With the recent resignations of so many top officials, President Trump is effectively acting as his own defense secretary, his own attorney general, and his own chief of staff.
The government is about to shut down because Trump continues to insist that the United States must construct a massive border wall (although he abandoned the other half of his campaign promise that Mexico foot the bill). And Trump has just announced plans to withdraw troops from two tinderbox countries, surprising allies, other Republicans and members of his own administration. Nobody, it seems, is keeping his decision-making in check.
James Mattis, who resigned as defense secretary Thursday over Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria, was often seen as a moderating force in the administration, working to maintain U.S. relationships with other nations even as Trump was insulting them on Twitter. He confirmed this long-held perception in his resignation letter, emphasizing his belief that the nation’s interests cannot be protected without “maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies,” a priority Trump doesn’t appear to share.
Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a member of Trump’s own party, said Friday he “absolutely” would have resigned if he were in Mattis’ shoes, adding that he didn’t think Mattis had any choice. “I don’t think he wanted to continue to be an enabler of President Trump,” Hagel told NPR’s Here & Now, noting that he believes Trump’s Middle East decisions are “very dangerous.” Of course, the widespread assumption in the foreign-policy world is that Mattis actually has been preventing Trump from taking even more extreme actions.
Mattis was the last of what Trump had called “my generals,” a group of former military brass that included former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI this week; outgoing Chief of Staff John Kelly, who announced his resignation just two weeks ago; and H.R. McMaster, who resigned as National Security Adviser in March.
One might say that not only are the “generals” gone, so too are the adults.
Trump replaced McMaster with John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under former President George W. Bush, who’s been far more of a yes-man to Trump’s “America first” foreign policy. And Kelly, who departs at the end of the year, will be succeeded by Mick Mulvaney, the current budget director who will serve in an acting capacity and has already confirmed he plans to give the president more leeway to act as he chooses. There may be nobody left who smooths the wrinkles raised by Trump’s tantrums or who will prevent the president from acting upon his most extreme instincts. After all, Trump has made clear he trusts his gut more than his advisers.
As former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Friday on CNN, “My concern — and I think the fear of a lot of the people — is that we’ll end up with an echo chamber for the president, who does not like dissent, apparently. He wants complete compliance, and that is not a healthy thing.”
If advisers are leaving because Trump won’t listen to them, who, then, will try to hold the president accountable?
Will Republican lawmakers step into the breach? Over the last two days, Republicans in Congress have criticized Trump for the withdrawal of troops in Syria, questioned the reduction of troops in Afghanistan, and expressed concern about the resignation of Mattis.
This is not the first time GOP Congress members have criticized their party’s leader. But despite their verbiage, they have been loathe to pressure the president to change his ways.
There are plenty of prominent conservatives who seem prepared to push back against Trump. Many joined the chorus of Republican officials who denounced Trump’s assertion that the Islamic State had been defeated and that there was no need to retain even the 2,000 American troops in the war-torn country.
Marc Thiessen of the American Enterprise Institute wrote Thursday that Trump is repeating the same mistake in Syria that he believes former President Barack Obama made when he withdrew troops from Iraq. “Trump was right to denounce Obama for declaring victory against the Islamic State and withdrawing U.S. forces,” Thiessen wrote. “So why is he now doing exactly what he criticized Obama for doing?”
Even the cast of Fox & Friends, who have the daily attention of the president, pushed back Friday morning when White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended withdrawing from Syria. “He’s giving Russia a big win; Vladimir Putin praised him,” host Brian Kilmeade said of Trump’s decision. “He also is doing exactly what he criticized President Obama for doing. He said President Obama is the founder of ISIS. He just refounded ISIS because he got 30,000 men there and they’re already striking back with our would-be evacuation. The president’s really on the grittle with this.”
Sanders seemed a bit shocked to be a part of a Fox News interview in which the hosts weren’t in lockstep with the administration, laughing as she “respectfully and vehemently” disagreed.
But the media — which Trump regularly derides as the “enemy of the people” — don’t actually have the power to check Trump’s decision making. Congress does, but Senate Republicans have given little indication they’re willing to stand up to this White House.
In what might be his harshest criticism of Trump to date, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said in a statement Thursday that he was “distressed” about Mattis’ reasons for resigning. The resistance didn’t last long. On Friday afternoon, McConnell was on the Senate floor defending Trump’s request for $5 billion to build a border wall, all but ensuring the government would shut down Friday night.
Likewise, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) lambasted Trump’s decision to halve the number of U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan.
“The conditions in Afghanistan – at the present moment – make American troop withdrawals a high risk strategy,” Graham said in a tweet. “If we continue on our present course we are setting in motion the loss of all our gains and paving the way toward a second 9/11.”
The conditions in Afghanistan – at the present moment – make American troop withdrawals a high risk strategy.
If we continue on our present course we are setting in motion the loss of all our gains and paving the way toward a second 9/11.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) December 20, 2018
But it’s not clear what actions Graham will take to change the president’s mind. And Trump already swiped back at him on Twitter.
So hard to believe that Lindsey Graham would be against saving soldier lives & billions of $$$. Why are we fighting for our enemy, Syria, by staying & killing ISIS for them, Russia, Iran & other locals? Time to focus on our Country & bring our youth back home where they belong!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2018
Outgoing Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Bob Corker (R-TN) both criticized Trump for the Syria withdrawal. But since their terms expire at the beginning of January, they have few opportunities to hold Trump accountable.
The Founding Fathers did not anticipate a Congress that wasn’t willing to hold the president in check. Even if the Democratic lawmakers who soon will run the House were to impeach Trump, the Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely to remove him from power.
Senate Republicans are the last bastion to check Trump’s id, and they’ve shown no interest in playing the part so far.
Otherwise, there are no more gatekeepers for Trump. A former senior administration official told The Washington Post Thursday that “there’s going to be an intervention.” But who will do the intervening? There are no more adults in the room. And an unchecked “America First” agenda is quickly putting America last in the eyes of the world.