Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson

Last week’s viral photograph of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointing her finger at President Trump and reading him the riot act reflected a larger reality: If Trump won’t responsibly lead the nation, Pelosi will.

The president has pretty much ceased being president. Trump never really seemed to enjoy the job, except for ceremonial tasks like handing out medals. I’d be surprised if he could name every member of his Cabinet, and I’d be shocked if he had the foggiest idea of what, say, Secretary Elaine Chao has been up to over at the Department of Transportation. Does anyone imagine that Trump even knows where DOT is?

Recently, however, Trump’s lack of focus has gotten so bad that it has become dangerous to human life, as the Kurds of northeast Syria can attest. Trump agreed not to stand in the way of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s invasion plans in order to get the unpleasant Erdogan off the phone, according to an NBC News report. Erdogan later threw Trump’s “Don’t be a fool!” letter in the trash and now is demanding the right for Turkey to obtain nuclear weapons.

Trump sent Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Ankara to straighten things out, but all they came away with was a “cease-fire” agreement that amounted to total capitulation by the Kurds. But how could they possibly have done more? Erdogan knows that they don’t speak for the president. Nobody speaks for this president, except perhaps Rudy Giuliani. Any promise can be taken back, any commitment abrogated or red line erased, by the next flurry of tweets.

Enter Pelosi, who is not the president, obviously, but increasingly is acting almost like a prime minister.

Over the weekend, she led a congressional delegation on an unannounced trip to reassure American allies in Jordan and Afghanistan. Given that Pelosi greenlighted the House investigation that likely will end in Trump’s impeachment — and, thus, that Trump sees her as his nemesis — the president likely considered Pelosi’s trip a slap in the face.

But somebody had to do it. Somebody had to tell leaders who have thrown in their lot with the United States that Washington hasn’t forgotten its friends or forsaken its responsibilities. That was the message of Pelosi’s trip, aimed not just at leaders in Amman and Kabul but at allies around the globe who wonder if the United States is still worthy of their trust.

In an administration that operates like a television reality show, Pelosi’s trip was impactful counterprogramming. For Trump, this may be the most unsettling development of all: He’s not the only one in town who knows how to steal the spotlight with a well-timed surprise.

With Pelosi’s dressing-down of Trump at Wednesday’s White House meeting, her weekend trip abroad and her highly visible oversight of the impeachment process in the House, a first-time visitor to the capital might conclude that she is shaping events while Trump just thrashes around.

The president doesn’t even seem to remember why he made the Syria decision that has so many people angry with him. First he said the U.S. troops he ordered to step out of Erdogan’s way would be coming home. Then the Department of Defense said the troops would instead be shifted to Iraq. Now Trump is reportedly leaning toward a plan that would involve leaving some of the troops in Syria — which makes this whole shameful episode more tragic. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds are brutally being driven from their homes in a rampage of ethnic cleansing. For nothing.

Trump seems shaken by the fact that so many Republicans have joined Democrats in denouncing his Syria withdrawal, or redeployment, or whatever it turns out to be. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell chimed in Sunday with an op-ed in The Washington Post.

“The combination of a U.S. pullback and the escalating Turkish-Kurdish hostilities is creating a strategic nightmare for our country,” McConnell wrote. “Even if the five-day cease-fire announced Thursday holds, events of the past week have set back the United States’ campaign against the Islamic State and other terrorists.”

It is noteworthy that McConnell is making plans for a serious, extended impeachment trial. He’s not ready to break with Trump, though, and he won’t make his office a competing power center. Only Pelosi is prepared to do that.

While she was on her overseas trip, Pelosi’s brother, former Baltimore Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro III, died at 90. She called him “the finest public servant I have ever known.” Then she went back to serving the public.

Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post. Email him at eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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