Republican foreign policy was once defined by clashing world views. Now it’s defined only by loyalty to the president.
At first glance, the recent drone strike ordered by President Trump against an Iranian general would seem to return Republican foreign policy to the George W. Bush era. Several elements of the attack reflected the approach to the world defined by Mr. Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney: a belief in the efficacy of military force, the validity of pre-emptive attack and the determination to avoid seeking approval from congressional leaders. But on closer examination, such comparisons fail. In his foreign policy, Mr. Trump represents something wholly new.
The president’s recent actions underscore the fact that the Republican Party has no guiding principles; it has only Mr. Trump, who demands loyalty to himself as its leader. Nor does the party leadership have senior figures with long experience in foreign policy who might challenge Mr. Trump’s thinking. The Republican Party, which once served as home for a variety of clashing philosophies about foreign policy, has lost its moorings.
Consider the party’s history in recent decades and the contrast with where the party stands today. Over the past half-century, the Republicans had been loosely split between two approaches for dealing with the world. One was the traditional, alliance-centered internationalism that had held sway, for example, under President George H.W. Bush. The other was the hawkish unilateralism of the party’s neoconservatives, who had gathered strength during the Reagan administration.
During the George W. Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell carried forward, if imperfectly, the ideas of internationalism; Vice President Cheney embraced many of the views of the neoconservatives. These two schools of thought came into acrimonious conflict over Iraq, Israel, North Korea and other issues.
Now, under Mr. Trump, the Republican Party has been transformed in such a way that neither internationalists nor neoconservatives hold influence in the White House. Mr. Trump has weaved, wavered and reversed course on foreign policy based on his views of the moment, and as he has, the Republicans have followed. The factional disputes that characterized the Bush years have been replaced by a single question: Are you loyal to President Trump or not?
There is no one to challenge Mr. Trump now. In contrast, consider the era of Mr. Cheney and Mr. Powell. Those two men were the most durable figures at the top of America’s foreign policy apparatus from 1988 to 2008, encompassing the end of the Cold War and its aftermath.
During those 20 years, Mr. Powell served for nine years under four American presidents as national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs and secretary of state. Mr. Cheney served for a total of 12 years as secretary of defense and vice president. The Trump administration has nothing comparable; indeed, not one of the senior leaders in the current administration, including the vice president, secretary of state and defense or national security adviser, has been involved at the top ranks in any previous administration.
Even the more experienced officials Mr. Trump initially appointed to senior foreign-policy jobs, like former Defense Secretary James Mattis and the former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, had spent less previous time in senior Washington positions than veterans of previous Republican administrations (who also included figures such as Brent Scowcroft and Robert Gates). And even these older hands — the “adults in the room,” as they were often called — left the Trump administration within two years.
Determined, experienced advisers can sometimes deflect a president’s worst instincts and ideas. While doing book research in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, I ran across the astonishing fact that in the fall of 1988, well after the Iran-contra scandal was behind him, President Reagan secretly tried to revive efforts to pay Iran for the release of American hostages in Lebanon, and to forge a new relationship with Iran.
“We have billions,” Mr. Reagan told Mr. Powell, his national security adviser. But Mr. Powell was adamantly opposed to the idea and made sure it didn’t happen. (In the early 2000s, he was less strongly opposed to the idea of going to war in Iraq, the venture strongly supported by Mr. Cheney.)
It is tempting for liberals to assume that all their opponents on the political right are alike, or stem from the same source — and that therefore, Dick Cheney somehow led to Donald Trump. But that’s not correct; Mr. Trump’s origins, outlook and style are quite different from those of Mr. Cheney.
Mr. Cheney’s rise to power — indeed, his very persona — was based on a preoccupation with government processes and a familiarity with the national-security bureaucracies (call them the “deep state”) that Mr. Trump so often disdains. Mr. Cheney has at times voiced disapproval of some of the linchpins of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy, such as his dealings with Russia and North Korea. John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, represented the last link in the top ranks of the Trump administration to the determinedly hawkish policies advocated by Mr. Cheney.
As for Mr. Powell, it is at this point hard even to recall how or why he identified himself as a Republican. Yet at the time the Cold War was ending, the Democrats were calling for a “peace dividend” that included substantial cuts in the defense budget, and Mr. Powell, working closely with Mr. Cheney, labored hard, and for the most part successfully, to resist those efforts.
Mr. Powell’s eventual alienation from the Republican Party was a result of the same forces and dynamics that would eventually propel the rise of Mr. Trump: nativism and hostility toward immigrants and racial minorities. When Mr. Powell appeared before the Republican National Convention in 1996, he made a plea for diversity and tolerance.
“The Hispanic immigrant who became a citizen yesterday must be as precious as a Mayflower descendant,” he told the delegates then. That speech was greeted by a smattering of boos. In 2008, when Mr. Powell announced he could not support the Republican presidential nominee (even though it was his old friend John McCain), Mr. Powell specifically cited the mood of Republicans who had claimed that Senator McCain’s opponent, Barack Obama, was a Muslim.
The Trump Republicans long ago abandoned Mr. Powell and virtually everything he stood for — and while it may seem less obvious right now, they have cut loose from Cheneyism, too. We can see the party’s absence of ideas or strategy in the current policies on the Middle East and North Korea.
The drone strike came alongside Mr. Trump’s purported effort to lessen America’s involvement in the Middle East. His personal diplomacy with Kim Jong-un of North Korea and President Vladimir Putin of Russia might appear to be in line with Mr. Powell’s emphasis on diplomacy — but under Mr. Trump, what has counted so far is only the word “personal,” not the diplomacy. As a result, the Republicans are left with no past and no ideas, merely a single man and his vagaries.
President Trump’s third chief of staff seemed destined for the door until impeachment came along.
Mick Mulvaney’s job was in danger even before his disastrous press conference yesterday, and his equally disastrous attempt to walk that performance back. The fumble could not have been more poorly timed: According to multiple current and former White House officials, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to relay private conversations, Trump has been steadily souring on Mulvaney for weeks.
In his maiden briefing-room appearance yesterday, the acting White House chief of staff acknowledged that the Trump administration had held up military aid to Ukraine in exchange for a politically motivated investigation—a quid pro quo that Trump has repeatedly insisted never took place, and is the subject of the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
The president has polled confidants about whether Mulvaney is up to the job, blaming him for leaks and negative news coverage, and considering whether he should find someone else to run the West Wing. It might stand to reason, then, that with Trump’s growing frustrations with Mulvaney—coupled with a performance yesterday that could put Trump in greater legal jeopardy than ever before—Mulvaney’s days as acting chief of staff are numbered.
Yesterday’s press conference was significant not just for Mulvaney’s revelations about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. It also laid bare just how key a role Mulvaney has played in those dealings. Mulvaney admitted, for example, that Trump had spoken to him directly about an issue at the heart of Congress’s impeachment inquiry: withholding aid to Ukraine partly because Trump wanted an investigation into a conspiracy theory involving a Democratic National Committee server.
Trump was not happy—and neither were his most prominent allies. The shock of Mulvaney’s admission was only compounded by the flippancy with which he delivered it: For those troubled by it, he told reporters, “get over it.” Mulvaney later walked the claim back, but even in the eyes of the president’s closest confidants, the damage was done. For a White House staffer, there is perhaps no worse place to be than in Sean Hannity’s crosshairs, and that’s where Mulvaney found himself yesterday, after undercutting the administration’s talking points on impeachment in a way that not even a Trump-loving Fox News host could spin. Shortly after the press conference, Hannity excoriated the acting chief on his radio show: “What is Mulvaney even talking about?” Hannity scoffed. “I just think he’s dumb, I really do. I don’t even think he knows what he’s talking about. That’s my take on it.”
Nevertheless, in the course of combusting the White House’s narrative on impeachment, Mulvaney unwittingly demonstrated why, at this fraught moment in Trump’s presidency, he may be untouchable: Should Trump fire him and leave him aggrieved, Mulvaney could prove a damaging witness in Congress’s impeachment investigation.
A former White House official said Trump “will be feeling the pain of having pushed out [former National Security Adviser John] Bolton at a very inopportune time. He won’t make the same mistake with Mulvaney, however frustrated he may be with him. Now, their interests are aligned. They sink or swim together.”
It’s a line of thinking that has come to permeate the West Wing, and it marks a significant shift in how Trump is beginning to view his relationship with his staffers. For the past two and a half years, the White House has operated like a radio perpetually set on scan, with Trump sampling staffer after staffer in search of those whose rhythms match his own. Indeed, as Mulvaney told us earlier this year, it’s made for a West Wing whose atmosphere is dictated by one particular maxim: “He could fire any of us tomorrow.”
With the backdrop of impeachment, however, some White House staffers could feel more secure in their jobs than even their boss—and that’s perhaps especially true of Mulvaney. As Democrats move forward in their investigation, they’re looking for star witnesses, those officials in Trump’s inner circle who could speak authoritatively as to whether Trump pressured a foreign power to open investigations into both the 2016 election and former Vice President Joe Biden. And should Trump discard an adviser in his preferred manner—hastily announce the news on Twitter, then trash the person’s reputation—he or she may decide to become said star witness.
When Trump fired Bolton last month, he sent out a frosty tweet saying Bolton’s “services are no longer needed” and later mocked him for supporting the Iraq War. Since then, Bolton has made clear he has no desire to stay quiet, suggesting in a recent speech at a think tank in Washington, D.C., that Trump’s effort to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program is failing. Now Bolton is even better positioned to retaliate, and House Democrats may subpoena him to testify as part of their impeachment probe.
Bolton’s uncertain loyalty in this pivotal moment has convinced many of Trump’s allies that, eager as the president may be to oust him, Mulvaney is better kept inside of the White House. According to the current and former White House officials and others close to the president, people have been urging Trump to hold his acting chief in place, telling him that the risk of an aggrieved ex-official on the outside far outweighs any annoyances Trump may have with him. As President Lyndon Johnson famously said about then–FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, it’s better to keep him inside the tent “pissing out” than the opposite.
“The president always fears that people he either gets rid of or resigns will turn out to be a press liability,” one person close to the White House told us. “But, look, if you treat people like crap, you shouldn’t expect loyalty.”
According to legal experts, by keeping Mulvaney in place, Trump can make a stronger case that Mulvaney is immune from having to testify about conversations with the president. “It becomes more difficult to control those who are no longer part of the executive branch,” Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, told us.
This is not to say, of course, that Trumpworld was quick to move on from Mulvaney’s disastrous briefing-room appearance. One of the president’s personal lawyers, Jay Sekulow, released a terse statement after Mulvaney’s press conference, saying that Trump’s legal team “was not involved” in the briefing.
However, the fact that Mulvaney still holds his job—in spite of the torrent of criticism inside and outside the White House—could underscore just how much impeachment has come to scramble the regular rhythms of this presidency. Gone, perhaps, are the days when Trump would give little thought to axing a senior official. Because while tell-all books come and go—promising a juicy anecdote here, a gossipy passage there—the impeachment inquiry is in motion. Which means the risk of ushering his staff into the arms of Democratic investigators is one that Trump may become less and less inclined to take.
There was a curious moment on Wednesday in the Oval Office, when Trump’s opinion of Bolton suddenly seemed to brighten. No longer did Trump want to dwell on his disagreements with Bolton or how Bolton had wrongly supported the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. “I actually got along with him pretty well. It just didn’t work out,” Trump told reporters during a meeting with his Italian counterpart, Sergio Mattarella.
It was as though Trump was telegraphing an understanding of the stakes, in this moment, of having his former national security adviser as an enemy. And earlier today, when he brushed off reporters’ questions about Mulvaney’s press conference, saying simply, “I think he clarified it,” Trump seemed to communicate another message of self-awareness: that he, more than ever, needs Mulvaney as a friend.
Seemingly devoted to making our country into the Divided States of America, the President who smeared and offended Muslims and Latinos is now doing the same for Jews. Speaking in the Oval Office, Donald Trump accused Jews who vote for Democrats of having “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”With those nine evil words, he deployed a vague but potent trope about Jewish patriotism. Accusations of “disloyalty” were flung at Jews in Nazi Germany and have been used to smear Jews around the world. Trump wasn’t specific about the loyalty Jewish Democrats were violating.
- To Israel?
- To Judaism?
- To America?
- To Trump?
He subsequently explained to reporters Wednesday that he had meant that those who support Democrats are disloyal to “Jewish people” and to Israel. He did not explain why he should be considered a proper judge of Jewish Americans’ obligations.The uproar over Trump’s remarks drew press attention away from rising evidence that the US is headed for an economic meltdown. The economy has been his main claim to presidential success. On the very day he shouted-out to anti-Semites, Trump also admitted that more tax cuts are being considered as a way to halt the slide into recession.Confusing and outrageous statements are key to Trump’s style of attention-seeking, which he refined over decades of manipulating the tabloid press in New York City. Back then he would make outrageous statements about
- his own wealth,
- plant stories about the famous women pursuing him for romance, and
- jump into controversies like the attack on a jogger in Central Park, which he exploited with signed advertisements calling for New York state to reinstate the death penalty.In the jogger case, Trump wasn’t so bold as to say the youngsters arrested for the crime should be executed, but the implication was obvious. (It should be noted that they were eventually exonerated of the crime.) The wording meant that Trump could exploit the dangerous anger people felt about the attack, but in an indirect way.By the time he began his 2016 campaign for president, Trump had perfected his method of attaching escape-hatch-caveats to inflammatory words about groups of people. So it was that he said that a few “good people” were among the immigrants from Mexico whom he described as rapists and people bringing drugs.With his “lack of knowledge” and “great disloyalty” smear, Trump again picked up his favorite playthings — dangerous words — and threw them around recklessly. Those who identify with neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” during the awful white nationalist demonstrations in Charlottesville would find in Trump’s comment confirmation that he is with them. He expressed a similar sentiment during the Charlottesville crisis when he noted there were “very fine people” among those who carried torches and shouted the Nazi slogan “blood and soil”Trump’s comments are of a piece with the white identity strategy he seems to be employing in his bid for reelection. With his brutal approach to immigration, references to “shithole” countries in Africa, and his consistent attacks on black and brown members of Congress — like his recent, and repeated, public disparagement of Muslim-American Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib — Trump plays on white anxieties about a future when they are no longer part of a racial or ethnic majority.The big problem with Trump’s callous and destructive abuse of his office is that it requires regular renewal, intensification and amplification. Renewal comes when he simply repeats an ugly claim to remind us where he stands. Intensification comes when he raises the stakes to make sure he gets the attention he wants. Amplification comes when he adds a new group — in this case American Jews — to his hit parade of hatred. With three techniques he keeps drawing attention to himself, and away from serious problems.It’s difficult to say where all this will lead. The only certainty is that Trump will continue along this line. Proof came less than 24 hours after his Oval Office disgrace when he retweeted a notorious conspiracy theorist’s claim that Israelis regard Trump as “the second coming of God.”Jews do not believe in a concept like the “second coming,” but conservative evangelicals who largely support Trump do. The statement exploits their religious and emotional attachment to Israel in the crudest possible way. Of course, Trump endorsed it.
14. “In my opinion, you vote for a Democrat, you’re being very disloyal to Jewish people and you’re being very disloyal to Israel. And only weak people would say anything other than that.”Yes, Trump is doubling down on his very controversial “dual loyalty” claims here. But he’s also revealing what he believes to be the worst trait in a person: Being “weak.”15. “I think that if you vote for a Democrat, you’re very, very disloyal to Israel and to the Jewish people.”He never, ever backs down. No matter what. He believes it to be a sign of, wait for it, weakness... 24. “We’re building tremendous numbers of miles of wall right now in different locations. It all comes together likes a beautiful puzzle.”As of July, 46.7 miles of the border wall had been built. So, lot of puzzle pieces still out there... 28. “There are many, many things in play. People are talking about videos. People are talking about lots of different things. But we do have a way of bringing what we already have, because we have many, many — as you know, we have many, many people that are unable to buy guns right now. Many people are unable to buy guns.”Trump regularly talks in circles. But when he talks about guns and the way forward on gun control(or not) he takes it to a whole other level.29. “And you know, we can’t let that slope go so easy that we’re talking about background checks, then all of a sudden we’re talking about, ‘Let’s take everybody’s gun away.'”This is a favorite argument of the NRA but bears very little connection to reality. Making sure everyone who buys a gun has to submit to a background check isn’t even on the same planet as the government coming to peoples’ houses and demanding they turn their guns over. Ridiculous... 32. “I went to the hospitals. It was totally falsely reported. There were beautiful, beautiful, very sad, you know, horrible moments. But there were beautiful moments, in the sense that these people — the families and also the people that were so badly injured that I was with — they love our country.”This is Trump on his hospital visit to victims of mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas. Very beautiful. Also sad. And horrible. But also beautiful.33. “So when I went to Dayton, and when I went to El Paso, and I went into those hospitals, the love for me — and me, maybe, as a representative of the country — but for me — and my love for them was unparalleled.”So, the big takeaway from Trump’s visits to mass shooting victims was that they really loved him. Like, a lot.34. “The doctors were coming out of the operating rooms. There were hundreds and hundreds of people all over the floor. You couldn’t even walk on it.”So, according to the President, doctors stopped operating on patients in order to come out and meet him? OK! Very legal and very cool!