Now we know who can drive a wedge between President Trump and his strongest Republican allies: President Trump.
The president, who sometimes exhibits the attention span of a fruit fly, acted so impulsively in ordering a pullout of American troops from northeastern Syria — as Turkey prepares a military incursion to crush the U.S.-allied Syrian Kurds — that even his strongest Washington allies turned against him.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, wound up on the same side of this issue.
“A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran and the Assad regime,” McConnell said in a statement urging the president to maintain the current multinational partnership to defeat Islamic State. “And it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup.”
Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 Republican in the House, called the pullout a catastrophic mistake that invites attacks against America on the scale of 9/11.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and one of the president’s most outspoken allies in the Senate, described the decision in a tweet as a “disaster in the making.”
Indeed, that’s the kind of danger that moved former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and U.S. envoy for the war against the Islamic State Brett McGurk to resign after Trump’s announcement in December that he would withdraw about 2,000 troops from Syria.
McGurk fired off a blistering tweet Monday saying, “Trump is not a Commander-in-Chief. He makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation. He sends military personnel into harm’s way with no backing. He blusters and then leaves our allies exposed when adversaries call his bluff or he confronts a hard phone call.” Gee, tell us what you really think.
McGurk was referring to a telephone conversation Sunday between Trump and Turkey’s strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that preceded Trump’s announcement of an immediate pullout — in much the same way that Trump’s December announcement of a complete withdrawal from Syria came immediately after another call with Erdogan.
The Kurds have been excellent fighters, leading the fight on the ground that pushed back and defeated the Islamic State’s caliphate and capturing about 10,000 enemy fighters. But the Turks fear the Kurds could be an offshoot of the Kurdish separatists with whom the Turkish government has been engaged in a long-running armed conflict.
Keeping together a coalition against the still-dangerous Islamic State is a delicate balance that calls for a touch that Trump does not exhibit. Quite the opposite, he doubled down in a Monday tweet, saying, “As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey ...”
That’s our tough-guy president, sounding to me like the man McGurk described: “... blusters and then leaves our allies exposed when adversaries call his bluff or he confronts a hard phone call.”
What happened in that phone call with Erdogan? Newsweek quoted an unnamed “National Security Council member” as saying Trump got “rolled” during the call, was “out-negotiated” by his counterpart and “only endorsed the troop withdraw to make it look like we are getting something — but we are not getting something.”
Instead, we’re getting a new state of elevated danger because the president who claims to be “tough” and “strong” caves when confronted by adversaries in much the same way he sheepishly appeared to side with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their joint Helsinki news conference in July 2018 in which Trump dismissed U.S. intelligence and accepted Putin’s denial that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Once again we see our president to be a transactional leader, judging issues and actions not by a magnetic compass of principles or ethics but by a hard-boiled assessment of what’s in it for him.
Some comedians quickly suggested that if the Kurds want Trump to be a reliable partner, they should dig up some dirt on one of his potential Democratic presidential opponents, former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump’s diligent pursuit of such dirt has led to his current impeachment inquiry.
Such is the nature of a transactional president, besides “Make America Great Again,” Trump’s unofficial slogan in his “great and unmatched wisdom” might as well be “Let’s make a deal.”
Page is a Chicago Tribune columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.