The Trump administration has in fact, either accidentally or by design, laid out aggressive markers in three parts of the world — three red lines — without any serious strategy as to what happens when they are crossed.
.. The president has specifically promised that North Korea would never be able to develop a nuclear weapon that could reach the United States. Meanwhile, CIA Director Mike Pompeo says Pyongyang is “a handful of months” away from having this capability.
.. So what happens when that red line is crossed? What would be the American response? Victor Cha, a seasoned expert who was expected to be the nominee for ambassador to South Korea, told the administration that there really is no limited military option, not even a small strike that would “bloody” the nose of the North Korean regime. For this frank analysis, he was promptly droppedfrom consideration for the ambassadorship... But being right is not the same as being smart. Most experts predicted that Pakistan would respond to the U.S. action in two ways: First, by pursuing closer relations with China, which can easily replace the aid. Second, the Pakistani military would ratchet up the violence in Afghanistan, demonstrating that it has the capacity to destabilize the pro-American government in Kabul, throw the country into chaos and tie down the U.S. forces that are now in their 17th year of war... Thomas Schelling, the Nobel Prize-winning scholar of strategy, once remarked that two things are very expensive in international affairs: threats when they fail, and promises when they succeed. So, he implied, be very careful about making either one... Trump seemed to understand this when his predecessor made a threat toward Syria in 2013, and Trump tweeted: “Red line statement was a disaster for President Obama.” Well, he has just drawn three red lines of his own, and each of them is likely to be crossed.
Histories of past presidential scandals reveal common threads and turning points — but also show how Trump stands alone.American presidents get the scandals they deserve.Richard Nixon’s paranoia produced Watergate. Ronald Reagan’s indifference contributed to Iran-contra. Bill Clinton’s appetites led to impeachment. And Donald Trump’s delusions — about his singular abilities and the impunity of his office — are propelling the crisis of legitimacy threatening his presidency.
.. What distinguishes the Trump scandal is how its central character appears to combine the worst qualities of his troubled predecessors. How, rather than evolving into scandal, this presidency was born into it. And above all, how perceptions of the president’s integrity and honor — which proved critical in the outcomes of past political and constitutional crises — are barely an issue for a man without moral high ground left to lose.
.. This is not President Trump in 2017, but rather descriptions of Clinton and Nixon, respectively, at the height of the Lewinsky and Watergate sagas. Indeed, one of the most recurring images of a White House in turmoil is the isolated and vengeful commander in chief
.. Trump may spend lonely nights and mornings with the remote and the phone, but historically speaking, he has plenty of company.
.. Haig even repeatedly urged a top telecommunications policy official to not bring anything substantive to Nixon’s attention. “The President isn’t in any shape to deal with this,” he explained.
.. Clinton’s famous ability to compartmentalize, to carry on amid the ever-expanding inquiry by independent counsel Kenneth Starr, was largely for show, Baker reports. “In private, Clinton was consumed with the Starr investigation and its collateral damage, sometimes so preoccupied that he appeared lost during meetings.” Clinton told Cabinet members that he had woken up “profoundly angry” every day for 41/2 years. Imagine what his morning tweetstorms would have been like.
.. In the same way Trump says digging into his personal finances would be a red line Mueller should not cross, Nixon regarded Cox’s attempts to secure his tapes as “the ultimate defiance” meriting dismissal.
.. The effort by Trump and his supporters in the right-wing media to depict Mueller’s probe into Russian electoral interference as a partisan “witch hunt” — another common phrase across these scandals — is a time-honored tactic for any White House under siege. Haig and Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler agreed on the need to “place the impeachment issue in as partisan a light as possible,” and the Clinton team reached the same conclusion more than 20 years later. Baker describes the latter group’s strategy during the impeachment fight: “Attack the accusers, demonize the investigators, complain about partisanship while doing everything to foment it.”
.. Poindexter, who saw himself as “the head of an American version of a Roman praetorian guard around the president, loyal and responsible to him alone,”
.. Clinton aide Paul Begala “sank into a deep depression” during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Baker writes, and vowed never again to appear on television defending the president.
.. Their true challenge is less about surviving Trump’s eruptions than simply living with the choice they’ve made, convincing themselves that service to the nation — passing a tax cut, forestalling a war, reducing immigration — is worth it.
.. Trump’s refusal to accept the U.S. intelligence finding that the Kremlin sought to tilt the 2016 election in his favor mirrors the stubbornness of his predecessors. Reagan went along with the sale of arms to Iran in an effort to free American hostages, though “always telling himself that it was not an arms-for-hostages deal,”
.. Nixon lawyer J. Fred Buzhardt concluded that the 37th president lied not just to others but to himself. It was an easy tell, Woodward and Bernstein explain: “Almost invariably when [Nixon] lied, he would repeat himself, sometimes as often as three times — as if he were trying to convince himself.”
.. Mike McCurry, Clinton’s press secretary, decided to leave the White House before the impeachment proceedings got underway, in part to avoid “becoming the Ron Ziegler of his era,” Baker explains.
.. Trump appears
- Nixonian in his disregard for democratic norms,
- Clintonian in his personal recklessness and
- beyond Reaganesque in his distance from the details of policy.
.. But where the parallels and parables of past scandals fall apart is with Trump’s well-documented disregard for truth.
.. When Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan, among the most devoted of the president’s men, explained to Nixon family members why a damning Oval Office recording meant that resignation was inevitable, he emphasized not law but dishonesty. “The problem is not Watergate or the cover-up,” he argued. “It’s that he hasn’t been telling the truth to the American people. The tape makes it evident that he hasn’t leveled with the country for probably eighteen months. And the President can’t lead a country he has deliberately misled.”
.. “She could not get over Clinton’s recklessness — it was as if he could not stop doing wrong, could not tell the truth,”
.. Ziegler was adamantly opposed to releasing transcripts, Woodward and Bernstein write, because “there was rough language on the tapes,” candid discussions that would “offend Middle America, destroy his mandate.” Once certain transcripts were made public, Nixon lawyer Leonard Garment worried that president had “allowed America into the ugliness of his mind
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly needs to draw a red line. Not with North Korea but with President Trump. For the sake of Kelly’s own reputation but even more for the sake of the country, there can be no more presidential improv on the subject of North Korea or military threats in general.
This red line should be both invisible and impregnable. Only Kelly and the president should know it exists, but they should also have a clear understanding: If it is crossed, Kelly will leave. This is essential and, more important, achievable.
Drawing this line is essential because Trump’s bellicose impetuosity must be contained.
.. Mopping up, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s approach was to suggest that Trump should be taken seriously but not literally
.. This atonal cacophony is what happens without message control. But is it realistic to speak of controlling Trump?
.. Let Trump be Trump, when it comes to domestic policy and politics.
.. Just cordon off foreign policy, or the parts of foreign policy that could lead to military confrontation. Instruct the president that statements on those subjects must be debated and scripted.
.. Kelly’s power is at its apex. Trump cannot afford to lose another chief of staff. So the president needs Kelly more than Kelly needs this headache of a job.
And if the general wants to avoid being treated as just another menial fly-swatter, he will seize this moment to assert control, or leave having at least tried.