This post has been updated, 1:05 p.m.
In the mind-numbing press conference on Thursday, Trump retained his perfect score. He’s never criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin. Asked about expelling our diplomats from Russia, he sounded, even for him, ridiculously obsequious. “I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down our payroll, and as far as I’m concerned, I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll,” Trump told reporters from his New Jersey golf club. “There’s no real reason for them to go back. I greatly appreciate the fact that we’ve been able to cut our payroll of the United States. We’re going to save a lot of money.”
This is appalling on many levels. First, it suggests Putin can take free swings at America because Trump will bend over backwards to invent excuses for his Russian soulmate. The statement signals abject weakness on Trump’s part, virtually inviting Putin and other adversaries to throw out our people. And, to boot, Trump is confused on the facts. The expelled diplomats remain employed by the U.S. government; we haven’t saved any money. Putin however has gained the upper hand (again) with Trump, raising a legitimate concern as to whether Putin “has something” on Trump.
On top of that Trump’s remarks amount to a gratuitous insult to an already demoralized State Department (as well as other employees working at the embassy). “Having served in Moscow myself I know that service there is difficult in the best of times,” says former ambassador Eric Edelman. “In recent years, American diplomats have been harassed and beaten up by Putin’s thugs from the special services. Trump’s comments, which were probably intended to demonstrate that he is not fazed by Putin’s actions, conveyed total disregard and disrespect for what our diplomats do every day.” He concludes, “He has given Putin a pass to do what he will with official Americans in Moscow and he will be responsible for the consequences. It was an incredibly irresponsible thing to say.”
So where is Kelly? Did he not prepare a reasoned, logical response for the president or does he simply have no sway with the president?
Then there’s the case of deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka, a darling of the alt-right. Nevertheless, apparently with the full backing of the president, he goes on TV to insult and undermine the legitimate spokesman for America’s foreign policy, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson. On BBC earlier in the day, Gorka admonished Tillerson for trying the reassure the American people we are not on the brink of war. (“Americans should sleep well at night.”) The nerve of Tillerson, eh? Gorka declared, “The idea that Secretary Tillerson is going to discuss military matters is simply nonsensical.” Actually, what is nonsensical is allowing Gorka to invent his own foreign policy and insult the people actually in charge of foreign policy. Gorka must have realized he blew it. Later in the afternoon he tried to blame the whole thing on the media. (Ho-hum. Are there no creative excuses?) “I was admonishing the journalists of the fake news industrial complex who are forcing our chief diplomat into a position where they are demanding he makes the military case for action when that is not the mandate of the secretary of state,” he babbled incoherently on a Fox News appearance. Tillerson should not put up with this. Unless Gorka goes, Tillerson should quit.
Once again we have to ask if Kelly is the chief of staff in name only. Gorka has no expertise or clearance and is a blatantly destructive force in the administration. (You’ll recall the same pro-Bannon faction went on a seek-and-destroy mission against H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser.) Gorka’s continued presence in the administration tells us Kelly is not really in charge of the White House staff.
As long as Trump slobbers publicly over Putin, insults our own Foreign Service and keeps Bannon and his ilk on staff, Kelly’s hands are tied. Put differently, unless we see Trump’s tantrums, Bannon and Gorka disappear, we will know Kelly is failing — and so is the president.