The slang term for a nuclear meltdown, like the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, is the “China Syndrome” – reactor components melt through their containment structures and down into the underlying earth, down “all the way to China” – which explains that 1979 disaster movie with the same name. But the concept is absurd. Nothing is going to melt through the planet and pop out on the other side. It would stop in the center, but twelve days after that disaster movie was released there was that Three Mile Island nuclear accident in central Pennsylvania.
That got people thinking, but not too long or too hard. There were other things to think about. Two days earlier, at the White House, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin signed an Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, and Michigan State led by Magic Johnson, had defeated Larry Bird’s Indiana State in the NCAA tournament championship game in Salt Lake City, and three days later, on April Fools’ Day, Iran’s government became an Islamic Republic, overthrowing our guy, the Shah. The release of one more disaster movie changed nothing. And nuclear meltdowns were rare, and small – back then.
And meltdowns, in general, are rare. People don’t “lose it” emotionally. Most people know better. Most people keep their emotions in check. Self-control is everything. Self-control makes civilization possible. And no one wants to be seen as a fool or a jerk. Well, almost no one, as the New York Times’ Peter Baker and Catie Edmondson demonstrate here:
President Trump faced off against both parties in Congress on Wednesday in an extraordinary confrontation over his decision to abandon America’s Kurdish allies as the vast majority of House Republicans joined Democrats to condemn his policy in an overwhelming vote.
Mr. Trump found himself increasingly isolated after withdrawing troops from Syria and clearing the way for a Turkish offensive against Kurds who had fought alongside the United States. The president all but washed his hands of the conflict, saying that it “has nothing to do with us,” generating withering criticism from Republicans and leading to a stormy clash with Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
This did seem like a meltdown:
Mr. Trump spent much of the day defending his decision and lashing out against rivals. He dismissed the Kurds, who until last week shared outposts with American soldiers, saying they were “no angels” and fought for money. And he berated Ms. Pelosi as a “third-grade politician” or “third-rate politician,” depending on the version, prompting Democrats to walk out of a White House meeting.
“I think now we have to pray for his health,” Ms. Pelosi told reporters afterward. “This was a very serious meltdown on the part of the president.” She said Mr. Trump seemed “very shaken-up” by the cascade of criticism.
Mr. Trump said it was the other way around. “Nancy Pelosi needs help fast!” he wrote on Twitter. “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!”
Yeah, well, whatever, but he was the one having a bad day:
The collision in the Cabinet Room came shortly after the House voted 354 to 60 for a nonbinding resolution expressing opposition to Mr. Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds, a measure that drew support from two-thirds of the House Republican caucus and all three of its top leaders. Senate Republicans spoke out individually on Wednesday, warning that Mr. Trump was courting “disaster,” as one put it.
But warnings only outrage him:
The fireworks erupted as Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Robert C. O’Brien, the president’s new national security adviser, left for Turkey in an effort to persuade President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to agree to a cease-fire in Syria.
But Mr. Trump’s commitment to that diplomacy seemed in doubt as he declared that the United States had no real interest in the matter. “That has nothing to do with us,” he said. He said he could understand if Syria and Turkey want territory. “But what does that have to do with the United States of America if they’re fighting over Syria’s land?” he asked.
Mr. Trump dismissed concerns that his decision to pull back had opened the way for Russia, Iran, the Syrian government and the Islamic State to move into the abandoned territory and reassert influence in the area. “I wish them all a lot of luck,” Mr. Trump said of the Russians and Syrians. “If Russia wants to get involved with Syria, that’s really up to them,” he added.
So, none of this is our business at all:
Mr. Trump’s approach upended decades of American policy in the Middle East, a region that presidents of both parties have considered vital to the United States. While many presidents have been reluctant to commit troops to conflicts there, they rarely brushed off the importance of the region’s disputes so dismissively nor accepted the influence of Russia or other hostile players so readily.
But Mr. Trump argued that he ran for president on a platform of ending “endless wars,” a pledge that resonated with many Americans tired of nearly two decades of overseas military operations. “Let them fight their own wars,” he said on Wednesday. “They’ve been fighting for 1,000 years. Let them fight their own wars.”
We will stay right here, within our borders, and let the rest of the world go by, but old ways die hard:
Mr. Trump got into an extended back and forth with Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, normally among his closest allies but one of the sharpest opponents of his Syria decision.
“I hope President Trump is right in his belief that Turkey’s invasion of Syria is of no concern to us, abandoning the Kurds won’t come back to haunt us, ISIS won’t reemerge, and Iran will not fill the vacuum created by this decision,” Mr. Graham wrote on Twitter.
“However,” he added, “I firmly believe that if President Trump continues to make such statements this will be a disaster worse than President Obama’s decision to leave Iraq.”
But that only made the Big Guy angry:
The president pushed back against Mr. Graham later in the day, saying that the senator should be focusing on investigating Mr. Trump’s Democratic opponents, including former President Barack Obama. “The people of South Carolina don’t want us to get into a war with Turkey, a NATO member, or with Syria,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Graham then rebutted Mr. Trump again. “With all due respect for the president, I think I’m elected to have a say about our national security,” he told reporters who relayed Mr. Trump’s remarks. “I will not ever be quiet about matters of national security.”
Graham had his reasons:
Particularly angering critics in both parties on Wednesday was Mr. Trump’s cavalier attitude toward the Kurdish troops who have been America’s most reliable ally against the Islamic State. Seven times during two public appearances on Wednesday, Mr. Trump used some variation of the phrase “no angels” to describe the Kurds and suggested they fought out of their own financial interest.
“We’re making the Kurds look like they’re angels,” he said at one point. “We paid a lot of money to the Kurds. Tremendous amounts of money. We’ve given them massive fortunes.”
Echoing Mr. Erdogan’s talking points, the president compared one faction of the Kurds to the Islamic State and asserted that Kurds intentionally freed some Islamic State prisoners to create a backlash for Mr. Trump…
But he denied that he gave Mr. Erdogan a green light for the incursion when he agreed to remove several dozen troops from the border who had effectively served as a trip wire deterring any Turkish operation.
For some reason, no one believed him, so there was this:
To prove his point, he cited a letter he wrote the Turkish president last week.
“History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way,” Mr. Trump said in the Oct. 9 letter to Mr. Erdogan, which was obtained by Fox Business Network on Wednesday and confirmed by a White House official. “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! I will call you later.”
That letter, however, seems like documentation of an earlier meltdown:
“Dear Mr. President,” the Oct. 9 letter began, “Let’s work out a good deal! You don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy – and I will.”
Trump then referred to economic sanctions his administration used on the country to push for the release of an American pastor who’d been locked up in Turkey, calling it “a little sample” of what could be in store.
“I have worked hard to solve some of your problems. Don’t let the world down. You can make a great deal,” Trump wrote, asserting that the commander of the Kurdish forces is “willing to negotiate with you.”
He made up that last part, and the rest was threats and sneers and patronizing advice-to-a-stupid-little-child stuff:
“History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way,” Trump wrote to Erdogan. “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!”
And that was that:
Trump appears to be proud of the missive – Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the president handed out copies of it during a heated meeting with Congressional leaders on Wednesday.
“The president is always tough at the wrong times. He should have been tough on the phone with Erdogan, not in a letter after he already green-lit Erdogan’s invasion of Syria,” Schumer said.
Republican-turned-independent Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan posted a copy of the letter, and said, “This is insane.”
As for the actual meeting, Katie Rogers tells that tale:
You know a White House meeting has gone off the rails when the president of the United States and the speaker of the House cannot agree over the precise insult one called the other.
According to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, President Trump called her a “third-grade” politician during a combative meeting with congressional leaders of both parties on Wednesday about the worsening situation in northern Syria. The White House and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, said Mr. Trump actually called Ms. Pelosi “third-rate.”
At one particularly tense moment, Ms. Pelosi informed the president that “all roads with you lead to Putin,” referring to Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president.
And so, on Day 1,000 of his presidency, that is where things stand between Mr. Trump and Ms. Pelosi, who have a fraught history of derailing meetings shortly after pledging to work together, including one in January, when the president abruptly stood up, said “bye-bye” and stormed out. A meeting in May basically ended before it began.
And there was this meeting:
The roughly 20-minute meeting on Wednesday, the first since Democrats began an impeachment inquiry of Mr. Trump, was a new low, according to the recollections of several Democratic officials who shared details of the meeting. The White House did not dispute their accounts.
Mr. Trump began the proceedings in the Cabinet Room by making it clear that he did not want to be there.
“They said you wanted this meeting,” Mr. Trump told the congressional leaders. “I didn’t want this meeting, but I’m doing it.”
Several lawmakers replied that the White House had reached out to THEM in efforts to brief them on the administration’s Syria policy.
Trump had no response to that other than this:
Mr. Trump then began a speech about a “nasty” letter he had sent to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, which he said was proof that he had not given the Turkish leader a green light to advance Turkish forces into Syria. Mr. Trump then directed Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican minority leader, to pass copies of the letter around the table…
A short time later, Ms. Pelosi told the president that the House had passed a bipartisan resolution with overwhelming Republican support that condemned his acquiescence to a Turkish assault against the Kurds, who have been crucial American allies in the fight against ISIS.
That was the wrong thing to say, but there was no right way to say anything:
Mr. Schumer, for his part, tried to appeal to Mr. Trump as a fellow New Yorker who lived through the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“I told the president, being from New York,” Mr. Schumer said to reporters shortly after the meeting, “we’re particularly aware of the problems that terrorism and that an organization like ISIS can create. And the fact that someone no less than General Mattis has said that ISIS has been enhanced, that the danger of ISIS is so much greater, worries all of us.”
That was the wrong thing to say too:
At Mr. Schumer’s mention of Gen. Jim Mattis – who quit last year as Mr. Trump’s secretary of defense to protest the president’s decision to pull American troops out of Syria – Mr. Trump began denigrating the retired four-star general’s approach to combating terrorism in the Middle East.
Mr. Mattis was “the world’s most overrated general,” Mr. Trump told the group. “You know why? He wasn’t tough enough. I captured ISIS. Mattis said it would take two years. I captured them in one month.”
So, he was the one who captured ISIS – not the Kurds – not our military – all by himself – just him – and that took him only one month.
Imagine stunned silence, and then this:
The conversation, several Democratic officials said, only devolved from there, and reached a fever pitch after Ms. Pelosi told the president that Russia, which has quickly stepped in to fill the void left by American troops in Syria, “has always wanted a foothold in the Middle East.” It was at this point that she told Mr. Trump that all roads with him led to Mr. Putin.
At another point, Mr. Trump told Ms. Pelosi that he cared more about defeating terrorism than she did.
“I hate ISIS more than you do,” the president declared.
“You don’t know that,” the speaker replied.
And so it goes:
“You’re just a politician,” Mr. Trump said to Ms. Pelosi.
“Sometimes I wish you were,” Ms. Pelosi shot back.
Mr. Schumer interjected, telling Mr. Trump that name-calling was not necessary.
“Is that a bad name, Chuck?” Mr. Trump asked, and then turned to Ms. Pelosi. “You’re not a politician. You’re a third-grade politician.” (Or “third-rate,” depending on which politician was doing the retelling.)
And then it was over:
Ms. Pelosi stood up to leave, but then sat back down. At this point Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House majority leader – who later said he was “deeply offended” by the president’s treatment of the speaker – said it was time to go.
“This is not useful,” Mr. Hoyer said as he and Ms. Pelosi made for the door.
“Goodbye,” the president responded. “We’ll see you at the polls.”
And then there was this:
Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, said the president had been completely in control during the meeting with lawmakers.
“The president was measured, factual and decisive, while Speaker Pelosi’s decision to walk out was baffling, but not surprising,” Ms. Grisham said in a statement. “She had no intention of listening or contributing to an important meeting on national security issues. While democratic leadership chose to storm out and get in front of the cameras to whine, everyone else in the meeting chose to stay in the room and work on behalf of this country.”
By early evening, Mr. Trump had posted on Twitter the official White House photos of the meeting. One showed Ms. Pelosi standing up to speak to him, which Mr. Trump characterized as an “unhinged meltdown.”
Or so he said, but there was this – Lawmakers, Social Media Users Praise Photo of Pelosi Confronting Trump – because she was the hero (or heroine) of this particular tale.
The Big Guy wasn’t, as Dana Milbank notes here:
The Italian president visited the White House with rebukes from Europe on Syria, NATO and trade. U.S. officials, defying Trump, continued their damaging testimony to the congressional impeachment inquiry. Authorities arrested a fourth associate of Rudy Giuliani.
And Trump acted the way he increasingly has lately: as if the walls are closing in. Trump lashed out, indiscriminately, in all directions. His unfocused rage was as cogent as a primal scream and as subtle as a column of Turkish tanks.
The Italian president was relaying a message from the nations of Europe, stop this madness, as they say, and the American president was doing this:
He attacked the media and the Democrats, of course, and James Comey, Andrew McCabe, James Clapper, John Brennan and “the two great lovers,” Lisa Page and Peter Strzok. But he also attacked NATO members and the European Union. He attacked Germany, Spain and France. He attacked his guest (“Italy is only paying 1.1 percent” of gross domestic product for defense “instead of the mandated 2 percent”). He attacked Google and Amazon. He attacked those seeking to rename Columbus Day. He floated a new conspiracy theory saying, “I happen to think” 2016 election corruption “goes right up to President Obama.”
Sickeningly, he attacked just-abandoned Kurdish allies as if they deserve the massacre they are now receiving. He portrayed these friends as enemies, saying they’re “not angels,” that it is “natural for them” to fight and that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party is “more of a terrorist threat in many ways than ISIS.”
This was awkward:
Italian President Sergio Mattarella, likely briefed on a similar rant Trump gave while meeting with the Finnish president, listened without expression to Trump’s expansive grievances and said, “I’m not here to judge what other countries do” when asked about Trump’s Syria pullout.
Mattarella gently but firmly restated Italy’s and the democratic world’s position, all at odds with Trump’s utterances: “The Turkish attack on Syria is a serious mistake.” The invasion has “already caused a number of casualties and tens of thousands of refugees and displaced people and there are plenty of victims amongst civilians.” The attack risks “offering new space to ISIS and to its criminal terrorist activities.”
Mattarella also defended Italy’s NATO contributions and the United Nations and counseled against a trade war.
Trump, by way of rejoinder, boasted about new U.S. tariffs and said: “We cannot lose a war of tariffs.”
Dan Zak saw more than that:
“It’s a lot of sand,” Trump said.
He was sitting in the Oval Office next to the president of Italy, and referring to the battleground between the Turkish military and Syrian Kurds.
“They’ve got a lot of sand over there. So there’s a lot of sand they can play with.”
“Thank you for the very interesting remarks you just made,” the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, said through his interpreter.
“I have so many Italian friends,” Trump said to Mattarella. “I can’t tell you how many Italian friends.”
Mattarella might have felt as if he were in a Felinni movie, and meanwhile:
All day, C-SPAN had an online channel labeled “House Intelligence Committee Stakeout.” It was footage of a stairwell at the Capitol, morgue-like in its yellow dimness. Every now and then, a person walked up or down the stairwell, carrying a binder. Behind closed doors, a 37-year veteran of the State Department was testifying that U.S. diplomacy was being politicized to benefit Trump.
And back to the White House:
“I still ask the FBI: Where is the server?” Trump was saying in the Oval Office, referring to Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election. “How come the FBI never got the server from the DNC? Where is the server? I wanna see the server. Let’s see what’s on the server.”
Trump called the U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria a “strategically brilliant” decision that keeps “our soldiers totally safe.”
His former ISIS adviser, veteran national-security official Brett McGurk, took to Twitter with a sharp rebuke: “Trump has no idea what’s happening.”
Perhaps so, but no one else knows what’s happening either:
The joint news conference with President Mattarella began 54 minutes late in the East Room of the White House.
“To me it will always be called ‘Columbus Day,’ ” Trump began, referring to the Italian heritage of the explorer.
“Some people don’t like that. I do.” Then he called his own election “corrupt.” And, for at least the fourth time in as many hours, Trump referred to the Kurds as “no angels.”
“Who is an angel?” he said. “There aren’t too many around.”
That felt like a meltdown, but then there’s Liz Sly, the Washington Post’s Beirut bureau chief, covering Lebanon, Syria and the wider region, who’s been at this for seventeen years, who notes the real consequences now:
The blow to America’s standing in the Middle East was sudden and unexpectedly swift. Within the space of a few hours, advances by Turkish troops in Syria this week had compelled the U.S. military’s Syrian Kurdish allies to switch sides, unraveled years of U.S. Syria policy and recalibrated the balance of power in the Middle East.
As Russia and Syrian troops roll into vacated towns and U.S. bases, the winners are counting the spoils.
The withdrawal delivered a huge victory to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who won back control of an area roughly amounting to a third of the country almost overnight. It affirmed Moscow as the arbiter of Syria’s fate and the rising power in the Middle East. It sent another signal to Iran that Washington has no appetite for the kind of confrontation that its rhetoric suggests and that Iran’s expanded influence in Syria is now likely to go unchallenged.
But there’s more to this:
It sent a message to the wider world that the United States is in the process of a disengagement that could resonate beyond the Middle East, said Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“There’s a sense that the long goodbye has begun and that the long goodbye from the Middle East could become a long goodbye from Asia and everywhere else,” he said.
And that means we’re nothing now:
Images shared on social media underscored the indignity of the retreat. Departing U.S. troops in sophisticated armored vehicles passed Syrian army soldiers riding in open-top trucks on a desert highway. An embedded Russian journalist took selfies on the abandoned U.S. base in Manbij, where U.S. forces had fought alongside their Kurdish allies to drive out the Islamic State in 2015.
“Only yesterday they were here, and now we are here,” said the journalist, panning the camera around the intact infrastructure, including a radio tower and a button-powered traffic-control gate that he showed was still functioning.
“Let’s see how they lived and what they ate,” he said, before ducking into one of the tents and filming the soldiers’ discarded snacks.
We are mere curiosities now, and just not that important:
On Arab news channels, coverage switched from footage of jubilant Syrian troops to scenes of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lavish receptions by the monarchs of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Washington’s most vital Arab allies in the Persian Gulf. The visits had been long planned, but the timing gave them the feel of a victory lap.
“This has left a bad taste for all of America’s friends and allies in the region, not only among the Kurds,” said a former regional minister who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to not embarrass his government, an American ally. “Many will now be looking for new friends. The Russians don’t abandon their allies. They fight for them. And so do the Iranians.”
And of course Trump made fools of our military:
Few had anticipated that the most advanced military in the world would make such a scrambled and hasty departure, even after President Trump signaled he would not endorse a war on behalf of the Kurds against a U.S. NATO ally.
Less than 48 hours before the withdrawal announcement, U.S. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had given assurances that the troops would remain indefinitely, standing by their Kurdish partners to continue to hunt down the Islamic State.
Milley was made to look like a fool, but all of this was inevitable:
The United States remains overwhelmingly the dominant military power in the Middle East, with around 50,000 troops deployed in the region and a level of technological superiority that will ensure allies covet American weapons and support for years.
But friends and enemies alike are starting to suspect that Trump’s unpredictability is less a cause than a consequence of a broader American reluctance to engage with the world, Ibish said. He dates that to the trauma of the bloody, costly and ultimately unsatisfying wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“People are asking: Could the United States not only be an unreliable power, but could it actually be a weak power as well?” he said. “Not because it lacks the capability but because it lacks the will.”
That may be the case. Trump had his meltdown, and he took the nation with him. The hot core sank. And there may be no possible recovery now.