Intermission – stretch your legs – relax – this is the break in the high drama. Catch your breath before the real action begins again, with even more intensity. The first day of the Trump impeachment hearings – the inquiry – was over. And everyone was angry. But the second day was yet to come. That left a quiet Thursday with nothing happening that would upset anyone.
But these are the Trump years, and he is a difficult man, and there are no days off. He has to shake things up. That’s his reason for being, and during the intermission he did it again:
President Trump is expected to intervene in three military justice cases involving service members charged with war crimes any day, issuing pardons or otherwise clearing them of wrongdoing and preventing the U.S. military from bringing the same charges again, three U.S. officials said Thursday.
White House and Pentagon officials have been working out the details for days, said the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The details were not all clear but are expected to involve executive clemency, in which Trump can pardon someone or shorten a prison sentence through commutation.
The actions have been anticipated by U.S. officials and advocates for the service members for weeks, and decried by some military justice experts for what they see as a subversion of the legal process. But those experts also acknowledge that, as commander in chief, Trump has broad authority in the cases to act as he sees fit.
Everyone has seen the old war movies. The Nazis committed war crimes. We tried the top-level Nazis at Nuremberg. We hung a lot of them, and in the Pacific, the Japanese were particularly brutal. We executed a few of these people for waterboarding our people, and for waterboarding in general. Then we did the same thing at Guantanamo and it was fine. The Geneva Conventions were “quaint” – but the new president, Obama, let it go. We wouldn’t do that anymore. What had been done had been done and revisiting that would tear the country apart – but Donald Trump was different. He said, if elected, he would waterboard everyone and anyone – and he would do far worse. He said he had been told that torture doesn’t work. Torture produced no useful information. He said he didn’t care. Maybe torture didn’t work, but he’d torture his prisoners anyway – because they deserved it.
The crowds roared, and he rode that roar to the White House, so now it’s this:
The cases include that of Army Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn, a former Special Forces officer who faces a murder trial in the 2010 death of a suspected Taliban bombmaker; former Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who recently was acquitted of murder but convicted of posing with an Islamic State corpse; and former Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, who was convicted of second-degree murder in 2013 and is serving a 19-year prison sentence for ordering his soldiers to open fire on three men in Afghanistan…
In October, Trump tweeted that the case of Golsteyn was “under review” at the White House. Golsteyn, who earned a Silver Star for valor in Afghanistan that was later revoked by the Army, is “a highly decorated Green Beret who is being tried for killing a Taliban bombmaker,” Trump said.
“We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” he tweeted.
Yeah, they kill unnamed prisoners, and random civilians, but their officers are too hard on them. They’re killing machines, and no one would punish a machine, particularly an excellent machine:
The action follows Trump pardoning another veteran, former 1st Lt. Michael Behenna, in May in the 2008 murder of an Iraqi prisoner suspected of being a member of al-Qaeda.
Behenna was convicted of unpremeditated murder and sentenced to 25 years after stripping a detainee naked, interrogating him without authorization and shooting him twice. Behenna said he was acting in self-defense…
So, trust the guy and screw the whole military command structure. Our guys mow down fifty schoolgirls? Trump will pardon them. He’s no snowflake like the commanders in the field and the generals in the Pentagon. We kill. Deal with it. And now we’re the bad guys in the old war movies.
The generals in the Pentagon are not happy about this, and more, and the New York Times reports on how they have decided to deal with this difficult man:
Days after President Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw 1,000 American troops from Syria, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saw a way to turn it around.
The businessman in Mr. Trump had focused on the Syrian oil fields that, if left unprotected, could fall into the hands of the Islamic State – or Russia or Iran. So General Milley proposed to a receptive Mr. Trump that American commandos, along with allied Syrian Kurdish fighters, guard the oil.
Today, 800 American troops remain in Syria.
“We’re keeping the oil,” Mr. Trump told reporters on Wednesday before his meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. “We left troops behind, only for the oil.”
Forget the Kurds and all they had done with us and for us, forget all alliances, and shrug at commitment or any promises. This isn’t about honor. This is about oil. Talk that up and Trump will send in all the troops anyone wants. In short, trick him:
Nearly three years into the Trump presidency, the Pentagon is learning how to manage a capricious president whose orders can whipsaw by the hour. Top Defense Department officials have acquired their education the hard way, through Mr. Trump’s Twitter bullying of Iran and North Korea, letdown of allies in Syria, harsh attacks on the Atlantic alliance and public support for commandos the military has charged with war crimes. Mr. Trump, top Pentagon officials say, is unpredictable, frustrating and overly focused on spectacles like military parades.
But talk about money and he’s just fine, but there are limits to this:
In many ways, the American military remains the part of the government most responsive to the president across a large and fractious administration, because civilian control of the armed forces is embedded in the Constitution and the psyche of every soldier. But for Mr. Trump, the other side of that coin is that the military respects the coequal branches of government, as Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman demonstrated in recent days when, against the wishes of the president, he testified in the House impeachment proceeding.
The American military understands the structure of the government, which is a problem for them, but there are other problems:
Once Mr. Trump took office, he gave the Pentagon and military commanders more running room. He allowed the Pentagon to speed up decision-making so the military could move faster on raids, airstrikes, bombing missions and arming allies in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. The Pentagon, after eight years of chafing at what many generals viewed as the slow decision-making and second-guessing by the Obama White House, at first embraced the new commander in chief.
But with the new freedom came repercussions. Mr. Trump deflected blame onto the Pentagon if things went wrong. After a botched raid in Yemen in January 2017, which led to the death of Chief Petty Officer William Owens, a member of the Navy SEALs known as Ryan, Mr. Trump appeared to blame the military – a stunning departure from previous presidents, who as commanders in chief have traditionally accepted responsibility for military operations that they ordered.
“They explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected,” Mr. Trump told Fox News after the raid. “And they lost Ryan.”
That was their problem, not his. They’re losers. He’s not. And war crimes come up again:
On another issue important to the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and the Army secretary, Ryan McCarthy, have reached out quietly to Mr. Trump in recent days to ask that he not interfere in several war crimes cases. Defense Department officials are concerned that presidential pardons could undermine discipline across the ranks.
Ah, but this president seems to think that discipline in the ranks is for sissies, but it’s best to keep quiet about all this:
Commanders have also learned to carefully parse their comments, wary of having their words construed as subtle criticism of the president.
During a news conference, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the United States Central Command, declined to repeat Mr. Trump’s assertion that the Islamic State leader was “whimpering” before he detonated his suicide vest after American troops raided his compound.
But General McKenzie backed up Mr. Trump’s characterization of Mr. al-Baghdadi as a coward. “He crawled into a hole with two small children, blew himself up,” the general said. “So, you can deduce what kind of person it is based on that activity.”
That’s it. Humor the old man. In fact, only use words he knows already:
Defense Department officials also make sure to speak more frequently about how important it is to get North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies in Europe to “pay their fair share,” echoing Mr. Trump’s more transactional view of how that alliance should proceed. By emphasizing payment, rather than simply saying that the Pentagon wants European governments to bolster their own internal military budgets – a more accurate description of NATO policy – American officials couch something they wanted anyway in language that will appeal to the president.
They owe us money! Lots of money!
No, they don’t. They know it. We know it. Trump doesn’t know it. Humor him. And keep things stable:
Senior military and Defense Department officials say that in some cases, it is simply a matter of talking in a way that will appeal to Mr. Trump, while prosecuting a similar national security policy as they did under President Barack Obama.
But that’s difficult:
On the Korean Peninsula, the United States and South Korea have continued to conduct joint military exercises despite Mr. Trump’s announcement that such “war games” be suspended pending nuclear negotiations with North Korea. Stopping the exercises completely, Defense Department officials say, would hurt military readiness in the event the United States does end up at war with the North. The military now conducts them at a smaller scale level and no longer makes them public.
Maybe the boss won’t notice, but don’t count on it, because he is full of surprises:
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper landed in South Korea on Thursday to navigate renewed threats from an “enraged” North Korea and newly heightened strain in the alliance with Seoul that congressional aides, lawmakers and Korea experts say has been caused by President Donald Trump.
Trump is demanding that South Korea pay roughly 500% more in 2020 to cover the cost of keeping US troops on the peninsula, a congressional aide and an administration official confirmed to CNN.
What? Secretary of Defense Esper had been blindsided. Everyone had been blindsided:
The price hike has frustrated Pentagon officials and deeply concerned Republican and Democratic lawmakers, according to military officials and congressional aides. It has angered and unnerved Seoul, where leaders are questioning US commitment to their alliance and wondering whether Trump will pull US forces if they don’t pay up.
“Nothing says I love you like a shakedown,” said Vipin Narang, an associate professor at MIT who follows the Korean peninsula, summarizing South Korean uncertainty about the US.
But maybe this wasn’t organized well enough to be a shakedown:
In the US, congressional aides and Korea experts familiar with the talks say the President’s $4.7 billion demand came out of thin air, sending State and Defense Department officials scrambling to justify the number with a slew of new charges that may include Seoul paying some costs for US personnel present on the peninsula and for troops and equipment that rotate through.
This calls for some creative accounting, but no amount of creative accounting will fix this:
Negotiations are underway as North Korea threatens to step up its weapons development, deepening Seoul’s anxiety. On Thursday, Pyongyang condemned US-South Korean joint military exercises, saying it was “enraged” and threatening to respond with “force in kind.”
North Korea has already launched 24 missiles this year, each a violation of UN resolutions, to match the country’s previous annual record for firing off projectiles that threaten South Korea and Japan, according to Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Klingner is one of several Korea experts who suggest that Trump pulled the figure out of thin air. Officials at the relevant agencies and aides in Congress who follow Asia are similarly perplexed. “I have no idea where the President pulled this number from,” said the congressional aide.
But that may not matter now:
Germany, France and the United Kingdom recently condemned Pyongyang for the launches, saying they undermined regional security and stability. Meanwhile, South Korean leaders are acutely aware that Trump has downplayed the launches, saying he is “not at all” troubled by them.
“There are a lot of hard feelings,” Klingner said of South Korean views of the US right now, adding that “people are questioning the viability of the US as an ally.”
Scott Snyder, director of the US-Korea policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the extreme nature of the price hike is creating “worry that Trump is doing this as a pretext for withdrawal” of US troops.
“The main side effect that I see is that it raises questions about the credibility of the United States as a protector, as an alliance partner,” Snyder said. “And that’s not good for the relationship.”
But it may be good for Trump, because his base will love this, his lonely base now:
Military officials have told CNN they are distressed about the request and that they have been concerned the President’s foreign policy decision making could increasingly be shaped by his concerns about the 2020 election campaign or impeachment pressure.
The congressional aide said Pentagon officials are expressing their discomfort on Capitol Hill as well. “The career professionals and career military: they’re beside themselves,” the aide said, “but Trump is the commander in chief, so they’re in a box.”
“The Koreans are outraged,” the aide continued, particularly because elections are coming in April and they don’t think the cost increase is defensible in their National Assembly.
Once again, Trump has outraged everyone. His work here is done:
Sen. Edward Markey, the leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Asia said that he was “troubled by President Trump’s demand… If South Korea decides that it is better off without the United States, President Trump will have undermined an over 60-year shared commitment to peace, stability, and rule of law. The region is less safe when countries lose confidence in America’s ability to lead.”
And all the Republicans hid:
Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Asia, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Neither did the second ranking Republican on the subcommittee, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, or the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. James Risch of Idaho.
But not everyone was hiding. Tobias Hoonhout at the National Review reports this:
Turkish president Recip Erdogan attempted to justify his aggression towards the Syrian Kurds during a Wednesday meeting with five Republican senators by showing the room a Turkish video depicting the Kurds as terrorists, according to multiple reports.
After the video, Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) – an outspoken defender of the Kurds – reportedly asked Erdogan, “Well, do you want me to go get the Kurds to make one about what you’ve done?”
This was nasty:
In an interview with Axios, Graham confirmed that he had clashed with Erdogan over Turkey’s military offensive in Northern Syria. Erdogan reportedly took issue with Graham’s use of the word “invasion,” while Graham challenged Erdogan for claiming to have assisted in the fight against ISIS.
“The Turkish narrative that they have done more to destroy ISIS, I rejected forcefully, and I let Turkey know that 10,000 SDF fighters, mostly Kurds, suffered, died or injured, in the fight against ISIS, and America will not forget that and will not abandon them,” Graham said Wednesday night.
Trump must have been a bit uncomfortable. He had said that the Kurds were no angels, that they were terrorists too, perhaps worse than ISIS, and greedy freeloaders on our charity. Erdogan had said so. He likes Erdogan, but he was trying to prove he was being tough on Erdogan in the wrong setting:
A senior White House official said that President Trump, who has been criticized for his Syrian withdrawal, brought the senators to show “Erdogan that they’re serious about sanctions, and Trump doesn’t have to be the bad guy.”
Earlier this week, NSC Adviser Robert O’Brien said that the U.S. could impose new sanctions on Turkey for its strategic partnerships with Russia, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the U.S. relationship with the Syrian Kurds “great.”
But there was Erdogan, poised to take out the Kurds, every man and woman and child, an honored guest that the White House – and Trump said he was a big fan of this guy.
This was a mess, and Politico reported this:
At one point during his extraordinary joint press conference with President Donald Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned his attention to the U.S. Senate.
The chamber, he contended, would stop the “vicious cycle” started by the House, which had passed biting sanctions on his country. But senators have a clear response to Erdogan that’s at odds with Trump’s friendly rhetoric toward the strongman leader: Don’t count on it.
It seems that Trump cannot sell this guy to America:
Many in the GOP are now pressing to not only enforce existing sanctions on Turkey, but to pile on new ones as soon as they can – which would be a rebuke not just of Erdogan but of Trump and his policies…
Given the appetite in the Senate to push back against Turkey’s attack on U.S. allies, it may be difficult to bottle up sanctions, particularly since the House overwhelmingly passed a bill targeting Turkey’s economy. Senators hit pause as the Trump administration raced to negotiate a temporary peace deal after the U.S. withdrawal, but they are itching to condemn Turkey’s president.
Oh yeah? The feeling is mutual:
Turkish media are seizing on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s comments that President Trump had “no reaction” to his returning the American leader’s notorious letter to him, saying it shows a clear victory over Trump.
A headline in Sabah Daily, a pro-government media outlet, said that international media were reporting that Erdoğan returned the “scandalous” letter to Trump and the American president was “silent.”
The Turkish president was careful not push his criticism of Trump too far during a briefing with reporters following the two leaders’ summit, but he did use his platform to attack his detractors in the U.S. Congress.
One headline in Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily quoted the Turkish leader talking about Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.): “I told him what he needed, he learned his lesson.”
The message was clear. Your leader is a fool and you Republicans in Congress need to be put in your place – as nothings who don’t matter – and Trump’s letter said it all:
Erdoğan, speaking in Turkish at a press conference with Trump on Wednesday, made a point of highlighting the letter. He said he had brought Trump’s Oct. 9 letter from Trump back to the White House to return it.
Trump’s letter, written in a decidedly non-presidential tone, warned Erdoğan he’d be remembered as a devil if he didn’t back off his planned offensive in Syria to clear out Kurdish forces allied with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.
“Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool! I will call you later,” stated the letter, which was widely mocked at the time as offensive and undiplomatic.
And he threw it in Trump’s face, and Trump took it. And then he laid into our Congress:
Erdoğan also accused U.S. lawmakers in the House and Senate as a unified force working to harm relations between him and Trump, in part by passing a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide and a bill calling for sanctions on Turkey over its Syria offensive.
Turkish media reported that Congress’s support of the Kurds is supporting terrorism.
That’s what Erdogan said in the White House in front of our president and key Republican senators – and Trump says he’s a big fan.
Donald Trump is a difficult man. And now back to those impeachment hearings. Intermission is over. But maybe, this time, intermission is the real show.