The dynamics of the present Republican administration were laid bare this week: Donald Trump remains a usurper.
Despite shepherding through a Reaganesque tax cut, overseeing a belligerent ramp-up against Iran and re-establishing the primacy of the Right on the American political scene, President Trump remains politically homeless, at great unease with the political party he ostensibly commands.
Case in point: Turkey.
On Wednesday, the man infamous for speaking off the cuff delivered perhaps the most off-the-cuff, revelatory remark of his presidency. “The hardest thing I have to do, by far,” Trump said. “Much harder than the witch hunt, is signing letters to parents to soldiers that have been killed. … Sometimes, I call the parents. Sometimes, I see the parents. I go to Dover [Air Force Base] when I can, but it’s so devastating for the parents, so, you know.”
Trump, facing down an impeachment inquiry, possibly fading economy and a re-election effort, tipped his hand. Despite leading an often imprudently hawkish administration, America’s most controversial politician revealed an enduring core conviction that helped vault him to power: Trump still wants America out of the Middle East. As David Sanger writes in The New York Times, Trump’s decision this week to make way for Turkey in Syria is “another example of the independent, parallel foreign policy he has run from the White House.”
The president was almost certainly persuaded to allow the Turkish move because of a dynamic underreported in American media: Trump’s personal rapport with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trump critics assume the worst—that Trump’s family has designs on business ventures in Istanbul after the White House years—but that critique deemphasizes the more obvious: Trump and Erdogan, fellow nationalists, get on. As TAC’s Mark Perry has reported, Trump’s chumminess with the controversial Turkish leader was instrumental in motivating the president’s last attempted pullout in the region, a stillborn effort last December.
Trump relayed: “That door comes down. And they are walking the coffin, with their boy inside this coffin, with an American flag over the top. … I’ve seen people that I thought were really incredible… Scream. Like I’ve never seen anything before. Sometimes, they’ll run to the coffin. They’ll break through military barriers, they’ll run to the coffin and jump onto the coffin.” Trump, who recently mocked his primacist former national security advisor John Bolton, as a “tough guy” said, “It’s easy to talk tough. All these tough guys. ‘Let’s keep fighting. Let’s keep fighting.’”
Trump’s laudable decision to side with America’s formal NATO ally in Ankara over a de facto partnership with the Kurds of north Syria drew the usual partisan rancor. The reaction from Democrats was routine, emblematic of a hyper-partisan America heading into an election year. Former Barack Obama national security advisor Susan Rice asked “what is he smoking?” and said the decision was “batshit crazy.” But the Democrats are not in power. More telling: Trump’s reception among Republicans.
Trump ally Senator Lindsey Graham called the Turkey decision a “disaster in the making.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the move would be an abdication of American leadership. Senator Ted Cruz called the move, if consummated, “disgraceful.” And leading Trump antagonist Senator Mitt Romney said Trump had “shamefully betrayed” the Kurds.
It’s here where Trump’s foreign policy prerogatives dovetail with his domestic concerns.
Trump’s frenemies—McConnell, Cruz, Marco Rubio, and perhaps above all, Romney—will decide his impeachment fate. As TAC editor Jim Antle put it this week: “Chaotic policymaking process aside, it says a lot about the state of D.C. that Trump may have marginally increased his chances of being removed from office by attempting to end a war Congress never authorized in the first place.”
Compared to Trump, the Republican heir apparent, Vice President Mike Pence, is a company man. Pence is generally portrayed as laughably obsequious to the current president. But there is something the veep is even more deferential to: his party’s orthodoxy. For adherents to the old religion, a President Pence would be manna from heaven, a resuscitation of the conservative three-legged stool. Pence is everything Trump is not. In addition his less assuming, midwestern looks, Pence is authentically devout, an unquestioning free marketeer and an unapologetic hawk.
Pence’s top aide, vice presidential chief of staff Marc Short, is notorious for neoconservative sympathies. Unlike other top Trump officials, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Pence has never publicly said he believes the 2003 invasion of Iraq to have been a mistake. In this way, Pence is more like the recently departed Bolton than the president he serves.
The degree to which Trump’s true foreign policy preferences needle the Republican operative class is clear. Such frustration is on display on the “Morning Joe” circuit. As MoJo regular, ex-Cruz aide Rick Tyler characterized the president’s remarks Thursday, “I’ve never been more angry with [Trump] as I was watching him exploit the suffering of military families at Dover for political purposes.”
Pence would be less of a pill. As TAC’s Barbara Boland outlines, a Pence administration “would likely adopt a ‘values agenda,’ with a greater emphasis on democracy development and human rights, reminiscent of the policies of George W. Bush.” Many observers have noted a striking address this year by the vice president to graduating West Point cadets in which Pence emphasized that the world remains “a dangerous place.” Unlike Trump, who decries “endless wars,” Pence told the gathered in New York: “It is a virtual certainty that you will fight on a battlefield for America.”
Trump may yet remake the Republican Party for good. If the next elected Republican president is a Tucker Carlson or a Matt Gaetz, it’s hard to see a conservative movement that will not have to adjust to a neo-Buchananite revolution and a more responsible foreign policy. But for now, Trump swims with the sharks he reportedly wanted to place in the Rio Grande: Senate Republicans who are more bankster than Buchanan.
Leading Democrats are licking their chops. The terrain for actual removal remains difficult, however. Said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia: “Try as I might, I can’t find 20 Republican Senators who would vote to convict and thus oust Trump. I can find five or six who might, under the worst set of circumstances for Trump. … We do know that Trump’s base. … probably won’t turn on the president for any reason, ever.”
But it’s a strange moment in Washington. As conservative billionaire Peter Thiel recently said of the U.S.-China fight, “both sides think they are going to lose.” The impeachment fracas is the same. Trump allies are nervous. A former senior administration official, sizing up the 2020 campaign, asked “if” there will even be an incumbent President Trump running for re-election.
With a doctrinaire vice president waiting in the wings, the question isn’t academic.
Curt Mills is senior writer for The American Conservative.