Donald Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds is a moment that might be more important than it seems—one that is likely to have a far-reaching impact that goes well beyond what happens in Syria.
Why? Because this is the moment when responsible adults in the administration and in high-ranking executive positions, however many of them are left, know that they have nothing to gain by continuing to serve in the administration—or from showing any loyalty to it.
Remember the op-ed from a year ago—it only seems like ten years—in which an anonymous “senior White House official” described himself as part of a coterie of staffers who “have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.” This group was trying to achieve success for the parts of his agenda they liked, despite the obstacles thrown up by “the president’s leadership style, which is impetuous, adversarial, petty, and ineffective.”
This theory has now been tested. If you were one of the serious professionals hanging around in the Trump administration because you thought you could still have influence and prevent stupid and malicious actions like the betrayal of the Kurds, now you know it was all an illusion.
So what do you do next?
Incidentally, I have never thought this idea was plausible. In service to their own illusion that they could contain and control Donald Trump’s irrationality, these conscientious enablers created an illusion for the public that will make it harder for the country to come to terms with his amorality and incompetence. As I wrote at the time:
[W]hat is the effect of constantly running interference for Trump? What is the point of bailing him out from every bad decision and constantly saving him from himself? In their zeal to protect the country from the consequences of his incompetence, they are shielding Trump from any political consequences. Worse, by creating an illusion of Trump’s competence, they are confirming Trump’s supporters in the view that talk of his incompetence is a malicious lie invented by political enemies who just want to reverse the results of the election. This pushes back the day when voters are going to have to reckon with Trump’s full personality, and it makes it harder to confront the problem when that day arrives.
If these people had simply let Trump be Trump, the country would presumably have suffered a good deal more in the past year and a half. So they would have us believe, and I think the claim is plausible. This would have hastened the day when cries of “#MAGA” would begin to ring hollow and the American people would clamor for some kind of remedy to the problem, either through Trump’s defeat in the next election, or through a primary challenge, or through impeachment.
That’s what we’re starting to see. Late last year, Trump’s policy in Syria prompted the resignation of some of the responsible adults, led by Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Early in the year, his remaining advisors walked back the decision to betray the Kurds, but since then Trump dumped John Bolton because he objected to inviting the Taliban to Camp David on the anniversary of 9/11—such a small quibble!—and he also apparently eliminated anyone who could have prevented him from shaking down the Ukrainian president for dirt on his political opponents.
Trump has fired, demoralized, or simply overridden all of his serious expert advisors, and now we’re starting to see how he really makes decisions. The whole illusion of, “Trump isn’t so bad after all, so what are you Never Trumpers complaining about?” is starting to disappear.
This is just the beginning. After Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds—made impulsively and at the behest of an illiberal foreign strongman—the disillusionment on the part of his staffers is going to snowball.
More and more of his competent advisors will jump ship. If you’re a serious national security professional, why stick around when you realize that Trump isn’t listening to you and instead is taking his talking points from a former Army reservist whose main qualification is being a jerk on Twitter? You will leave, and Trump will have a hard time finding anyone decent to replace you. That’s one of the lessons of the text messages found in the investigation into Trump’s July call to Ukraine. One of the diplomats recruited to deal with Ukraine was brought on very reluctantly. Describing the “new world” of the Trump administration, he said, “I’m not sure that’s a world I want to set foot in.” How many others will decide the same thing and say “no” in the future?
At some point, we could find ourselves left with nothing but a bunch of Rudy Giulianis—opportunists feeding the president conspiracy theories and promoting their own corrupt personal agendas—and things are going to get way crazier and even more dangerous than they are now.
And the responsible adults will leave not just because they know President Trump isn’t listening to them, but also because they know their own reputations are going to be sullied. Usually, even if the public turns against a president, people can still say they served their president honorably. Historically, it’s always been a good resumé item to be a former Deputy Undersecretary of this or that. But what if that’s not the case from here on in? What if it’s a source, not only of guilt and sleepless nights, but of professional shame?
This brings us to the news that John Bolton is writing a memoir of his time in the administration. Who thinks it’s going to be flattering in its portrayal of President Trump? That’s one of the ways a former official can try to claw back his reputation: by telling all, and shifting the blame back onto the people who refused to listen to him. So we should expect more people to leave this administration and more of them to talk. The usual code of political service—which holds that you don’t stick a knife in the back of the guy who appointed you—requires a sense of loyalty that Trump is not likely to inspire in most of his cast-off officials.
There will be memoirs, and they’re going to be harsh.
All of this could accelerate the process of impeachment. We’re already learning that Trump’s phone call with Ukraine was not an isolated incident and that Giuliani pushed Trump to interfere with a Justice Department investigation on behalf of one of his clients.
Right now, people seem to prefer a deliberate timeline for impeachment—an investigation and trial that will take months and carry us well into next year.
But what if the enablers start abandoning the administration? Incidents such as Trump’s Ukraine call and his impulsive betrayal of our allies are bad in their own right, but they are also signs that the people around him are no longer able or willing to talk the president out of his worst impulses. This implies a steeper downward trajectory in the future.
As new revelations emerge, they will add to the sense, not just in the Beltway but among the general public, that every hour of Donald Trump’s presidency is dangerous; that he is amoral and unstable; and that God only knows what he’ll do to burn everything down on his way out.
If things get really crazy, or if they just seem crazier now that people can see what’s really happening in the administration, they will want impeachment to happen faster.