Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the consequences of Trump’s erratic moves at home and abroad.
With the harsh words of Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s resignation, the unexpected withdrawal from Syria, and the about-face toward a looming government shutdown, some close to President Trump’s Washington feel like we’ve been thrown back into the chaotic early days of the administration, while others worry that “the wheels may be coming off.” Is it right to read this as the beginning of the end?
The beginning of the end of the Trump presidency came and went a long time ago. I have never wavered from my oft-stated convictions that (a) Trump will not finish out his term, and (b), the end will be triggered by a presidential meltdown that forces the Vichy Republicans in Washington to mount an insurrection — if only to save their own asses, not the country. This week was a big step toward that endgame, and surely one of the most remarkable weeks in American history.
We have a president of the United States who is moving to shut down the government at the same moment that he is inviting America’s adversaries to breach its defenses. The withdrawals in Syria and Afghanistan, combined with the exit of the last top administration official who aspired to serve the national interest rather than Trump’s, invites hostile moves against the United States from ISIS, Russia, China, North Korea, and the Taliban. This has even grabbed the cynical Mitch McConnell’s attention: He has declared himself “distressed” by Mattis’s resignation, a major step in rhetorical escalation in a party where Susan Collins’s pathetic periodic expressions of “concern” are what pass for criticism of an outlaw president. Marco Rubio’s words were stronger, a move to protect his viability for another presidential run, but more outrage from more GOP leaders will follow. What will move them is not necessarily Trump’s hara-kiri isolationist agenda but the damage his behavior both abroad and at home is inflicting on the financial markets. The sheer uncertainty of a chaos presidency is pushing the Dow to its worst December since the Great Depression. McConnell and his humiliated departing peer Paul Ryan have tolerated Trump’s racism, misogyny, and nativism, his wreckage of American alliances, his kleptocracy, and his allegiance to Vladimir Putin. They have tolerated as well his con job on the coal miners, steelworkers, and automobile-industry workers of his base. But they’ll be damned if they will stand for a president who threatens the bottom line of the GOP donor class.
The Mattis resignation is huge. It’s not that he was the last “adult in the room” but that as a retired military man and a secretary of Defense with access to both foreign intelligence and the inner workings of the White House, he knows treason when he sees it. His resignation letter stops just short of saying that Trump is actively serving the “interests” of China and Russia as they try “to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model.” Certainly it is extraordinary that Trump consulted with the Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan when making his abrupt move in Syria but did not bother to consult the American general, Joseph Dunford, who serves as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. For all we know, Trump also was directly or indirectly in touch with Putin, the most vocal defender of his actions.
What happens now? Surely the best fit for next secretary of Defense — one who aligns with Trump’s interests — is Erik Prince, whose security firm, then known as Blackwater, carried out a massacre of Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007. Prince is Betsy DeVos’s brother, an advocate of privatizing the military, and has caught Robert Mueller’s attention for his own alleged role in Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. But I speak in jest. Prince could never get through a confirmation process now, and who knows where America will be or who will be in charge by the time we get to Mattis’s announced February departure date, more than two months from now. The country is going to be riveted by the televised testimony of lawyered-up Trump lackeys as they face the inquisitors of Nancy Pelosi’s Congress.
What we are likely to see in the meantime: further indictments of Trump family members and other close associates; a complete halt to governance in Washington whether there’s actually a government shutdown or not; new overt and covert threats to national security; a further effort by Trump to destabilize the Federal Reserve and assault its chairman; and perhaps, at last, an intervention by those Vichy Republicans, in the financial sector as well as in the capital, who see their own necks on the line.
But meanwhile, we have more than two weeks in store of watching an isolated madman rampaging through the gilded rooms of Mar-a-Lago, wreaking whatever damage he can on the country as the walls of justice continue to close in on him. Happy New Year!