The Syria decision is the rule, not the exception, as is the willingness of Trump’s Cabinet to go along with whatever he says, even when he reverses himself overnight. Recall his invitation to the Taliban to come to Camp David, two days before the 9/11 anniversary. The press reported that Vice President Mike Pence had opposed the decision, along with Bolton. Trump denounced the reports and Pence quickly retweeted him with the comment, “That’s Absolutely Right Mr. President. More Fake News! The Dishonest Media never contacted our office before running with this story and if they had, we would have told them I FULLY support your decision.”
As Trump has freed himself from the “adults,” he has also politicized and weaponized American foreign policy for his personal advantage: He empowered Rudy Giuliani to run a shadow foreign-policy operation to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden and his son. In so doing, he has tested the mettle of the men and women who serve him.
Eliot Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a contributing writer to this magazine, told me, “The government has the right to ask you to risk your life for your country; it does not have the right to ask you to sacrifice your character for it.” Trump has repeatedly asked his team to sacrifice their character. Some have failed and some have passed. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fired the ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, and seems to have instructed his employees to cooperate with Giuliani. He has publicly defended the unfounded conspiracy theories about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. Gordon Sondland, a Republican donor who once saw Trump for what he was, so desperately craved high office that he did Giuliani’s bidding and then placed himself in legal jeopardy with his testimony in the House impeachment inquiry.
We know he is becoming more paranoid and distrustful of those who will not do his bidding. He called Taylor and Vindman Never Trumpers even though there is no evidence to that effect, and then called Never Trumpers in general “human scum,” a charge his press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, defended. Some Republicans hoped that over time Trump would relax his ban on those who signed Never Trump letters during the campaign, particularly for those signatories who recanted after he won the election. This now seems very unlikely. The ban will stay in effect and seems to be widening to anyone who has ever uttered or endorsed a critical word about the president.
The National Security Council is being downsized—ostensibly to improve efficiency but more likely because Trump distrusts the bureaucracy. Some of the jobs are being filled by relatively junior personnel with no background in the region they are responsible for. One former official, who spoke under the condition of anonymity in exchange for candor, expressed deep concern that the foreign-policy capacity of the U.S. government is being hollowed out from where it was a year ago—a time when alarm bells were already ringing about unfilled positions.
If Trump is reelected, he is unlikely to turn over a new leaf. He will feel completely vindicated and more confident in the superiority of his own judgment on foreign policy. The tumultuous events of the past month will become the norm, as crises grow in frequency and scale. As Senate Republicans serve as jurors in a trial to remove Trump from office, they will no doubt worry about splitting their party and losing the 2020 election. They should also worry about the consequences of winning. They can no longer take comfort in the expectation that Trump will be constrained by good advisers or that he will normalize over time. The American-led international order could survive four years of Trump if we’re lucky. On this trajectory, it cannot survive eight.