War Stories

Trump’s Wild Wednesday

Remarkably, the president’s incoherence, ignorance, and slander just reached new levels.

Trump and the Italian president at podiums in front of American and Italian flags.
President Donald Trump and Italian President Sergio Mattarella hold a joint press conference at the White House on Wednesday. Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

For some time, President Donald Trump has been out on the edge, but on Wednesday he slipped over, into the abyss. No longer merely reckless and erratic, he’s now out of control and delusional.

The slew of evidence pouring forth in his own words, over the course of a single day, mainly about his self-inflicted disaster in Syria, is astonishing. It’s been clear throughout his nearly three years in office that, when it comes to foreign policy, Trump is willfully uninformed, has no idea what he’s talking about, and behaves impulsively, often against U.S. interests. But the latest news goes beyond that.

Take Trump’s remarks, in an Oval Office session with reporters and at a joint press conference with the president of Italy, about the chaos in Syria. Keep in mind that his betrayal of the Kurds was an explicit feature of his Oct. 6 decision—during a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—to withdraw a small cadre of U.S. troops from northern Syria. The White House statement, released that day, said as much:

Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces … will no longer be in the immediate area.

As planned, the Americans moved out; the Turks rolled in. Then after coming under heavy criticism from within his own party, Trump reversed course, warning that he would “destroy Turkey’s economy” if Erdogan didn’t pull his troops back. On Oct. 9, he wrote Erdogan a letter (which was made public a week later, on the Wednesday of craziness), imploring him, “Let’s work out a good deal” and ending, “History will look upon you favorably if you get this done in the right and humane way. It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” New paragraph: “I will call you later.”

Needless to say, this is not the way for an American president to persuade world leaders, especially if he’s not in a strong position going in. In any event, one week has passed since he wrote the letter, and there has been no deal. Apparently, Erdogan was not impressed. He threw the letter in the wastebasket and proceeded to invade northern Syria.

Three things are worth noting here. First, Trump was ranting at Erdogan for doing something that, a few days earlier, he’d invited Erdogan to do. Second, this letter was publicized in an exclusive scoop by Fox Business Network, suggesting that Trump wanted it made public—that he thought it made him look good.

Third, also on Wednesday, Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Turkey, to work out a deal with Erdogan, with no assurance that a deal was in the offing. Yet even before they held the meeting (and here’s where things get really weird), Trump told reporters that he didn’t care what the Turks did in Syria.

At the press conference with the Italian president, Trump boasted that his withdrawal from Syria had been “strategically brilliant.” The conflict between the Turks and the Kurds, he went on, “has nothing to do with us.” As for Syrian and Russian troops filling the vacuum he’d left behind, Trump said, “If Russia wants to get involved with Syria, that’s really up to them.” Besides, he added, the Kurds—who lost 11,000 fighters in the battle against ISIS—are “no angels.”

During the session with reporters in the Oval Office, Trump went further, saying, “The PKK, which is part of the Kurds, as you know, is probably worse at terror and more of a terrorist threat in many ways than ISIS. … So it’s a very semi-complicated, not too complicated if you’re smart, but a semi-complicated problem.” It’s a toss-up which is more appalling: the ignorance, the slander (clearly parroting Erdogan talking points), or the blithe incoherence.

Between his blasts at the Kurds and his shrugs at the Russians, Syrians, and Turks, Trump left in tatters what little leverage Pence and Pompeo might have had going into their meeting with Erdogan. The Turkish leader now knows that he, Vladimir Putin, and Bashar al-Assad can get away with any measure of brutality; Trump is unconcerned.

Finally, to round off the day, Trump met with congressional leaders, where he heard Republicans and Democrats criticize his withdrawal from Syria, and, by several accounts, he exploded with fury. He called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a “third-rate politician”—this in response to her charge that he was letting Russia gain a foothold in the Middle East. Addressing all the Democrats in the room, Trump said that “communists” are now in the ranks of ISIS, adding, “You guys might like that.”

Asked about the possible threat posed by ISIS militants who escaped from their Syrian prisons while their Kurdish captors had to go fight the Turks, Trump replied that Americans didn’t need to worry about “terrorists 7,000 miles away”—ignoring the fact that Osama bin Laden was that far away from New York when his agents smashed a plane into the World Trade Center.

When Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer cited former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ contrary views on the subject, Trump unleashed what might have been the day’s most astonishing outburst. He lambasted Mattis—who resigned in protest from the administration in December—as “the world’s most overrated general,” Trump railed, adding, “You know why? He wasn’t tough enough. I captured ISIS. Mattis said it would take two years. I captured them in one month.”

This is nuts on a few levels. First, ISIS lost its last outpost in Syria and Iraq in September 2018—i.e., 20 months after Trump took office, not one month. Second, could Trump really believe that he had more to do with the destruction of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate than Mattis did? Trump did nothing except approve what Mattis proposed. (And, by the way, Mattis’ strategy was little more than a continuation of the Obama administration’s strategy, with looser rules of engagement.) Finally, whatever one thinks of Mattis (and there is much to criticize), it’s bonkers to say that this battle-hardened retired Marine four-star general isn’t “tough.”

The Democrats walked out of the meeting, in protest of Trump’s insults. Speaking to reporters afterward, Pelosi said, “I think now we have to pray for his health, because this was a very serious meltdown on the part of the president.”

Trump, never one to pass up an opportunity for projection, later tweeted: “Nancy Pelosi needs help fast! There is either something wrong with her ‘upstairs,’ or she just plain doesn’t like our great Country. She had a total meltdown in the White House today. It was very sad to watch. Pray for her, she is a very sick person!”

Trump’s abandonment of the Syrian Kurds sent a signal to the rest of the world’s leaders that, for as long as he is president (and maybe for longer), they shouldn’t trust any promise or threat made by the United States. The lesson of Wednesday’s mayhem is that no one else, including his own officials, should believe what he says either—that his actions are driven by impulse and his impulses are fickle, subject to shifts and even reversals without notice or cause.

Even the Republicans seem to be getting nervous. Shortly before his meeting with congressional leaders, the House condemned Trump’s withdrawal by a margin of 354–60, meaning that well over 100 Republicans voted in the resolution’s favor. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell publicly apologized to the Kurds. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Trump’s most loyal lap dog, lashed out at a public hearing, calling Trump’s withdrawal “the most screwed-up decision” he’d seen in his 25 years in Congress and walking out on the witness—Trump’s special emissary on Iran, Brian Hook—midsentence during one of his many unresponsive replies.

All of these events are occurring quite separately from the House impeachment inquiry. But the coincidence raises a question: As the evidence mounts of Trump’s abuses and obstructions, will some Republican senators see the impeachment process as an opportunity to rid themselves of a president that they must be regarding as increasingly dangerous? A few weeks ago, the question would have been asinine. Now it’s, at the very least, not implausible.