A senile Fox News addict — with delusions of grandeur and poor impulse control — has the unilateral authority to instigate a nuclear holocaust whenever he wants. Thus far, he has retained enough humility (and/or self-interested fear) not to avail himself of his office’s most awesome powers, opting instead to defer to his advisers on military matters. But the perpetual conflict between his instincts and their expertise is trying his patience — and his instinct is for war.
That grim summary of our current predicament does not derive from the rants of #Resistance leaders or progressive polemicists but from the whispered confessions of administration officials. From the very first days of the Trump presidency, many in the West Wing have used the White House press corps as a team of talk therapists, confidentially disclosing their secret anxieties to the nearest available reporter. In their accounts, advising the commander-in-chief is akin to babysitting a toddler: They closely monitored the leader of the free world’s TV time, lest upsetting media trigger a temper tantrum; struggled to make him understand “boundaries”; and implored him to work on his assignments instead of “insisting on long stretches of unstructured time to watch television and call allies.” They fretted constantly about the kind of crowd he was hanging out with — keenly aware of how bad influences could remold his impressionable mind. Above all, they strived to steer him safely out of the “moods where …he wants to blow everything up.”
In October, Bob Corker took these sentiments public, telling the New York Times, “I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him.” The Republican senator likened the West Wing to “an adult day-care center.” He said that the president’s emotional volatility threatened to set America “on the path to World War 3,” and insisted that, in private, most of his GOP colleagues shared this assessment.
But taking action to remove this madman from office — or even to curb his military powers — would have put corporate tax cuts in jeopardy. And Senate Republicans were unwilling to take that risk.
So now, the United States is inching toward a shooting war with North Korea; the president is bragging about the size and potency of his “Nuclear Button” over Twitter; and White House officials are venting fears of an imminent, “accidental” catastrophe to their confidantes in the fake news media.
“Every war in history was an accident,” one administration insider (inaccurately) told Axios last night. “You just don’t know what’s going to send him over the edge.” The “him” in that sentence is Trump — and, according to that outlet, multiple administration officials are worried that he “could blunder into war.”
Days before Trump’s Freudian nuclear threat, Axios published a similarly disconcerting account of the way the winds are blowing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:
Trump seems most interested in discussing military options on North Korea in these meetings. He is surrounded by advisers who share his concern about the rogue state, but not his fixation on a military strike.
And some top officials have told us Trump’s belligerent rhetoric on the subject makes them nervous.
There is a reason the harshest assessments of Trump usually leak after North Korea meetings.
The president’s distractibility and indifference to most policy questions aren’t ideal traits for a commander-in-chief — but in these decidedly non-ideal times, they’ve been indispensable ones. The “adults” on Trump’s foreign policy team (James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and, to a lesser extent, Rex Tillerson) haven’t set the terms of the administration’s national security strategy by winning arguments with the president, but by holding their ground long enough for him to lose interest. For much of last year, Washington’s Establishmentarians trusted in the sustainability of this system — that Trump’s histrionics would remain resolutely irrelevant.
They’re less sure of that today, as this anecdote from Susan Glasser’s must-read essay on Trump’s first year well illustrates:
Last winter, a Washington wise man shared with me the advice he was offering to worried foreign leaders who consulted him: Pay no attention to the tweets. Put your faith in Trump’s foreign policy team. Wait to see what he actually does as opposed to what he says.
… I recently went back to the Washington elder statesman I had consulted at the start of the Trump presidency. He has counseled McMaster and Tillerson and others on the Trump team throughout the year. He no longer makes the case to ignore the tweets or the president’s volatility.
“Nobody speaks for Trump,” he said. “He speaks for himself. The question is, are they allowed to do things notwithstanding? And the answer is yes, until he decides to pull the rug out from under them. Well, that’s the reality. That’s how this man works.”
Glasser’s piece dissects the inadequacies of the “don’t mind the barking reality star with the nuclear codes” approach to foreign policy. If the administration’s “adults” were always united; if their word always counted for more than Trump’s; and if the president were willing to tacitly forfeit his nonceremonial powers to them, this system might work. But none of those things is true. McMaster and Tillerson are reportedly “in a death struggle … each of them trying to get rid of the other.” Trump’s instinctual (and/or venal) affinity for Saudi Arabia has led the United States to adopt a friendlier attitude toward Riyadh’s blockade of Qatar than Trump’s advisers would prefer — while his (selective) desire to uphold campaign promises overrode internal objections to his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. And far from feeling a deferential humility about his powers, Trump is anxious to assert his authority over his advisers. At this point, the most influential voices in the president’s ear appear to be Fox News producers — Trump’s latest threat of nuclear war was ostensibly inspired by a cable news segment.
This state of affairs has made it virtually impossible for the United States to conduct credible diplomacy. Allies and enemies alike can’t be sure whose word actually matters on any given issue — the president’s or the “adults’”. Still, America’s authoritarian allies are much better positioned to exploit the new abnormal than its democratic ones. Unconstrained by domestic political sentiment, Saudi Arabia, China, and other undemocratic (or largely undemocratic) states have been free to spend copious public resources on flattering Trump’s ego, and/or to shape public policy around the Trump Organization’s financial interests.
By all accounts, Trump has no coherent vision for America’s role in the world. He has nationalistic instincts, but no real ideology. He does, however, have a fondness for self-dealing and an utter lack of reverence for the postwar liberal order, as Glasser’s retelling of an interaction between an anonymous European diplomat and Jared Kushner makes clear:
Another conversation, with Jared Kushner, the presidential son-in-law who had been given an expansive international portfolio ranging from restarting Middle East peace talks to dealing with Mexico and China, was just as troubling. Kushner was “very dismissive” about the role of international institutions and alliances and uninterested in the European’s recounting of how closely the United States had stood together with Western Europe since World War II. “He told me, ‘I’m a businessman, and I don’t care about the past. Old allies can be enemies, or enemies can be friends.’ So, the past doesn’t count,” the official recalled.
All this has already been detrimental to American soft power, undermining the nation’s credibility with its European allies, while leading some Latin American leaders to contemplate a closer alliance with China. And yet, to this point, it has not produced any foreign-policy development as cataclysmic as the wars launched by the last “normal” Republican president.
There’s reason to think we’ll make it through the Trump era without such a disaster. The past few days have witnessed diplomatic breakthroughs between North and South Korea. Every time Trump has come to the edge of making a radically disruptive foreign-policy decision, he’s always found a way to inch back to safer ground: He didn’t cancel the Iran deal last October, but only decertified it; he didn’t rip up NAFTA but only called for its renegotiation. And while he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he did not declare it the undivided capital of the Jewish state.
But the president is also keenly sensitive to projecting an image of toughness — and deeply fascinated by the aesthetics of warfare. He has pledged, over and over again, that he will not accept a world in which North Korea possesses nuclear missiles that can reach the United States. All available evidence suggests that war is the only way to prevent that world from coming into being. Meanwhile, the (supposed) voices of sanity within the administration are growing divided and losing sway; the grim prospects of domestic legislation in 2018 will give the president more time to contemplate actions abroad; and Trump’s already-scant self-control appears to be eroding with age — a development that would make perfect sense, given his familial history of Alzheimer’s.
The strongest argument for optimism is that a war with North Korea simply makes no sense. The regime has far too many weapons, far too close to American allies in the region. Casualties would be massive. Domestic opposition in the U.S. would be profound. There is no evidence that the North Korean regime is suicidal — and thus, no evidence that it can’t be deterred through conventional means.
And yet: “That will never happen because it would be insane” isn’t a terribly persuasive argument in a world where American voters made Donald Trump their president — and where American elected officials routinely voice fears that he could end the world on a whim, while refusing to do anything to prevent him from doing so.