Over the past two weeks, Lindsey Graham has signaled his willingness to abandon support for the president. Like other Republicans, he was shaken by Trump’s abrupt removal of troops from Syria where they had been defending Kurdish pro-democracy allies in the region. After the years of mounting evidence that Trump is unfit for office, this move seemed to be the breaking point for Graham, and it is a significant moment for the push for impeachment. Graham is leading a chorus of Republicans in the Senate, of which Mitch McConnell is a part, as well as Republicans in the House and across the political world who are finally realizing that they cannot ride out the Trump storm, let alone control it or benefit from it. Until now, Trump may have irritated Republican leadership in the Senate, but now he has betrayed them, and they have begun to turn on him.
“Mr. President, as much as I like you and want to work with you, I am going to be consistent and I will hold you accountable," Graham said at a news conference after introducing a bipartisan bill to put sanctions on Turkey. The line about being “consistent” is an important signal about the level of hypocrisy that Graham and the Republicans are able to handle. In this line, Graham was referencing the major GOP criticism of Obama in the early to mid- 2010s that Obama’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq created a vacuum in the region that allowed ISIS to rise to power. Now that Trump is pulling forces out in a similar move, the Republicans would be hypocritical if they attempted to defend the move. Graham, for his part, will not tolerate it. While some of Trump’s most die-hard supporters will rationalize Trump’s blunder as a fulfillment of his isolationist campaign promise to remove troops from foreign wars, many Republicans feel the same way as Graham: this level of hypocrisy is just a bit too shameful.
At the same time, Trump’s support in the military is at an all-time low. Military personnel are notoriously reticent about criticizing the President since, after all, he is their Commander in Chief and therefore at the top of their chain of command. But after Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds and the subsequent loss of strategic control of the region along the North-Eastern border of Syria, personnel at all levels of the military are speaking out against what they see as the President’s shameful betrayal of US allies. In a scorching op-ed in the New York Times on Friday, Admiral William H. McRaven, a former commander of the United States Special Operations Command, wrote about the eroding support for the president within the military’s leadership. The Admiral reported, “As I stood on the parade field at Fort Bragg, one retired four-star general, grabbed my arm, shook me and shouted, ‘I don’t like the Democrats, but Trump is destroying the Republic!’” He went on to write that “if this president doesn’t demonstrate the leadership that America needs, both domestically and abroad, then it is time for a new person in the Oval Office — Republican, Democrat or independent — the sooner, the better. The fate of our Republic depends upon it.”
Former Defense Secretary General Jim Mattis. who has demonstrated extreme caution in offering criticism of Trump since working in the administration, offered a similar roast of the President at the annual Alfred E. Smith dinner this week, saying, “I earned my spurs on the battlefield; Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor.”
These are the sorts of defections that can bring down a presidency. Remember, Democrats need to convince 20 Republican senators to abandon Trump in order to secure support for the ratification of articles of impeachment in the Senate. With support for impeachment in general population rising to Nixonian levels, the frustration of the Senate leadership with Trump’s willingness to abandon allies in the Middle East puts enormous strain on the administration’s political support in Congress at a time when the president needs to demonstrate that he can lead the party. It is a delicate moment for Trump. Any further misstep now could lead to the sort of snowballing erosion of support that led to Nixon’s resignation.
For his part, Trump seems largely unaware of and unconcerned by the warnings coming from Graham and Senate Republicans. At a rally in Dallas on Thursday, he spoke proudly of his lack of presidential acumen. “It’s much easier being presidential, it’s easy,” he said to a stadium packed with 20,000 boisterous MAGA hat-wearing supporters. “All you have to do is act like a stiff.” He then proceeded to stand straight up and mock previous presidents by delivering a formulaic caricature of solemn speeches of the past while speaking in a robotic monotone voice. Returning to his regular relaxed slouch, he added, “And everybody would be out of here so fast! You wouldn’t come in in the first place!” He has done this routine frequently at his rallies, and the crowd always loves it. His point: being presidential is boring.
The problem for Graham and the GOP is, of course, that being presidential also means being under their control to some extent. Any reasonable politician would see that it is in their interest to be ‘presidential’ at least to some degree in order to achieve their policy objectives. But Trump has never been reasonable, and he has never been interested in working with GOP leadership to achieve mutually beneficial policy goals. From the very beginning in 2015, when Trump first indicated that he might run as an independent if he didn’t win the Republican nomination and the Republicans scrambled to force him into signing a loyalty pledge to the party, it has been clear to the nation that Trump, for all his emphasis on loyalty, has no loyalty to Republicans. If Graham ever thought Trump would fall in line or act reasonably with regard to the political incentives the Republicans have lined up to guide his behavior in their desired direction, then he (Graham) was a fool.
The problem with Trump that the Republicans are now just waking up to is the problem that Democrats immediately recognized when he began his campaign for the White House: Trump’s narcissism is uncontrollable. What the Republicans are now learning the hard way is that a narcissist like Trump cannot be reasoned with. Trump cannot be guided or manipulate by the Senate any more than the producers of the Apprentice could have. In fact, this entire debacle with the Syrian Kurds is reminiscent of the times when Trump would impulsively fire the star performer of the Apprentice without any warning. As George Conway wrote in the Atlantic a few weeks ago, staff on the show found that Trump “frequently fired strong contestants ‘on a whim,’ which required them ‘to ‘reverse engineer’ the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage … in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense.’” Conway then noted that one editor told him that they found “it strangely validating that they’re doing the same thing in the White House.” This impulsivity is something that Senators like Graham must now take into consideration if they wish to prevent Trump from making more mistakes with the US military.
At the end of the day, while the abandonment of the Kurds is sure to go down in history as one of the worst decisions a president has ever made, there is a silver lining in that the catastrophe seems to have roused Graham and other senators from their Trump-induced stupor. Finally, after years of recklessness, the Senate leadership is showing signs that they are willing to drop their support for Trump if he continues to damage American geopolitical strategy further. If such debacles are what it takes to tip the Senate toward favoring impeachment, then, for the good of the republic, so be it. Otherwise, more lives will be needlessly lost in order to satisfy the ego of the narcissistic maniac in the White House. Hopefully, Graham and the GOP will do the right thing and vote to impeach Trump before he does something worse than abandoning the Kurds. After all, if there’s one thing Graham should know by now, this is not the last time that Trump will do something like this. It is the way he governs. Being presidential is boring.