It tells you something about the chaos engulfing the Trump administration that the U.S. airstrikes on Syria had to jostle for public attention with the voluminous news of the president’s scandals.
Friday began with President Trump labeling his former FBI director “an untruthful slime ball.” He was responding to James B. Comey’s new book, which calls Trump an “unethical” man “untethered to truth.” Such invective, both from and against a former FBI director, is unprecedented. But then it’s also groundbreaking for a former FBI director to say, as he did in an interview released Friday: “I honestly never thought these words would come out of my mouth, but I don’t know whether the current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013. It’s possible, but I don’t know.”
The purported “pee tape” Comey was referencing is an unconfirmed portion of the “Steele dossier” on links between Trump and the Kremlin. The dossier — a summary of intelligence gathered by former British spy Christopher Steele for Trump opponents, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign — received some further validation Friday from a McClatchy report that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has evidence that Trump’s private lawyer, Michael Cohen, visited the Czech Republic in the summer of 2016, just as Steele had indicated. Cohen has strongly denied he made the trip.
Friday also brought news that Cohen is under criminal investigation by the Justice Department for a litany of offenses. That same day, the deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee resigned after the disclosure that he had paid $1.6 million in hush money to a former mistress, a Playboy playmate, whom he had impregnated. The broker of the hush money was none other than Cohen. Later Friday, the Justice Department’s inspector general released a scathing report about Comey’s former No. 2, Andrew McCabe. Trump, who knows a thing or two about lying, crowed “He LIED! LIED! LIED!” and blamed the “made up” collusion probe on a “den of thieves and lowlifes” at the FBI — which reports to him.
It is hard to imagine how Trump can do his job — for example, approving military strikes on Syria — while drowning in this rising tide of scandal. There is an old tradition, more honored in theory than fact, that issues of national security are kept separate from domestic politics, but Trump is utterly incapable of making any such distinction. For him, everything is political — and all politics is personal.
Last Monday, while Trump was meeting with his generals and Cabinet members to plot strategy against Syria, he got sidetracked with a disturbing tirade against the FBI and the Justice Department for raiding Cohen’s office — which he called a “real disgrace” and an “attack on what we all stand for.” The new national security adviser, John Bolton, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff sat ashen-faced as Trump unloaded on the career professionals of the Justice Department and FBI who, just like the armed forces, are pledged to defend the country against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Yet somehow dispassionate foreign policy analysts are supposed to put all this to the side and comment on the Syria strikes as if they were being undertaken by a president in his right mind. Okay, I’ll play along, if only briefly.
The airstrikes were the bare minimum that the United States could do to punish Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons. But it’s unlikely that they will dissuade him from future atrocities, any more than the previous “pinprick” airstrike in April 2017 did. Trump, who is oblivious to history and irony, actually boasted “Mission Accomplished!” But that triumphalist claim is even less likely to be vindicated than it was when President George W. Bush spoke beneath a giant “Mission Accomplished” banner on an aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003. Just as Bush had no Iraq plan in the spring of 2003, so today Trump has no Syria plan. In all likelihood, he will resume pressuring the Pentagon to withdraw U.S. troops, thus abandoning our Kurdish allies and handing a major victory to Assad and his Iranian and Russian backers.
But it’s hard to imagine that Trump, who in the best of times has the attention span of a hyperactive 8-year-old, can focus on strategy for Syria amid the far more pressing threats that he faces from an ever-expanding criminal investigation. If the United States had a parliamentary government, Congress could pass a motion of “no confidence,” thus allowing Trump to devote 100 percent of his attention to fighting the multiplying charges against him without the distractions of running the government. Instead, we must hope that the institutions of the U.S. government are strong enough to function more or less on autopilot while Trump is consumed by the wages of his own sins.
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