President Trump finally had to do what all other presidents do, routinely. He had to adhere to the norms. He visited the troops in Iraq. But he refused to be normal. He’d show them, he’d show them all. He told them Mattis was a fool – and so were all their commanders. He alone was their savior. So, let Putin and Iraq have the northern arc of the Middle East, and let Erdogan wipe out the Kurds. Let Putin take back the Iron Curtain countries. We wiped out ISIS. What do we care?
That was odd. He’d do what presidents normally do – show up in a combat zone – but he would not be normal, and even the folks at Fox News were appalled. Matt Wilstein watched that happen:
The hits keep coming from Fox News to President Trump. The day after his surprise visit to U.S. troops in Iraq – his first to soldiers in a war zone since taking office nearly two years ago – the hosts of Outnumbered shared some sharp criticism of his impromptu “campaign rally” overseas.
“I just don’t think it’s ever worked out for a president to prematurely declare victory over a terrorist organization,” co-host Lisa Boothe declared early in the segment, noting that it “didn’t work out for George W. Bush with the ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech,” nor did it “work out for President Obama saying that Al Qaeda was ‘on the run.'”
But it was more than that:
“The fact that Russia and Turkey, first of all, are supporting the United States and praising us for making a decision, there lies a huge problem,” contributor Julie Banderas added. She went on to say she “really had an issue” with Trump telling service members, “We’re no longer the suckers, folks.”
“I would never consider us, as a country, as the United States, ‘suckers,'” she continued. “We have always led the fight in every major war. Military men and women, I believe, deserve way more respect than that.” Banderas wondered what military families who have lost loved ones in previous wars must be thinking right now: “Oh, so my son or daughter was a ‘sucker’ when they were fighting for our freedom?”
That prompted this:
Only co-host Lisa Kennedy was willing to defend Trump’s comments, claiming it “speaks to their bravery” because they “put themselves in harm’s way for incursions and wars that don’t make sense.”
So, they’re not suckers, they’re just blind fools? This was not going well, but President Trump sees suckers out there:
President Donald Trump incorrectly told troops in Iraq on Wednesday that he gave them their first pay raise in more than 10 years – a falsehood he has repeatedly told.
Speaking to troops at Al Asad Air Base during his surprise visit to Iraq, Trump told troops: “You protect us. We are always going to protect you. And you just saw that, ’cause you just got one of the biggest pay raises you’ve ever received… You haven’t gotten one in more than 10 years. More than 10 years. And we got you a big one. I got you a big one. I got you a big one.”
Ah, no, not quite:
In fact, military pay has increased every year for more than three decades. It was raised 2.4% in 2018 and then 2.6% in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. The 2.6% pay raise is the largest in the past 9 years.
And that was done by an act of Congress, but the rubes in uniform don’t need to know that:
“They had plenty of people that came up, they said, ‘You know, we could make it smaller. We could make it 3%, we could make it 2%, we could make it 4%,'” Trump told the troops about the latest pay raise. “I said, ‘No. Make it 10%. Make it more than 10%.'”
“Because it’s been a long time, it’s been more than 10 years. Been more than 10 years, that’s a long time,” Trump said, repeating the false claim.
They didn’t know that was false, he hoped, and he was the big boss sitting in the office, who gave the order on his say-so alone – MAKE IT TEN PERCENT RIGHT NOW!
And that was that, in some other universe, but it is a good story.
Something strange was going on here, and the New York Times’ Annie Karni covers all the strangeness:
During his surprise visit to American troops in Iraq and Germany this week, President Trump singled out red “Make America Great Again” caps in a sea of military fatigues, signed a “Trump 2020” patch and accused Representative Nancy Pelosi and other leading Democrats of being weak on border security.
Now the president is facing accusations that he was playing politics with the military.
That’s a no-no:
“When that starts happening, it’s like the politicalization of the judicial branch,” said Mark Hertling, a retired three-star Army lieutenant general.
Visiting troops abroad is a presidential tradition in which the commander in chief puts aside politics to thank a military that represents a broad spectrum of the country. But Mr. Trump’s political comments and his encouragement of supporters in the crowd veered from those norms.
“He has to understand that there exist some audiences that should not be addressed as part of his base, because they are not,” Mr. Hertling said. “It’s a violation of protocol by the president.”
It’s more than that:
Mr. Trump also turned a customary Christmas greeting into a broadside against Democrats, who are refusing to fund a wall along the southern border. The stalemate over the wall, Mr. Trump’s signature campaign promise, has resulted in a partial government shutdown.
“I don’t know if you folks are aware of what’s happening,” Mr. Trump said. “We want to have strong borders in the United States. The Democrats don’t want to let us have strong borders.”
“You know why?” he added. “Because I want it.”
Mr. Trump joked that his solution to obtaining funding for a wall was to claim that he did not want one anymore. “Tell Nancy Pelosi I don’t want the wall,” he said, adding: “And then we get the wall. That’s another way of doing it.”
“You’re fighting for borders in other countries, and they don’t want to fight, the Democrats, for the border of our country,” he added. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
That got a reaction:
Ms. Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill, accused Mr. Trump of turning uniformed troops into scenery for a campaign speech. “He offered our brave men and women in uniform the bitter insult of using them as political pawns to push his radical right-wing, anti-immigrant agenda,” Mr. Hammill said. “The president turned his first visit to our troops into another cringe-worthy Donald Trump reality-show special.”
That’s what upset even Fox News, because this is not, yet, Donald Trump’s Army:
The political paraphernalia on display, which Mr. Trump appeared to encourage during his speech by referencing the caps he had signed, has raised questions at the Defense Department about violations of military protocol by the troops who greeted him. One woman in uniform at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, for instance, welcomed Mr. Trump with a “Make America Great Again” flag, according to a photograph posted on Twitter by a Bloomberg News reporter who accompanied Mr. Trump on the trip.
A directive from the department prohibits active-duty personnel from engaging in “partisan political activities” and advises that “all military personnel should avoid the inference that their political activities imply or appear to imply DOD sponsorship, approval or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign or cause.” Defense Department and Army regulations also prohibit military personnel from showing any political leanings while in uniform, Mr. Hertling said.
An official said the department was aware of the situation and “trying to figure it out” by tracking down photographs of troops holding red caps and campaign flags, and piecing together where the campaign paraphernalia came from.
And that did call for an immediate denial:
The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said administration officials did not distribute any campaign gear to the troops, and noted that “these were their personal belongings.”
On her Twitter feed, Ms. Sanders addressed a CNN.com report that raised questions about whether the red caps displayed for Mr. Trump to sign may have violated a military rule.
“CNN will attack anyone who supports President Trump, including the brave men and women of our military who fight every day to protect our freedom,” Ms. Sanders wrote. She declined to comment further on the president’s speech.
She seemed to be implying that this really is Donald Trump’s personal military now. CNN had better realize that, and Trump can say what he wants:
In his remarks, Mr. Trump also boasted that he had secured “billions and billions of dollars of new equipment” for the military.
“You’re getting such new equipment, your eyes are popping, right?” he asked the troops.
Their eyes were puzzled. What new equipment? But this is what it is, and the Washington Post has more:
Critics focused on the content of Trump’s speeches during his trip. By making overtly political remarks to uniformed troops who were excited to meet their commander in chief, Trump risked the American public seeing the military as a partisan fan base, the critics said, an image that may play well to his base but undermines the trust all Americans put in their armed forces.
“As long as the message from the president is how wonderful it is that they are doing a service for the country, that’s great,” said Charles Blanchard, a former general counsel for the Army and the Air Force during the Clinton and Obama administrations. “But when it turns into a political rally, what do people see? They see enthusiastic soldiers clapping and yelling for a partisan message.”
They see Trump’s Army, not theirs:
The risk, Blanchard and other experts said, is an erosion of public faith in a military that 74 percent of Americans expressed confidence in during a 2018 Gallup poll, making it by far the most trusted government institution in American public life. One of the ways the military historically has earned that trust is by steering clear of politics and ensuring Americans that uniformed officers will carry out the lawful orders of whatever civilian leadership the country elects without bias.
Forget that now:
Robert Dallek, a presidential historian, said there’s always an element of politics when any president visits troops overseas but that Trump transgressed the line.
“Lyndon Johnson went to Vietnam and visited the troops,” Dallek said. “Did he attack the Republicans? Did he attack his Democratic critics? No. It’s inappropriate. But, once again, what you have with Trump is someone who bends the rules and violates the norms in order to make himself look special or exceptional.”
That’s just not done, for good reason:
The reason for the norms, according to Rosa Brooks, a law professor and national security expert at Georgetown University, is to ensure that an institution endowed by the American public with tremendous power “isn’t being used for partisan ends.”
“We have the line because we don’t want to turn into a banana republic,” she said, noting that she was less worried about a handful of troops meeting the president and forgetting their training and more concerned about Trump “using an address to military personnel as a partisan opportunity.”
That was an issue here:
Speaking onstage at al-Asad Air Base in front of camouflage netting and a giant American flag, the president sported a military-style bomber jacket and alternated between political talking points and musings on foreign policy in between expressing appreciation and gratitude.
He even imported the traditional stagecraft of his political rallies to Iraq, entering to the tune of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” and exiting to a rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
It was all show, and all rule-breaking:
In another departure from traditional decorum, Trump questioned the judgment of the chain of command above the forces he met in Iraq, saying he had demanded a withdrawal from neighboring Syria but kept receiving requests from “our generals” to remain there for six more months. Finally, he suggested, he became fed up and told them “we’re doing it a different way,” suggesting the officers were wrong.
In short, their commanders, all those above them, are fools. He is not, and he alone will decide everything. Only he can save the world, and so on, but there’s nothing new here:
The visit to Iraq and Germany wasn’t the first time that Trump faced criticism for politicizing the U.S. military. In his first days in office, he signed a travel ban on people from predominantly Muslim nations in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes, a choice of venue that made it seem as though the policy decision carried the military’s imprimatur.
Last year, in a commissioning ceremony for the USS Gerald Ford, Trump asked a crowd that included uniformed naval officers to call Congress and advocate both increased defense spending and his policy on health care.
Since the campaign, Trump has viewed the military’s rank and file as his base. “We had a wonderful election, didn’t we?” he said at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa in February 2017. “And I saw those numbers, and you liked me, and I liked you.”
So Democrats, and Republicans, don’t mess with him. He now has a personal military, the biggest in the world, which makes this quaint:
Top officials in the military regularly telegraph the need for political neutrality, traditionally delivering the message around elections.
In mid-2016, for example, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., wrote an article in Joint Force Quarterly explaining that while U.S. forces retain the right to vote and engage in policy issues, they must guard against allowing the military to become politicized and must “protect the integrity and political neutrality of our military profession.”
It may be too late for that – Trump Accidentally Exposes the Location, Identities of U.S. Navy Seal Team 5 on Twitter – so that asset is now burned. But who is going to scold him for doing that? He’s president and that’s that.
Elizabeth Drew is in her eighties now – her first journalism job was with Congressional Quarterly beginning in 1959 and she’s written fourteen fine books on politics since then, and she knows how this ends:
An impeachment process against President Trump now seems inescapable. Unless the president resigns, the pressure by the public on the Democratic leaders to begin an impeachment process next year will only increase.
Count on it:
Too many people think in terms of stasis: How things are is how they will remain. They don’t take into account that opinion moves with events… A significant number of Republican candidates didn’t want to run with Mr. Trump in the midterms, and the results of those elections didn’t exactly strengthen his standing within his party. His political status, weak for some time, is now hurtling downhill.
The midterms were followed by new revelations in criminal investigations of once-close advisers as well as new scandals involving Mr. Trump himself. The odor of personal corruption on the president’s part – perhaps affecting his foreign policy – grew stronger. Then the events of the past several days – the president’s precipitous decision to pull American troops out of Syria, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ abrupt resignation, the swoon in the stock market, the pointless shutdown of parts of the government – instilled a new sense of alarm among many Republicans.
It all adds up, so impeachment seems inevitable:
The word “impeachment” has been thrown around with abandon. The frivolous impeachment of President Bill Clinton helped to define it as a form of political revenge. But it is far more important and serious than that: It has a critical role in the functioning of our democracy.
Impeachment was the founders’ method of holding a president accountable between elections. Determined to avoid setting up a king in all but name, they put the decision about whether a president should be allowed to continue to serve in the hands of the representatives of the people who elected him.
The founders understood that overturning the results of a presidential election must be approached with care and that they needed to prevent the use of that power as a partisan exercise or by a faction. So they wrote into the Constitution provisions to make it extremely difficult for Congress to remove a president from office, including that after an impeachment vote in the House, the Senate would hold a trial, with a two-thirds vote needed for conviction.
Lost in all the discussion about possible lawbreaking by Mr. Trump is the fact that impeachment wasn’t intended only for crimes. For example, in 1974 the House Judiciary Committee charged Richard Nixon with, among other things, abusing power by using the IRS against his political enemies. The committee also held the president accountable for misdeeds by his aides and for failing to honor the oath of office’s pledge that a president must “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
This has been done before, legitimately, so it comes down to this:
The current presidential crisis seems to have only two possible outcomes. If Mr. Trump sees criminal charges coming at him and members of his family, he may feel trapped. This would leave him the choice of resigning or trying to fight congressional removal. But the latter is highly risky.
I don’t share the conventional view that if Mr. Trump is impeached by the House, the Republican-dominated Senate would never muster the necessary 67 votes to convict him. Stasis would decree that would be the case, but the current situation, already shifting, will have been left far behind by the time the senators face that question. Republicans who were once Mr. Trump’s firm allies have already openly criticized some of his recent actions, including his support of Saudi Arabia despite the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and his decision on Syria. They also openly deplored Mr. Mattis’ departure.
It always seemed to me that Mr. Trump’s turbulent presidency was unsustainable and that key Republicans would eventually decide that he had become too great a burden to the party or too great a danger to the country. That time may have arrived.
Or give it a few more weeks. All the strangeness adds up. And if Donald Trump comes to that Richard Nixon moment, when it seems like it’s all over, and unlike Nixon he calls on his personal military to keep him in power, he may find out that they’re not easily fooled after all.