The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As Trump rages over his wall, Mattis’s resignation hints at an alarming truth

(Jim Young/Reuters)

President Trump just raged on Twitter that there will be a government shutdown “for a very long time” if Senate Democrats — and Republicans — do not vote to give him $5 billion for his wall. This comes after the House passed the funding, convincing Trump that he can now force the Senate to follow suit.

Democrats must not cave to Trump on this. And another compelling reason for the need to hold firm can be found in the startling letter of resignation that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis tendered, even as House Republicans were doing Trump’s bidding on the wall.

Mattis’s explanation for his resignation should force a much-needed public debate on something that still doesn’t get the forthright treatment it deserves: Trump is not operating out of any meaningful conception of what’s in the national interest.

Mattis’s letter does not quite say this. But it comes awfully close:

I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model gaining veto authority over other nations' economic, diplomatic, and security decisions to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies. …
My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.

It’s of course within Trump’s purview to override Mattis on withdrawing troops from Syria, the catalyst for Mattis’s resignation. But Mattis’s letter does not merely express substantive disagreement with Trump. It also creeps right up to the edge of hinting that the degree to which Trump is acting contrary to the national interest is suspect.

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Mattis says Trump is insufficiently “resolute and unambiguous” toward countries — Russia and China — that are promoting their own interests over ours. Those countries are trying to remake the world as friendlier for authoritarians. Trump, Mattis says, is turning a blind eye to rising authoritarianism even though these “malign actors” are trying to undermine our interests. Basically, Mattis concludes that Trump is assisting them in this endeavor.

Mattis does not openly question Trump’s intentions toward U.S. interests. But the larger context here is inescapable: We are now learning in greater detail that Trump simply has, as a matter of established fact, put his own interests, and sometimes even those of Russia when those interests overlapped, over those of the United States.

Trump's supporters say 'collusion' can't be prosecuted. They're wrong. (Video: Joy Yi, Kate Woodsome, Danielle Kunitz, Breanna Muir/The Washington Post)

The inescapable larger context

We have now learned that Trump secretly negotiated a lucrative real estate deal with Russia that required Kremlin approval throughout the 2016 GOP primaries, and concealed this from voters. This took place even as Trump was praising Russian President Vladimir Putin and calling for the relaxed relations Putin wants, presenting those to voters as good-faith positions he deemed in the national interest — without disclosing his financial stake in those positions.

Now, perhaps you think Trump sincerely saw this as a good policy goal even if he stood to profit. Even if that’s true, however, Trump’s act of concealing this from voters defrauded them of the means to evaluate for themselves Trump’s proposed policies in light of his personal interests. What’s more, Trump also allegedly directed hush-money payments to women who alleged affairs — a crime — something that also deprived voters of rightful knowledge as they chose their next president.

In both these cases, there is no way around the fact that Trump placed his own interests before those of the American people. As David Corn puts it, it’s inescapably no longer an open question that “Trump betrayed America.”

Meanwhile, in some cases, Trump’s own interests directly overlapped with Russia’s in a way that has threatened harm to the country. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation is tasked with examining Russia’s sabotage of our election in addition to and irrespective of whether the Trump campaign conspired with it. Thus, whether or not there was a conspiracy, when Trump blasts the investigation as a “hoax,” he is both helping Russia escape accountability for that attack on our democracy and making it less likely that we’ll be prepared for more of the same.

Mattis’s resignation belongs in that larger context. In many cases, Trump is operating from no discernible conception of what’s good for the United States, and is often actively prioritizing his own interests over the country’s.

Endless lies and bad faith

This is also plainly the case when it comes to Trump’s wall. Trump just rage-tweeted that “there is nothing else that will work” to secure the border, and that in Israel, walls are “99.9% successful," and also that a southern border wall will save hundreds of billions of dollars. The idea that we don’t currently have border security is an absurd lie — indeed, Trump himself revealed as much when he boasted that, because of him, the “border is tight,” a contradiction that has not disturbed the #MAGAhatters in the least. Post fact checkers have dubbed the Israel figure a “fantasy,” and the hundreds of billions of dollars are a made-up figure.

Everyone knows the wall has nothing whatsoever to do with border security. It is a monument to Trump’s megalomaniacal delusions, one designed to keep his base enthralled, since he’ll need to fall back on that bedrock support as the walls of legal accountability close in.

Trump is not operating from any discernible sense of the national interest on many other fronts. His thinly veiled Muslim ban went forward despite two Department of Homeland Security analyses that undercut its rationale. His administration deep-sixed internal info declaring refugees a net economic positive, and kept slashing refugee levels anyway. His rollback of policies against climate change proceeds even though his own administration’s scientists have concluded it poses a dire threat to our country’s future. Trump stoked racial tensions after Charlottesville, pardoned racist Joe Arpaio and kept attacking African American athletes all in part because he believed it would thrill his supporters — never mind the civic damage done in the process.

Trump probably does believe that his immigration restrictions will benefit America in some sense. But even here, when he justifies this as part of his advertised “America First” nationalism, we all know from his own private statements that he’s really driven by ethno-nationalism, something he does not admit to or defend publicly.

It’s hard to tease out what really motivates Trump and what he believes. But at some point, all the lies as the foundation for hugely consequential decisions — and the endless, active refusal to allow real data to bear on them — have to add up to something, a level of deep and perpetual bad faith that calls into question the real motives behind these decisions, and more broadly his intentions toward this country, and whose interests he is putting before it, most obviously his own.

The wall stands as one of the most enduring monuments to this bad faith and concerted concealment of motives. He must be denied it, lest those things are rewarded. Beyond this, Mattis’s resignation letter should prompt a much more forthright debate on all these matters than we’ve seen thus far.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Trump talked up Russia during now-revealed secret Moscow project talks

Jennifer Rubin: With Mattis out, we’re in uncharted territory

Henry Olsen: Trump is now forging foreign policy on his own. Where will he take us?

Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent: Trump can’t stop listening to the right. That’s why the government might shut down.

Ed Rogers: This shutdown might be different