We are left with a Cabinet that is weak, terrified, and myopic. Meanwhile, the president is empowered and unbound—but also insecure and desperate. Nothing can be ruled out anymore. The president is free to indulge his visceral instincts unchecked. The unilateral declarations on Syria and Afghanistan are just the beginning. It is quite possible that he will try to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea and Germany, renege on Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, or strike a comprehensive grand bargain with Xi Jinping over the objections of Japan.
It will surely get worse. As the revelations from Robert Mueller’s investigation inflict blow after blow and the subpoenas fly from House Democrats, Trump will become more erratic and dangerous in his decision making. Of all the resignations, the second most damaging after Mattis may be John Kelly. Few liberals shed a tear for him on his departure, but his flaws were largely counterbalanced by one vitally important redeeming feature—he was a stabilizing force on national security. He could check Bolton and channel Mattis. He could play interference. And now he is gone, replaced by Mick Mulvaney, who has no national-security experience.
David Frum: No more excuses
America’s allies had hoped to ride out the next two years. Senior officials from multiple European and Asian allies told me that they had concluded by mid-2018 that they could engage with the administration but that things went off the rails whenever the president was directly engaged, which was usually on a foreign trip. They decided to deliberately reduce the opportunities for him to be involved. Thus, the 70th anniversary of the NATO summit would not be marked by a leaders’ summit, but would instead occur at the foreign-ministers level (it will be hosted by Pompeo in Washington, D.C.). The agendas for G20 and G7 summits are being pared back, frequently with the support of officials in Washington. But those plans count on an administration that checks Trump, not one that empowers him. It is very possible that America’s adversaries will try to take advantage of the disarray. If Putin or Xi makes a major move, such as trying to test America’s alliances, it will be soon.
With the hollowing out of the Trump administration, the onus now passes to Congress. In her book Troublesome Young Men, Lynne Olson tells the story of Conservative Party rebels in the 1930s who spoke up against their leader and brought Winston Churchill to power. One of the remarkable things about Trump’s first two years is that not a single up-and-coming Republican politician took a stand against the president. Other than John McCain, the only Republicans who did anything are either semi-retired (John Kasich) or retiring (Jeff Flake).
Even leaving morality to one side, that is surprising. Senators such as Tom Cotton see themselves as Trump’s successors, but some might have taken the other side of the bet, especially if they hope to be active in politics for the next two decades. If Trump fails and is discredited, those who paid a price for standing against him will be rewarded. Every defeat and every humiliation will be transformed into a badge of honor. There will be little reward for those who jump on the bandwagon after his fall has become inevitable. Republicans may have increased their majority in the Senate, but this dynamic could be a wild card. As Trump’s troubles deepen, the incentive for younger senators to become troublesome will grow. The confirmation hearings for Mattis’s successor will provide an early test of whether any have grown bold enough to break ranks.
There is a narrative arc to the Trump presidency—a radical, constrained by the system, who breaks out and follows his instincts. The next chapter is predictable. Possessing all the power he ever desired, he will be undone by his own character. All that remains to be seen is how, at what cost, and if his party will do anything to stop it.