It’s often been said that the Republican Party under President Trump has morphed into a party about personality rather than policy. The party of free markets and fiscal discipline has been hijacked by a tariff-wielding president who continues to balloon the federal deficit. The party of Christian conservatism and family values has been taken over by a vulgar former reality TV star who often talks about evangelicals as if he’s observing them in the wild.
Make no mistake: The party has gotten what it most craves out of the Trump presidency, including tax cuts, Supreme Court judges and the reversal of many things President Barack Obama did over the preceding eight years. But beyond that, the details have been largely fungible — as if, whenever any doubt exists, Trump is to be trusted. When he does things that would once have been unthinkable in conservative circles, there’s barely a peep of dissent. And when there is dissent, it’s muted for fear of reprisals.
And perhaps nowhere is that more the case, we’re finding out, than on foreign policy.
In recent days, we’ve learned that Trump scheduled a meeting with the Taliban close to the 18th anniversary of 9/11, only to cancel it. There was a report Wednesday night that he might give Iran a $15 billion loan to climb out of its sanctions-related morass (despite Trump having repeatedly attacked Obama for giving Iran money that it was owed). And this week, Trump fired the most preeminent neoconservative on his foreign policy team, John Bolton, who was reportedly fed up with the president’s accommodation of such antagonistic foreign nations.
Throw all of this on top of Trump’s still-fruitless quest for a deal with North Korea and the major symbolic concessions he has made during that pursuit, and it’s clear there’s no real firm guiding principle at play beyond Trump.
His foray into possibly negotiating with the Taliban may be the most remarkable development to date. It’s cliche to ask, “What if Obama did it,” but rarely has there been a better example of the double standard. And “Fox and Friends” host Pete Hegseth came out and admitted that this week.
“I think it’s a fair statement to say that if Barack Obama had suggested such a meeting with the Taliban, we would all be going ferociously nuts about it,” Hegseth said on Fox Nation. He added: “But at the same time, if you understand the lens — the way President Trump thinks — [he] eat, breaths and sleeps America, loves it, puts it first all the way, then you recognize that it’s probably an outside-the-box idea that he had to try to get something across the finish line that he thinks would be good. And I think more credit could be given to the fact that he scrapped it.”
This is a theme of criticisms of Trump’s Taliban flirtations: Yeah, maybe it was an atrocious idea that we would have denounced before, but this is TRUMP. The criticisms are also generally buried beneath praise for his eventually scrapping his own allegedly horrible idea.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has been out front in that regard. She’s weighed in repeatedly on this, emphasizing the pullback while gently massaging the horrendousness of the initial idea into her praise.
In an interview with Fox News’s Bret Baier on Monday, Baier repeatedly attempted to steer the conversation to what Cheney thought of the initial idea. Each time, she reverted to Trump eventually getting it right:
BAIER: So why are we negotiating with them to begin with?
CHENEY: We shouldn’t be, and that’s why I am very glad that the president said these talks are dead, we’re not going to be negotiating with them. You can’t trust the Taliban. You know we’ve been talking about the Taliban for years, but the notion that somehow we think they’re going to be a partner for peace, somehow they’re going to give us counterterrorism assurances that we can count on —
BAIER: But somebody thought it.
CHENEY: It’s wrong, we shouldn’t be doing it, and I’m very glad to see the President took the important, courageous step that he took to say, ‘That’s it, I’m not going to let America be taken advantage of.’
Yet even this soft criticism has earned Cheney headaches. Fox News’s Steve Hilton denounced her and said her father, former vice president Richard B. Cheney, was “literally” responsible for “millions of deaths.” Two Republican state House members in Cheney’s home state of Wyoming authored a Washington Examiner op-ed calling on her to “stop carping at Trump for rejecting endless war.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who could be Cheney’s Senate colleague in the relatively near future, lifted that op-ed up Wednesday and said: “I agree! Why do some neocons continue to advocate for endless wars?” Cheney shot back, “I stand with @realDonaldTrump and our men and women in uniform who will never surrender to terrorists, unlike @RandPaul, who seems to have forgotten that today is 9/11,” she said.
Paul’s chief political strategist, Doug Stafford, followed that up by tweeting at Cheney, “Actually, @realDonaldTrump loves @RandPaul and I’m pretty sure they both think your family is a bunch of chickenhawk warmongers who personally benefited from the military industrial complex and are responsible for thousands of lost lives and trillions of lost dollars.”
If there’s a better metaphor for the GOP’s current foreign policy transformation and crossroads, it’s tough to do better than a Paul scion feuding with a Cheney scion. But as Bolton’s excommunication and recent developments show, it’s clearly the Paul-ite, noninterventionist approach that is ascendant in the Trump administration.
The hawks who remain around Trump, including most notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are less likely to stand in his way on stuff like this. People such as Pompeo may be keeping Trump in check in certain ways, but things are clearly progressing in a very pronounced direction. That’s why Bolton loyalists almost immediately began disowning whatever came from Trump’s foreign policy from the moment he was fired forward.
We still see Republicans raising objections, most notably from the likes of Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and also this week from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who warned against scrapping the “maximum pressure” approach to Iran. But it’s always soft. It’s always sprinkled with timidity because they recognize who’s in charge. Cheney is a great example of someone who is perhaps now learning the pitfalls of even soft Trump criticism. Her home-state Republicans are attacking her and Paul is now labeling her a “NeverTrump" Republican -- including on CNN Thursday afternoon -- at a time when she’s considering running for Senate in the most pro-Trump state in the 2016 election (67-22 for Trump).
But the more everyone slow-walks it and declines to actually say out loud that Trump is getting it wrong, the more this shift will take hold.
Update: And now Cheney hits back again, saying Paul’s “motto seems to be ‘Terrorists First, America Second.’"