“Now people are saying, ‘Wow, what a great outcome! Congratulations!’ ” Trump said as he announced the United States would be lifting sanctions on Turkey and declaring the cease-fire in Syria permanent. The president did not say who was offering this praise.
But only a couple of miles down Pennsylvania Avenue, a different reflection of Trump’s actions on Syria was being detailed. There, the Trump administration’s envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey, was giving testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Though he spoke cautiously, Jeffrey painted a less rosy picture of the move than Trump did.
At least 100 imprisoned fighters from the Islamic State were now missing, the envoy said, explaining that U.S. diplomats “do not know where they are.” Jeffrey backed up comments made by Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and said Turkish-backed forces may have committed war crimes. And he said an agreement between Russia and Turkey to patrol inside Syria would not accomplish “anything good.”
Between the White House and the Capitol, there are two separate universes of diplomacy being portrayed. Trump offers one in which his Syria decision has been widely praised and has resulted in benefits to everyone involved. In the other, an experienced, polyglot diplomat who has served as ambassador to both Turkey and Iraq gave a picture of chaos and calamity.
Even Trump himself seemed to slip up on the unreality of his own universe Wednesday, ad-libbing moments into his prepared speech that undercut its meaning. He tripped over the term “safe zone,” which he mused was an “interesting term” but “that’s the term we’re using. Hopefully that zone will become safe.”
But it may be the parallel universe that ultimately holds the most power. Jeffrey testified Tuesday at a Senate hearing that despite his role as America’s top envoy for Syria, he was not consulted on Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of the country.
For diplomats working in the shadow of Trump, it can be a bewildering experience. In his opening statement to impeachment investigators in a closed-door hearing Tuesday, William B. Taylor Jr. described taking up the position of acting ambassador to Ukraine and discovering soon that there were “two channels of U.S. policy-making and implementation, one regular and one highly irregular.”
Taylor, as chief of mission in Kyiv, was in the regular lane. But at the same time, there was another portion of U.S. diplomacy being led by people such as then-special envoy Kurt Volker, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani.
These two lanes had different objectives. While Taylor viewed U.S. military assistance to Ukraine as vital for pushing back Russia in the east, the parallel universe line of diplomacy apparently viewed it as a bargaining chip for Ukraine to investigate the family of Joe Biden, the president’s political rival.
“In an instant, I realized that one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine was threatened,” Taylor testified of the moment he realized that military aid had been blocked. “The irregular policy channel was running contrary to the goals of long-standing U.S. policy.”
The world began to find out about all this only after a whistleblower came forward and Trump subsequently approved the release of a rough transcript of a July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — an idea that apparently made a lot of sense in the parallel world.
But Ukrainian leaders were apparently well aware of the demands being placed upon them and had been for some time. The Associated Press reports that in early May, before he had even taken office, Zelensky had gathered a small group of advisers to discuss how to navigate the requests from Trump and Giuliani for a probe into Biden’s son Hunter and “how to avoid becoming entangled in the American elections.”
When these two parallel worlds of diplomacy collide, there is collateral damage. Marie Yovanovitch, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until when she was recalled in May, was “treated poorly, caught up in a web of political machinations both in Kyiv and Washington,” according to her successor Taylor. In her own statement to Congress, Yovanovitch spoke of her “deep disappointment and dismay.”
Brett McGurk, Jeffrey’s predecessor as special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, left his position because of Trump’s repeated attempts to pull out of Syria, despite the official U.S. position of fighting against the Islamic State. Former defense secretary Jim Mattis also left because of that, though a new book suggests it was hardly the only factor.
It is not only those who push back on Trump’s version of diplomacy who fall by the wayside, however. Two indicted associates of Giuliani were in court Wednesday; prosecutors are also investigating whether the former New York mayor broke lobbying laws. Volker resigned from his position in September and Perry is due to step down in December; Sondland clings on but is mired in scandal.
Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, finds himself torn between the dual realities of Trump and the diplomats he is supposed to represent. And then there’s Trump, who finds himself facing impeachment inquiries because of his conduct with Ukraine and rare rebukes from Republicans because of his action in Syria.
But the biggest impact of Trump’s parallel universe of diplomacy isn’t felt in Washington, nor in the halls of U.S. embassies around the world. In Syria, the U.S. decision to pull troops out has led to possible war crimes, a potential refugee crisis and a possible resurgence in the Islamic State. And the hold on military aid to Kyiv took place as Ukrainian soldiers were dying on battlefields.