris climate agreement.

.. Trump has tried to implement his radical agenda using three approaches.

1) The first has been to rely on the Republican majorities in the two houses of Congress to pass legislation in the face of strong popular opposition. That approach succeeded once, with the 2017 corporate tax cut, because big Republican donors insisted on the measure, but it failed with Trump’s attempt to repeal Obamacare, as three Republican senators balked.

.. 2)  The second approach has been to use executive orders to circumvent Congress. Here the courts have repeatedly intervened, most recently within days of the election, when a federal district court halted work on the Keystone XL Pipeline, a project strongly opposed by environmentalists, on the grounds that the Trump administration had failed to present a “reasoned explanation” for its actions. Trump repeatedly and dangerously oversteps his authority, and the courts keep pushing back.

.. 3) Trump’s third tactic has been to rally public opinion to his side. Yet, despite his frequent rallies, or perhaps because of them and their incendiary vulgarity, Trump’s disapproval rating has exceeded his approval rating since the earliest days of his administration. His current overall disapproval rating is 54%, versus 40% approval, with strong approval from around 25% of the public. There has been no sustained move in Trump’s direction.

.. In the midterm elections, which Trump himself described as a referendum on his presidency, the Democratic candidates for both the House and Senate vastly outpolled their Republican opponents. In the House races, Democrats received 53,314,159 votes nationally, compared with 48,439,810 for Republicans. In the Senate races, Democrats outpolled Republicans by 47,537,699 votes to 34,280,990.

.. Summing up votes by party for the three recent election cycles (2014, 2016, and 2018), Democratic Senate candidates outpolled Republican candidates by roughly 120 million to 100 million. Nonetheless, the Republicans hold a slight majority in the Senate, where each state is represented by two senators, regardless of the size of its population, because they tend to win their seats in less populous states, whereas Democrats prevail in the major coastal and Midwestern states.

Wyoming, for example, elects two Republican senators to represent its nearly 580,000 residents, while California’s more than 39 million residents elect two Democratic senators. 

Without control of the House, however, Trump will no longer be able to enact any unpopular legislation. Only policies with bipartisan support will have a chance of passing both chambers.

.. On the economic front, Trump’s trade policies will become even less popular in the months ahead as the American economy cools from the “sugar high” of the corporate tax cut, as growing uncertainty about global trade policy hamstrings business investment, and as both the budget deficit and interest rates rise. Trump’s phony national-security justifications for raising tariffs will also be challenged politically and perhaps in the courts.

.. True, Trump will be able to continue appointing conservative federal judges and most likely win their confirmation in the Republican-majority Senate. And on issues of war and peace, Trump will operate with terrifyingly little oversight by Congress or the public, an affliction of the US political system since World War II. Trump, like his recent predecessors, will most likely keep America mired in wars in the Middle East and Africa, despite the lack of significant public understanding or support.

.. Nonetheless, there are three further reasons to believe that Trump’s hold on power will weaken significantly in the coming months. First, Special Counsel Robert Mueller may very well document serious malfeasance by Trump, his family members, and/or his close advisers. 

.. Second, the House Democrats will begin to investigate Trump’s taxes and personal business dealings, including through congressional subpoenas. There are strong reasons to believe that Trump has committed serious tax evasion (as the New York Times recently outlined) and has illegally enriched his family as president (a lawsuit that the courts have allowed to proceed alleges violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution). Trump is likely to ignore or fight the subpoenas, setting the stage for a major political crisis.

.. Third, and most important, Trump is not merely an extremist politician. He suffers from what author Ian Hughes has recently called “a disordered mind,” filled with

  • hate,
  • paranoia, and
  • narcissism.

According to two close observers of Trump, the president’s grip on reality “will likely continue to diminish” in the face of growing political obstacles, investigations into his taxes and business dealings, Mueller’s findings, and an energized political opposition. We may already be seeing that in Trump’s erratic and aggressive behavior since the election.

.. The coming months may be especially dangerous for America and the world. As Trump’s political position weakens and the obstacles facing him grow, his mental instability will pose an ever-greater danger. He could explode in rage, fire Mueller, and perhaps try to launch a war or claim emergency powers in order to restore his authority. We have not yet seen Trump in full fury, but may do so soon, as his room for maneuver continues to narrow. In that case, much will depend on the performance of America’s constitutional order.