Only one person can save us from the dangerous belligerent in the White House.
And that person is Donald Trump.
How screwed up is that?
Will the president let himself be pushed into a parlous war by John Bolton, who once buoyed the phony case on W.M.D.s in Iraq? Or will Trump drag back his national security adviser and the other uber hawks from the precipice of their fondest, bloodiest desire — to attack Iran?
Can Cadet Bone Spurs, as Illinois senator and Iraq war vet Tammy Duckworth called Trump, set Tom Cotton straight that winning a war with Iran would not merely entail “two strikes, the first strike and the last strike”? Holy cakewalk.
Once, we counted on Trump’s advisers to pump the brakes on an out-of-control president. Now, we count on the president to pump the brakes on out-of-control advisers.
.. “On one side, you have a president who doesn’t want war, who simply wants to do with Iran what he has done with North Korea, to twist the arm of the Iranians to bring them to a negotiation on his terms,” said Gérard Araud, the recently departed French ambassador. “He thinks they will suffer and at the end, they will grovel in front of his power.”
But in a way, Araud said, the face-off with the Iranians is more “primitive and dangerous” because, besides Bolton, other factions in the Middle East are also “dreaming of going to war.”
“Even if Trump doesn’t personally want war, we are now at the mercy of any incident, because we are at maximum tension on both sides,” said Araud, recalling Candidate Trump’s bellicose Twitter ultimatumsin 2016 when Iran’s Revolutionary Guards held American sailors blindfolded at gunpoint for 15 hours.
Given their sour feelings about W. shattering the Middle East and their anger at Trump shredding the Iran nuclear deal, Europeans are inclined to see the U.S. as trying to provoke Iran into war. This time, the Europeans will not be coming along — and who can blame them?
I’m having an acid flashback to 2002, when an immature, insecure, ill-informed president was bamboozled by his war tutors.
In an echo of the hawks conspiring with Iraqi exiles to concoct a casus belli for Iraq, Bolton told members of an Iranian exile group in Paris in 2017 that the Trump administration should go for regime change in Tehran.
“And that’s why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran!” Bolton cheerily told the exiles.
When Bolton was the fifth column in the Bush 2 State Department — there to lurk around and report back on flower child Colin Powell — he complained that W.’s Axis of Evil (Iran, Iraq, North Korea) was too limited, adding three more of his own (Cuba, Libya, Syria). Then, last year, Bolton talked about “the Troika of Tyranny” (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela). His flirtations with military intervention in Venezuela this month irritated Trump.
The 70-year-old with the Yeti mustache is an insatiable interventionist with an abiding faith in unilateralism and pre-emptive war. (The cost of our attenuated post-9/11 wars is now calculated at $5.9 trillion.)
W. and Trump are similar in some ways but also very different. As Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio notes: W. was interested in clarity. Trump wants chaos. W. wanted to trust his domineering advisers. Trump is always imagining betrayal. W. wanted to be a war hero, like his dad. Trump does not want to be trapped in an interminable war that will consume his presidency.
Certainly, the biographer says, Trump enjoys playing up the scary aspects of brown people with foreign names and ominous titles, like “mullah” and “ayatollah,” to stoke his base.
But Trump, unlike W., is driven by the drama of it. “It’s a game of revving up the excitement and making people afraid and then backing off on the fear in order to declare that he’s resolved the situation,” D’Antonio said. “Trump prefers threats and ultimatums to action because that allows him to look big and tough and get attention without doing something for which he will be held responsible. This is who he is at his core: an attention-seeking, action-averse propagandist who is terrified of accountability in the form of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base.”
David Axelrod, who had the military briefing about what a war with Iran would look like when he was in the Obama White House, said: “I’m telling you. It’s not a pretty picture.”
He says he is not sure which movie Bolton is starring in: “Dr. Strangelove” or “Wag the Dog.”
“If part of your brand is that you’re not going to get the U.S. into unnecessary wars,” he said, “why in the world would you hire John Bolton?”
William Barr to testify Tuesday that it is ‘vitally important’ Robert Mueller be allowed to complete Russia probe
“At the same time, the president has been steadfast that he was not involved in any collusion with Russian interference in the election,” Mr. Barr will say, according to the remarks. “I believe it is in the best interest of everyone—the president, Congress, and most importantly, the American people—that this matter be resolved by allowing the special counsel to complete his work.”
.. Bur Mr. Barr does acknowledge concerns among Democrats and some Republicans that Mr. Trump will seek to quash the investigation’s findings, saying it’s important for Congress and the public to know as much as they can.
“My goal will be to provide as much transparency as I can, consistent with the law,” Mr. Barr’s remarks say. “I can assure you that, where judgements are to be made by me, I will make those judgments based solely on the law and will let no personal, political or other improper interests influence my decision.”
“I will not permit partisan politics, personal interests or any other improper consideration to interfere with this or any other investigation,” Mr. Barr plans to say. “I will follow the special counsel regulations scrupulously and in good faith, and on my watch, Bob will be allowed to complete his work.”
.. Mr. Barr’s nomination was generally welcomed by those in both parties, as well as by many Justice Department officials, who see him as a more traditional candidate than others Mr. Trump was considering. He says he plans to prioritize tough crime-fighting and immigration policies, in much the same way he did when he served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush.
.. Mr. Barr’s testimony was released a day before he will face a committee filled with ambitious senators of both parties who have strong opinions and are eager to make a mark. The Judiciary Committee has increasingly become a battleground over the direction of the courts and the shape of American law.
The new chairman is Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), an outspoken ally of Mr. Trump who won allies and adversaries with his angry defense of Justice Brett Kavanaugh during the latter’s confirmation hearing.
On the Democratic side, Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey—whose impassioned arguments during the Kavanaugh hearing made for dramatic television—are believed to be seriously considering a run for president, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is also mentioned as a possible candidate.
Many Democrats are expected to vote against Mr. Barr, partly because of the Senate’s partisan divisions and partly because of his memo on Mr. Mueller’s inquiry. Still, administration officials shepherding his nomination believe they can win some Democratic support.
With Republicans holding a 53-47 advantage in the Senate, Mr. Barr is expected to be confirmed, unless an unforeseen development causes Republican defections.
The nominee to be attorney general has backed some of the president’s worst impulses on the Russia inquiry.
Not only has Mr. Barr already come perilously close to reassuring Mr. Trump that the president did not obstruct justice by trying to derail the investigation into whether his campaign conspired with Russia to corrupt the 2016 election, and that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, was overreaching, but he also has a long history of advancing an aggressive, expansive conception of presidential power.
He has made the case that a president can resist congressional oversight — a convenient position for Mr. Trump, but a concerning one for the country, now that Democrats are in charge of the House. He’s evenseen no problem with the president investigating a political opponent, saying there would be more validity in investigating Hillary Clinton for a uranium deal the government approved while she was secretary of state — which she had nothing to do with — than there was in investigating whether Mr. Trump conspired with Russia.
This theory of executive power has long been prized in conservative legal circles. But it will only empower a chief executive who has fought oversight since his first days in office and has rued the day that the special counsel was appointed after his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, recused himself from the Russia investigation.
Mr. Barr cast further doubts about his appointment when he freelanced a memorandum to the Trump administration saying that the steps the president has continually taken to stymie a criminal probe he’s detested — firing the F.B.I. director James Comey, threatening to pardon associates who might cooperate with Mr. Mueller, or even using his “authority to start or stop a law enforcement proceeding” — were constitutionally legitimate. “Mueller’s obstruction theory,” he wrote, “would do lasting damage to the presidency.”
Given these past statements, it would be best if Mr. Barr, too, recused himself. But with the impending departure of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mr. Mueller and oversaw his investigation after Mr. Sessions’s recusal, it’s not clear if the inquiry would be any better protected in other hands. There should be tremendous pressure on Mr. Barr to allow Mr. Mueller free rein, both in investigating and in writing a final report.
Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told reporters on Wednesday that Mr. Barr assured him that he doesn’t think the special counsel is conducting a witch hunt and that he’d aim for transparency whenever Mr. Mueller delivers to him a final report on the special counsel investigation.
But is that assurance enough? And if Justice Department ethics officials conclude that Mr. Barr ought to cede supervision of the probe to avoid the “appearance” of bias, as they concluded in the case of the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, will Mr. Barr simply ignore them, as did Mr. Whitaker?
Mr. Barr recommended that President George H.W. Bush pardon Reagan administration officials convicted or implicated in the Iran-contra scandal, including former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Would he object to Mr. Trump pardoning his former national security adviser Michael Flynn or Paul Manafort, whom Mr. Mueller has accused of giving polling data to an associate connected to Russian intelligence? Mr. Trump has certainly considered it.
But it is Mr. Barr’s approach to the investigation of the president that demands the most scrutiny. Under his view that the president controls Justice Department functions and can “start or stop a law enforcement proceeding,” he may well be committed to the idea that the president can do as he wishes with the Mueller investigation. Would he be willing to resign if Mr. Trump tried to shut that investigation down, as Attorney General Elliot Richardson did when President Richard Nixon ordered him to fire the Watergate special prosecutor?
At the very least, Mr. Barr can commit to standing up for the integrity of the office he aspires to hold. Despite the partial government shutdown, Mr. Mueller’s investigators continue to move ahead. And federal prosecutors in New York, Virginia and Washington remain hard at work, bringing cases that have arisen out of Mr. Mueller’s probe or that otherwise incriminate subjects at the center of it.
This commitment to justice serves as an example to all and ought to go on unimpeded.
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.