Wednesday, 23 Sep 2020

Opinion | ‘Not a Commander-in-Chief’

This article is part of David Leonhardt’s newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it each weekday.

Gen. James Mattis, the former defense secretary, has so far said nothing about President Trump’s reckless decision to abandon the Kurds, longtime allies of the United States, to a threatened military assault by Turkey.

Rex Tillerson, the former secretary of state, has also said nothing.

And Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the former national security adviser, has said nothing.

They’re all making a mistake. With their silence, they are showing greater loyalty to one man — Trump — than to the national interest.

[Listen to “The Argument” podcast every Thursday morning, with Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg and David Leonhardt.]

Brett McGurk yesterday showed how to speak up, clearly and courageously. McGurk is no liberal firebrand. He clerked for William Rehnquist, the conservative Supreme Court justice, before joining George W. Bush’s administration as a foreign-policy official, and then serving in Barack Obama’s administration and later Trump’s. In late 2018, McGurk resigned on principle, shortly after Mattis did, in protest of Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria.

Here’s what McGurk wrote yesterday: “Donald Trump is not a Commander-in-Chief. He makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation. He sends military personnel into harm’s way with no backing. He blusters and then leaves our allies exposed when adversaries call his bluff or he confronts a hard phone call.”

And in response to a tweet from Trump he added: “Mr. President: With all due respect, none of this is true. I’d recommend having meetings with your experts and policy team before making historic life-and-death decisions. Making such decisions after a one-off call from a foreign leader is malpractice.”

General Mattis; Mr. Tillerson; General McMaster: It’s past time to say what you think.

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Republican leaders — including frequent defenders of the president like senators Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, as well as Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations — harshly criticized Trump’s decision. So did some of his usual media allies, including Fox News and the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.

“A lot of [Republicans] who held back criticism of the president on Ukraine grift are unleashing at him over Syria,” tweeted Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution. “It is very clear that [Republicans] with aspirations to national leadership now see an imperative to show their independence from Trump. And that’s a big change.”

Bloomberg Opinion’s Jonathan Bernstein asks whether the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, may have politically damaging information on Trump — like knowledge of another unseemly phone call — or whether Trump’s business investment in Turkey may be affecting his actions. “In normal cases, I’d caution people against getting carried away with such speculation. With Trump, it’s difficult,” Bernstein writes. “When Trump personally and inexplicably reverses U.S. policy immediately after a conversation with a foreign leader, it’s hard not to wonder exactly what motivations are at work.”

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David Leonhardt is a former Washington bureau chief for the Times, and was the founding editor of The Upshot and head of The 2020 Project, on the future of the Times newsroom. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, for columns on the financial crisis. @DLeonhardt Facebook

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