October 18, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Weak-Kneed and Getting Weaker
Are the Republicans preparing to run for the exits?
We should discuss this week’s heated meeting between Nancy Pelosi and the president. You know the one I mean—the meeting that was the subject of the now famous photograph of the House speaker rising above the table of power, index finger poised like a figure of supreme moral authority, demanding that Donald Trump, who looks like a petulant teen, explain why all roads lead to Russia and Vladimir Putin.
It seems that some Republicans are either discovering for the first time that everything the president’s critics have been saying about him, including that he’s puppet president in league with the enemy, is devastatingly true; or they are developing a narrative by which they can run for the exits while pointing to his worsening mental state as reason why they are fleeing for their lives. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
All roads lead to Russia and Vladimir Putin.
Our discussion should begin with reporting from CNN’s Jamie Gangel. At suppertime Thursday, she reported a conversation she had that afternoon with a Republican source in the room when Pelosi allegedly “stormed off.” The GOP source was “alarmed at [Trump’s] demeanor.” “Everyone left completely shaken, shell-shocked,” the source told Gangel. “He is not in control of himself. It is all yelling and screaming.”
Gangel asked the source if the president’s state of mind was getting worse. “100 percent,” the source said. Are you worried about his stability. “Yes.” Gangel said the source had talked to other Republicans who were in the room. According to Gangel’s source, one used the word “sickened” to describe their reaction to the president’s behavior during the meeting. The source added that the “generals were upset.”
Gangel concluded with a chilling implication. Republicans appear increasingly less concerned about Trump’s terrible decision to pull out Syria, betray our allies, and leave the region vulnerable to Russia. Gangel implied that Republicans are growing more worried about Trump’s mental health. “They were concerned about his demeanor.”
What should we make of all this?
First, that Kevin McCarthy is a liar. The House Minority Leader told reporters after the meeting that the president had been calm and reasonable, eager to get work done, while the House speaker had been the one to “storm off.” Pelosi has a reputation for being meticulous about decorum. She’s been on the Hill for decades. She doesn’t even tolerate cussing within earshot. It was never credible to accuse her of “storming off” from any meeting, much less one with the president of the United States. Now we know McCarthy is a sexist liar (who also takes illegal Russian money, but I digress).
Second, that the Republicans are starting to see more clearly that the president’s monumental weakness in foreign affairs has the makings of a nonstop crisis at home. Domestically, the Republican Party can shield Trump from his laziness, incompetence and impotence. Party actors can lie, right-wing media allies can amplify the lie, the president can see the lie on Fox, then repeat it himself—all of which gives the impression to his supporters that all is well. This process, or a rough variation of it, is probably why Trump’s approval rating, though terrible, is nonetheless rock steady.
The Republicans can’t protect Trump from himself as well in international relations. For one thing, he’s the head of state. Today’s Congress is a weak actor in that area. For another, the “adults in the room,” the people the GOP hoped and prayed in 2017 would steer Trump away from disaster, have been purged and replaced by yes-men. Without a superstructure to restrain him, the president has been going with his gut, which is to say, negotiating from a position of abject weakness, as he has throughout his career.
I mean, get this: at the meeting, he actually told Pelosi and the Democrats that the US had to pull out of Syria, because Turkey’s leader said he was going to invade whether he liked it or not. At the same time, Trump presented the Democrats with a letter he wrote to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan saying he’d destroy the country’s economy if he crossed the line, whatever that is. The BBC said Erdogan threw the letter in the bin. Mike Pence negotiated a cease-fire. The AP said today that the shelling continued.
The president has been going with his gut, which is to say, negotiating from a position of weakness.
Chuck Schumer of all people was so very right. “The president could have said, ‘You go in, and you’re going to have real trouble,’ and 99.9 percent, Erdogan wouldn’t have gone in,” the Senate minority leader told the Post Wednesday. “He’s very tough with the media, with his letters. But when it comes face to face, he’s weak-kneed.”
Weak-kneed, getting weaker, and the Republicans know it.
Which brings me to my final point: Are the Republicans starting to see for the first time that everything Trump’s critics have been saying about him, including that he’s a puppet president in league with the enemy, is devastatingly true—that dude gonna err on Russia’s side every damn time; or are the Republicans crafting a clever story about a president in rapidly declining mental health, so they will have a reason, one beyond their control, for turning against him? After all, all roads do seem to lead to Putin.
I suppose we’ll find out soon.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.