Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), center, and other members of the new House minority leadership team with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), far right, in Washington on Nov. 14. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

President Trump has become so unmoored from reality and so reliant on lies that it is increasingly hard for his surrogates and allies to defend him. Consider this exchange with Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) on ABC’sThis Week” on Sunday regarding Trump’s assertion that the Soviets went into Afghanistan to fight terrorists coming into their country:

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Russia right to be in Afghanistan?

REP. CHENEY: No. Obviously, I -- I disagree with the president’s assessment of the history there. The -- the Soviets went in to Afghanistan as part of the Brezhnev Doctrine; they were determined to spread communism around the globe.

And what bankrupted the Soviet Union was Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan and his determination to support those who were fighting on behalf of freedom around the globe to fight back against the Soviet communists, and also his determination to build the Strategic Defense Initiative, to -- to bankrupt the Soviets by forcing them to have to put more and more resources into their military. So I think, at the end of the day, that’s clearly what bankrupted the Soviet Union and that’s -- they -- they were in Afghanistan because they were, you know, very much adherence to the Brezhnev Doctrine.

Cheney has spent her entire adult life boosting U.S. power, influence and leadership in the world, often in strong opposition to the left. She was a committed Cold Warrior and inveighed against President Barack Obama’s failure to be decisive and consistent in the war against Islamist jihadists in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Now, here she is trying her best not to blurt out that the commander in chief is, in essence, a nincompoop.

You do wish she’d say something like this: “Of course, Trump is wrong on this. He sounds like a mouthpiece for Vladimir Putin or worse, for Soviet Communism. Where in the world does he get this stuff from, and how is he channeling 40-year-old Soviet propaganda? We didn’t spend 45 years winning the Cold War to get a president who says, ‘You know, the Soviets were just defending themselves.’”

Likewise, on Syria, the president overrode the advice of the military and prompted then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to resign when Trump declared that U.S. troops would immediately leave Syria because the Islamic State had been defeated — and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he’d take up the fight. (But if they are already defeated, why would Erdogan . . . oh, never mind.) Now, national security adviser John Bolton suggests we’re not leaving Syria after all, at least not until the Islamic State is defeated. (But didn’t Trump say. . . ?) Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) was asked about this on CBS’s “Face the Nation”:

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you about Syria. I know you watch the region and you had criticized the president’s decision to pull out. The national security adviser, John Bolton, is in the region right now and is saying now there’s no timeline for a U.S. drawdown and it’ll be dependent on Turkey agreeing not to slaughter our Kurdish allies. It sounds like he’s describing ... an indefinite timeline of U.S. troops staying in Syria.

SEN. GRAHAM: Well, I had lunch with the president last week and I came away a bit encouraged. There are three things that we want to accomplish as part of a withdrawal. We want to make sure that when we leave the Kurds do not get slaughtered. And I don’t trust Turkey to take care of the Kurds. It’d be like [Vladimir] Putin trying to police [Bashar al-]Assad. That didn’t work well. We need a plan to protect the Kurds from Turkey and others. We need to make sure ISIS doesn’t come back once they’re defeated and Iran is not the biggest winner. If you can accomplish those three objectives by reducing our forces, which I think we can, then count me in. But those three things have to be ... accomplished for us to successfully leave Syria. And the president’s slowing down and he’s re-evaluating his policies in light of those three objectives. Don’t let Iran get the oil fields, don’t let the Turks -- Turks slaughter the Kurds, and don’t let ISIS come back. I think I share the goal of the president to withdraw our forces. Let’s just do it smartly.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is this an admission that the president made a mistake?

SEN. GRAHAM: I think this is the reality setting in that you got to plan this out. President Obama ended the operations in Iraq against sound military advice. The president’s getting sound military advice about the status of the Kurds - what will happen with Iran if we leave too soon. And the- bottom line here is we want to make sure we get this right, that ISIS doesn’t come back. And I applaud the president for re-evaluating what he’s doing. He hasn’t changed his mind, but he’s listening to a lot of good advice. And President Obama never would do that. And you saw what happened when a president shuts people out. This president’s not shutting people out. He has a goal in mind of reducing our presence. I share that goal. Let’s just do it smartly.

In reality, no one knows what Trump has decided or if he’ll change his mind tomorrow. If Barack Obama flipped-flopped like this on Syria — a prize Iran and Russia would dearly love to pocket — Graham would have had a meltdown. Oh wait. Obama did, and Graham did. (“If we don’t change course in Syria, it’s going to become a failed state by the end of the year,” he warned Obama in 2013.)

You wish Graham would look in the camera and confess: “Wrong? No kidding! Apparently Mattis quit over nothing since this president has no idea what he wants or why we’re in Syria. He wants to let Putin take care of it? That’s worse than what you’d hear from Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) or Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). And you know what? It hardly matters at this point what we do since the Islamic State, Putin, Iran, Assad and everyone else know the president is entirely uncommitted to seeing this through. All they have to do is wait us out.

Likewise, on the shutdown and border wall, Republicans are now stuck defending a president who won’t reopen the government because of a promise to build a concrete wall he no longer wants and isn’t necessary. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was asked about the current standoff on NBC’s “Meet the Press”:

CHUCK TODD: Let me ask you this. The Senate adjourned at 11:00 a.m. on Friday. You’re not here in town. You’re not alone. The -- all of Congress is adjourned for the weekend. You guys don’t reconvene until Tuesday. Where’s the urgency?

SEN. COLLINS: Well, Chuck, just as I can talk to you from Bangor, Maine, I also have been talking to my colleagues. I have conversations --

CHUCK TODD: No, and I don’t mean it about you. I’m talking about in general. Where is the urgency here in Washington in Congress? It just seems sort of blasé.

SEN. COLLINS: Well, I certainly feel a sense of urgency to get people back to work and government reopened. And I think many of my colleagues do. I think that we, we need to make this our first priority.

CHUCK TODD: Do you think Mitch McConnell has done enough? He has made the decision -- he has said this is between the Democrats and the president. . . . .

SEN. COLLINS: Well, I can’t speak for Senator McConnell, but I would like to see him bring the House-passed bills to the Senate floor. We could reopen much of government where there’s no dispute over issues involving certain departments like Ag, Transportation, Housing, and Interior. Let’s get those reopened while the negotiations continue. . . .

CHUCK TODD: Right. Let me ask you this. We’re now in our third shutdown since President Trump took office. It seems like there’s chaos when policy decisions get announced. Think Syria is the most recent example. When is enough enough for you? You’ve expressed displeasure in the past, but is it accumulating for you to the point where you’re running out of patience?

SEN. COLLINS: Government shutdowns are never good policy. And we’ve had them in the Obama administration. We’ve had them in President Trump’s administration. They -- we should always get the appropriations bills signed into law before the start of the fiscal year so that neither side can use the threat of a shutdown or the reality of a shutdown as a political weapon.

CHUCK TODD: Okay. But I guess -- what is your level of satisfaction with how the president is conducting himself in office? That’s where I’m getting -- are you losing patience with his conduct?

SEN. COLLINS: Well, I’m frustrated in this situation that we’ve gotten to this point where both sides appear to be intransigent. It is not a sign of weakness to try to figure out a middle ground. And I think that both sides need to indicate a willingness to listen and to compromise.

You can imagine the thought bubble over Collins’s head: “Am I frustrated? McConnell thinks the Senate is part of the White House staff? Damn right! How the heck am I going to win reelection if McConnell says a GOP Senate is irrelevant? And you ask if I am not satisfied with Trump? My reputation as a moderate is in tatters, my colleagues and I look like fools, we’ve got a foreign policy that makes Bernie Sanders seem like Reagan, and we’re the laughing stock of the world. Criminy, why do any of us want to get reelected?!

There may come a time — hopefully, before the 2020 GOP presidential nominating process is over — when all of these Republicans admit the obvious. The president is grossly unfit to lead and is endangering Americans' security and prosperity. His grasp of policy and reality is so weak and his staff so diminished that we lurch from one crisis to the next, not knowing if he’s acting on behalf of a foreign power or is simply too incompetent and thickheaded to figure out he’s making matters worse for himself, the GOP and the country. Even if these Republicans thought once upon a time he’d be better than Hillary Clinton (That doesn’t look like a good call now, does it?), what excuse is there to not support a GOP primary challenge by a saner, more competent Republican? You got me.