They played video. They brought graphics. They cited Alexander Hamilton so many times, they may owe royalties to Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The Democratic House impeachment managers, unfolding their case against President Donald J. Trump, were conducting a TV trial without many of the staples of legal drama, particularly witnesses on the stand. Instead, they relied on multimedia, impassioned speeches and repetition, repetition, repetition — all in a presentation of 24 hours over three days.
If the O.J. Simpson trial was a long-running daytime soap, this was democracy in binge mode.
The trial of Mr. Trump, as the TV pundits reminded us before, during and after, was an unusual one, in that much of the jury was assumed to already have a verdict in mind. This meant a different dynamic from the usual televised trial, in which the prosecution is speaking to the jury first and the viewing audience second, if at all.
Instead, Representative Adam B. Schiff of California and his team were effectively speaking to the court of public opinion — home viewers who might bring pressure to bear on certain swing senators, or turn against them at the ballot box — though they had to do so by at least arguing as if the outcome were not a foregone conclusion.
So there was the case, and then there was the case about the case. If the Republican majority was going to acquit the president, and if it was going to voting against calling witnesses and subpoenaing documents that might weaken his defense, the Democrats would make sure that the viewing audience knew it.
Their arguments often focused on what the audience wasn’t seeing and hearing, because the White House refused it. Wednesday night, Mr. Schiff made a refrain of referencing evidence — a diplomatic cable, a statement attributed to the former national security adviser, John R. Bolton — and turning it into a question to the Senate. Wouldn’t you like to read them? Wouldn’t you like to hear them? “They’re yours for the asking,” he said.
What the three days asked of viewers, largely, was patience. The constitutional stakes were as high as they come. But the dynamics were staid, thanks to Senate rules that limited TV coverage to two cemented-in-place camera vantages that gave the broadcast all the visual verve of a security-camera tape.
The managers’ most effective tool, both to break out of the visual monotony and substitute for live witnesses, was file video, which they used to string together the words of Mr. Trump and his staff into a kind of cinéma-vérité documentary of the often right-out-in-the-open scandal.
There was Mr. Trump at a news conference with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Helsinki, dismissing his own intelligence agencies’ findings on Russian hacking. There was his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, regaling Fox News hosts about his Ukraine exploits. There was Senator John McCain, a frequent critic of Mr. Trump, summoned Friday as a posthumous witness.
Certain greatest hits went into heavy rotation. The acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, seemed to say “get over it” onscreen as often as his boss said “You’re fired” on “The Apprentice.”
The senators were a captive audience, though some ducked out, unseen by the stationary cameras. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina vanished before managers played a video of him, prosecuting the Clinton impeachment trial in 1999, in which he contradicted arguments he’s made to defend President Trump. (Mr. Graham did make himself available to cameras between sessions, as did the Democratic presidential candidates kept off the trail in Iowa by Senate duty.)
If any senators weren’t keen on their duty, a good chunk of their constituents were willing to volunteer. Eleven million viewers watched the trial’s first day — hardly Super Bowl numbers but more than watched the Clinton trial, though the numbers declined the next day. And the three major broadcast networks aired more of the trial during the daytime than in 1999, though they left the evening portion to cable news.
In a way, the Democrats programmed their presentation the way a cable news channel does. They recycled through their arguments and video clips during the daytime, for a home audience watching snippets here and there.
Then in prime time, they brought out their centerpiece programming, delivered by Mr. Schiff. (This was around where Fox News usually cut away, preferring its own prime-time hosts.) At the end of Friday’s session, he stepped back from the specifics of the abuse-and-obstruction cases to argue “moral courage” and putting country over party.
“Give America a fair trial,” he concluded. “She deserves it.”
The tone wasn’t entirely solemn. On Thursday evening, Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York told a story about a friend who’d just asked him if he’d heard about “the latest outrage.” Mr. Jeffries assumed this referred to Mr. Trump. Actually, his friend said, “Someone voted against Derek Jeter on his Hall of Fame ballot.”
Mr. Jeffries moved on to connect the American pastime of baseball with the American tradition of the Constitution. But his anecdote made another point. The House managers were not just vying with an opposition party and a truculent defender. They were pitted against every other distraction in the mediasphere, every other shiny enticement and new outrage offering a reason to tune out. READ MORE:https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/24/arts/television/trump-impeachment.html
On March 12, 1938, the vaunted German army was to make its triumphant entry into Austria—the infamous Anschluss by which a compliant Austrian government surrendered to the Nazis without a shot.
A grand parade of the Third Reich’s might was scheduled for the Austrian capital Vienna but the army’s tanks were not as invincible as the generals bragged. They quickly broke down, clogging the roads, stalling the advance, and infuriating Adolph Hitler. And so, French author and filmmaker Eric Vuillard writes in his eloquent essay, The Order of the Day, “the German troops loaded as many tanks as they could onto railroad cars… the trains hauled away the armor the way you’d transport circus equipment.” The parade went on as planned.
It was that image of massive weapons as circus gear that flashed to mind this week when photos were released of tanks on railroad cars in Washington, DC, ready to be placed on display at our National Mall on the orders of Donald Trump. They were part of his plan to hijack the Fourth of July and make our nation’s birthday all about him—a “Salute to America,” featuring the tanks, military flyovers (including the Blue Angels and Air Force One) and a speech made by the man who calls himself, “Your favorite President, me!” The White House, the Republican National Committee, and the Trump reelect distributed VIP tickets.
As per The New York Times, “Pentagon officials have long been reluctant to parade tanks, missiles, and other weapons through the nation’s capital like the authoritarian leaders of North Korea and China. They say the United States, which has the world’s most powerful military and spends more on defense than the seven next largest military spenders combined—China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia, Britain, and Germany—does not need to broadcast its strength.”
Many former military weren’t crazy about the idea either. Retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded troops under George W. Bush, told Politico, “This looks like it’s becoming much more of a Republican Party event—a political event about the president—than a national celebration of the Fourth of July, and it’s unfortunate to have the military smack dab in the middle of that.” Retired Army Maj. Gen. William Nash added, “The president is using the armed forces in a political ploy for his reelection campaign and I think it’s absolutely obscene.”
(Mother Jones reported on Wednesday that soldiers assigned to the tanks and other armored vehicles plopped down among our national monuments had been given a card by the Pentagon about what to say to the public, including, “I am proud of my job and my vehicle/tank. I am glad to share my experience with American People.”)
Anyone who has ever spent a Fourth of July in Washington knows that it’s a festive fun day in the capital, albeit wilting hot and sopping humid, usually above politics, featuring a parade, a folk life festival, grand music, and fireworks. But this year, the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, usually a prime vantage point for watching the skyrockets, and the surrounding parkland were cordoned off for the invited guests so that they could watch our egomaniacal president and the first lady make a grand entrance across a red-carpeted stage at the spot where Marian Anderson sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” when she was barred from Constitution Hall by the DAR in 1939, and Martin Luther King, Jr., told an eager crowd in 1963 of his dreams for racial harmony and freedom.
Trump’s attempt to wedge himself and his reelection into the festivities—using, in part, taxpayer millions diverted from much needed repairs of the national parks—had the grace of that clown who tries to photobomb a group portrait in the high school yearbook, making faces and wiggling fingers in his ears. The speech, which many feared would be a partisan attack similar to the rants he delivers at his campaign rallies, turned out to be standard if dull rhetoric that sounded more like the third-place winning essay in an eighth grade civics contest than a speech by our putative chief executive. It went on at such monotonous length that CNN actually cut away for a commercial break, something I have never in my life seen happen during a presidential address.
Standing behind a wall of bulletproof glass so rain streaked it appeared he was speaking from behind a car windshield during a cloudburst, Trump was at his best when quoting the eloquence of his predecessors rather than the boilerplate of his speechwriters. (Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people ” was trundled out, but there was no mention of Abe’s “malice toward none.”) He lumbered through a rambling litany of moments in American history and named its greats, glossing over our sins, thanking all the branches of the military, and presenting notables in the audience who had been brought there, State of the Union-style, to be lauded for their achievements.
(One of them, Clarence Henderson, introduced by the president as among the first to participate in the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins in 1960 and cited by Trump as an exemplar of the success of civil rights, has in recent years been an outspoken Trump supporter and president of the North Carolina chapter of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a group that seeks, according to The Fayetteville Observer, “to grow the ranks of conservative Christian black Republicans.”)
Aside from the verbal slips he inevitably stumbles into when reading from a teleprompter (“ramparts/airports”) there was no groaner of an improvised joke or insult, although given his draft record, the call for young people to join the military was a little rich. That this failure to further embarrass the nation was cause for kudos from Republican leadership and some in the media gives an idea of how low we’ve let this man set the presidential performance bar.
But as conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin noted in The Washington Post, Trump misconstrues American traditions: “What should be a commemoration of human rights (‘All men … ‘) and the unwavering faith in the rule of law and in democratic governance in Trump’s hands becomes a caffeinated Armed Services Day. He manages to transform a holiday about the greatest experiment in civilian self-government into a garish military Mardi Gras.”
So why spend even a moment wringing hands over such an event when there are horrors perpetrated by this regime on an hourly basis that far eclipse some uninspiring oratory and slipshod pageantry? When Trump perpetually lies, makes policy mayhem worldwide, utters dark threats about the homeless and deportations and allows men, women, and children to cluster in overcrowded squalid cellsalong our southern border?
Why bother? Because, as Eric Vuillard writes of World War II in The Order of the Day, “Great catastrophes often creep up on us in tiny steps.” Because on the same day a company donated $750,000 worth of free fireworks for Trump’s Fourth of July party, he dropped a tariff on imported Chinese fireworks that same company had been lobbying against. Because every bit of graft like that, every small indignity inflicted, each gesture and symbol of disdain, are reflective of a greater, potentially fatal insult to democracy and a degradation of the greater good that was idealized by the men who signed the Declaration.
WASHINGTON — In his State of the Union address, President Trump announced a bold plan to end the scourge of H.I.V. by 2030, a promise that seemed to fly in the face of two years of policies and proposals that go in the opposite direction and could undermine progress against the virus that causes AIDS.
In November, the Trump administration proposed a rule change that would make it more difficult for Medicare beneficiaries to get the medicines that treat H.I.V. infection and prevent the virus from spreading.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly urged Congress to repeal the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, even though Medicaid is the largest source of coverage for people with H.I.V. And he has promoted the sale of short-term health plans that skirt the Affordable Care Act, even though such plans usually exclude people with H.I.V.
To end the spread of the virus, federal health officials say they must reduce the stigma attached to gay men and transgender people who are at high risk so they will seek testing and treatment. But for two years the administration has tried to roll back legal protections for people in those groups.
Those opposing moves by the administration have AIDS activists baffled.
“The president’s announcement comes as a surprise, albeit a welcome surprise,” said Jennifer C. Pizer, the law and policy director at Lambda Legal, a gay rights group. “It represents an about-face on H.I.V. policy.”
The administration describes the plan to end the spread of H.I.V. as one of the most important public health initiatives in history. But the record shows a rather large gap between the administration’s words and deeds.
A Trump proposal would limit Medicare drug coverage.
Since Medicare’s outpatient drug benefit began in 2006, the government has required prescription drug plans to cover “all or substantially all drugs” in six therapeutic classes, including antiretroviral medicines to treat H.I.V.
In November, the Trump administration proposed a new policy to cut costs for Medicare by reducing the number of drugs that must be made available to people with H.I.V.
The proposal would allow certain exceptions to the requirement for Medicare drug plans to cover all drugs in the six “protected classes.”
Insurers could require Medicare beneficiaries to get advance approval, or “prior authorization,” for H.I.V. drugs and could require them to try less expensive medications before using more costly ones, a practice known as step therapy.
People with H.I.V. and doctors have condemned the proposals.
Bruce Packett, the executive director of the American Academy of H.I.V. Medicine, representing doctors who care for H.I.V. patients, said the administration’s proposals “could be catastrophic” for Medicare patients with the virus, as well as for the president’s campaign to end the epidemic.
“At least 25 percent of all people living with H.I.V. who are in care in the United States rely on Medicare as their insurer,” Mr. Packett said.
Those patients are 65 or older or have disabilities and often have other chronic diseases or conditions, so doctors need access to the “full arsenal” of medicines to treat H.I.V., Mr. Packett said.
Many of the Medicare patients with H.I.V. are taking medicines for their other conditions, so doctors have to worry about drug interactions, Mr. Packett said. In addition, he said, some have drug-resistant strains of H.I.V., and different patients often respond to the same drug in different ways.
“It’s important that providers have access to all the available options” among drugs to treat H.I.V., he said.
Requirements for prior authorization and similar restrictions can delay the start of treatment. Studies show that a rapid start to therapy, within a week or even a day of diagnosis, produces better results for patients and reduces the likelihood that they will infect others while waiting for treatment.
President Trump appeared in front of a joint session of Congress for the annual address. Here is how his remarks stacked up against the facts.
President Trump leaned hard on the strength of the American economy during his second State of the Union address on Tuesday, but with a blend of precise statistics and gauzy superlatives that are much more difficult to measure.
He also returned to a theme
that dominated the second year of his presidency — a quest for a border
wall with Mexico to cope with what he said is a crisis of crime and
drugs in the United States caused by illegal immigration.
two issues dominated his address, which in tone was more measured than
his biting Twitter feed, but in substance contained numerous claims that
were false or misleading.
Here is what Mr. Trump said and how it stacked up against the facts.
“The U.S. economy is growing almost twice as fast today as when I took office, and we are considered far and away the hottest economy anywhere in the world.”
This is false.
American economy expanded at an annual rate of 3.5 percent in the third
quarter of 2018. Growth in Latvia and Poland was almost twice as fast.
Same for China and India. Even the troubled Greek economy posted
stronger growth. And a wide range of economic analysts estimate that the
growth of the American economy slowed in the fourth quarter, and slowed
even further in the first month of 2019.
recently imposed tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese goods — and now our
Treasury is receiving billions and billions of dollars.”
This is true.
Mr. Trump imposed tariffs on certain imports from China — and imported
steel and aluminum from around the world — federal tariff revenues have
increased. Revenues from customs duties, which include tariffs, rose by
$13 billion in the third quarter of 2018 compared with a year earlier,
the Commerce Department reported. Technically, that money is paid by
Americans who bring the goods across the border, and it is often passed
on to American consumers in the form of higher prices.
“My administration has cut more regulations in a short period of time than any other administration during its entire tenure.”
This is false.
The Trump administration has slowed the pace of adopting new rules, and it has moved to roll back some existing or proposed federal regulations, particularly in the area of environmental protection. The White House claimed that as of October, a total of $33 billion worth of future regulator costs had been eliminated. But experts say the scale of the rollbacks in the Trump era still does not exceed extensive cuts in federal rules during the Carter and Reagan administrations, when rules governing airline, truck and rail transportation were wiped off the books, among other changes.
have created 5.3 million new jobs and importantly added 600,000 new
manufacturing jobs — something which almost everyone said was impossible
to do, but the fact is, we are just getting started.”
This is false.
Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that since January 2017, when Mr.
Trump took office, the economy has added 4.9 million jobs, including
454,000 jobs manufacturing jobs. Far from being “impossible,” that is
closely comparable to the pace of job creation during some two-year
periods during the Obama administration, and significantly slower than
the pace of job creation in manufacturing in the 1990s.
Wages were “growing for blue-collar workers, who I promised to fight for. They are growing faster than anyone thought possible.”
This is true.
are rising faster for construction and manufacturing workers than
workers in service occupations, according to the Labor Department.
“More people are working now than at any time in our history.”
This is misleading.
While the total number of people working in the United States is higher than ever, it is not because of the president’s policies. It is because more people than ever live in the United States.
border city of El Paso, Tex., used to have extremely high rates of
violent crime — one of the highest in the entire country, and considered
one of our nation’s most dangerous cities. Now, immediately upon its
building, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of the safest
cities in our country.”
This is false.
El Paso was never one of the most dangerous cities in the United States, and crime has been declining in cities across the country — not just El Paso — for reasons that have nothing to do with border fencing. In 2008, before border barriers had been completed in El Paso, the city had the second-lowest violent crime rate among more than 20 similarly sized cities. In 2010, after the fencing went up, it held that place.
Diego used to have the most illegal border crossings in our country. In
response, a strong security wall was put in place. This powerful
barrier almost completely ended illegal crossings.”
This is misleading.
apprehensions decreased by 91 percent in the San Diego sector between
the 1994 fiscal year, right after the original border fencing was
completed, to the 2018 fiscal year. But, according to the Congressional
Research Service, that fence alone “did not have a discernible impact”
on the number of immigrants crossing the border into the United States
“As we speak, large, organized caravans are on the march to the United States.”
This is exaggerated.
At the end of January, a new caravan
of thousands of migrants from Central America was headed north, and
some of the travelers said they intended to try to cross into the United
States. But many in the caravan have said they plan to remain in
Mexico, thanks in part to policies put in place by the new Mexican
government. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made it easier for
Central Americans to get visas and work in Mexico. President Trump’s
warnings of an imminent invasion from new caravans is overstated.
hope you can pass the U.S.M.C.A. into law, so we can bring back our
manufacturing jobs in even greater numbers, expanding American
agriculture, protecting intellectual property, and ensuring that more
cars are proudly stamped with the four beautiful words: Made in the
This is exaggerated.
revised trade deal with Canada and Mexico, known as the United
States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, does include provisions that are
intended to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States — like
minimum wage provisions for some auto manufacturing. But some economists
have said those provisions could ultimately push more manufacturing —
and jobs — outside North America. The deal does allow American farmers
to sell more dairy products to Canada. But the trade pact has yet to be
approved by Congress, and both Democrats and Republicans say that is
unlikely to happen without significant changes.
I took office, ISIS controlled more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq
and Syria. Just two years ago. Today, we have liberated virtually all of
the territory from the grip of these bloodthirsty monsters.”
This is true.
The Defense Department reports that the Islamic State now controls only around 20 square miles of territory in Syria, down from 34,000 in 2014. But many of the gains against the Sunni extremist caliphate began under President Barack Obama, with the Trump administration continuing Obama administration policy. And the top American military commander in the Middle East told a Senate hearing on Tuesday that the Islamic State could return if the United States and its allies abandoned the fight. In December, Mr. Trump announced he was withdrawing American troops from Syria.
condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies
have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a
state of abject poverty and despair.”
This is misleading.
has become a popular talking point among American conservatives. It is
true that the rule of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela has brought
that country to economic ruin. Inflation is at astronomical rates, and
ordinary people are struggling to get basic food and health supplies.
Three million citizens have fled. Some of the collapse can be traced to
Mr. Maduro’s economic policies, which do fall under the broad label of
socialism. But analysts say that corruption, the lack of rule of law and
the absence of democracy — all the hallmarks of a dictatorship — have played just as big or larger roles.
I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right
now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.”
There is no evidence.
2016, at the end of the Obama administration, there was no sign that
the United States and North Korea were about to go to war, though
Pyongyang had been conducting nuclear tests and Mr. Obama had continued
economic sanctions. In Mr. Trump’s first year in office, he increased
tensions with North Korea by attacking its leader, Kim Jong-un, in a
series of Twitter posts, which prompted hostile statements from
Pyongyang. Mr. Trump wrote that North Korea’s actions would be met with
“fire and fury” and called Mr. Kim “Little Rocket Man.” Analysts said at the time that the chances of war between the two nations had grown because of these exchanges.
in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that
would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments from
This is misleading.
Jan. 22, the 46th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision
Roe v. Wade, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Democrat of New York, signed the
Reproductive Health Act. The new law ensures a woman’s right to an
abortion in New York if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned. It does not
broadly allow abortions until shortly before birth, as Mr. Trump
suggested. Instead, it will allow for an abortion after 24 weeks to
protect the mother’s health or if the fetus is not viable. Under the
prior law, abortions were allowed after 24 weeks only if the woman’s
life was in jeopardy.
“We had the case of the governor of Virginia where he stated he would execute a baby after birth.”
This is false.
In an interview last month, Gov. Ralph Northam said that he supported a late-term abortion bill that would loosen restrictions on the procedure, and allow women to consult with a doctor on an abortion up to, but not including, the time of birth.
The governor, a pediatric neurologist,
also talked about some of the dangerous medical emergencies that
pregnant women could face, such as carrying a nonviable fetus. He said
that in such a case, the mother would deliver the infant and then, “the
infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family
desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and
the mother.” While Mr. Northam was talking about an end-of-life care
discussion in the case of a child that would not live, Republicans
seized on his remarks as evidence that Mr. Northam supported killing
babies after their birth.
was contributed by Eileen Sullivan, Michael Tackett, Linda Qiu, Edward
Wong, Eric Lipton, Eric Schmitt, Adam Liptak, Binyamin Appelbaum,
Caitlin Dickerson, Charlie Savage, Coral Davenport, Glenn Thrush, Helene
Cooper, Jim Tankersley, Julian E. Barnes, Katie Benner, Matt Phillips,
Robert Pear and Thomas Gibbons-Neff.
WASHINGTON — America will get its first taste of divided government under President Trump this week when a Democratic House tries to wrest control of the political agenda from Mr. Trump, who appears determined to keep the focus on border security, immigration and his “big, beautiful” wall.
After the midterm elections ushered in the most diverse freshman class in history, House Democrats intend to put a spotlight on the issues that worked well for them during the campaign: diminishing the influence of the wealthy and connected, expanding voting rights, lowering prescription drug costs and passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Mr. Trump, on the defensive and presiding over a federal government that remains partially closed, is trying to stomp on that message. On Tuesday, as the government shutdown was in its 11th day, Mr. Trump invited congressional leaders of both parties to a briefing on border security Wednesday afternoon. White House officials did not say whether Mr. Trump would attend.
WASHINGTON — The
Trump administration announced on Thursday that it would seek to put in
place more stringent work requirements for adults who rely on food
stamps, even as the president signed a sweeping farm bill in which
lawmakers had rejected stricter rules.
By moving to limit the ability of states to issue waivers
to people who say they cannot make ends meet under the requirements for
the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Agriculture
Department found another route to create restrictions, bypassing
Congress and drawing immediate criticism that the proposed rule was sure
to harm Americans below the poverty line.
administration, which along with conservatives had fought to include
stricter work requirements in the farm bill, continued to argue that
food stamps were never meant to be a way of life and that able-bodied
adults should be able to find jobs in a healthy economy.
“Long-term reliance on government assistance has never been part of the American dream,” Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary, said in a statement. “Moving people to work is common-sense policy, particularly at a time when the unemployment rate is at a generational low.”
The $867 billion
farm bill, a huge piece of legislation intended to provide relief for
farmers and the poor, encountered a number of obstacles this year as it
faced scrutiny from conservative lawmakers who pushed for an overhaul in how the food program’s participants would be evaluated.
In the end, Republican and Democratic negotiators decided to drop two proposals introduced by conservatives and publicly championed by President Trump:
one that would have imposed further work requirements on adults using
SNAP, and another that would have closed a loophole allowing states to
waive the requirements in areas with high unemployment rates.
proposed rule drew ire from Democrats, who accused the Trump
administration of steamrollering a rare bipartisan compromise and
ignoring Congress’s mandate to leave the program and its 40 million
“After a very
rough back and forth on that particular issue, basically we left the
program alone without restricting people from being able to get it,”
said Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona, one of the
negotiators on the bill’s bicameral committee. “Now you have Secretary
Perdue doing essentially what was, in a bipartisan way, agreed not to
do. He needs to know what the intent of Congress is and follow it.”
The defense secretary could no longer serve a president who no longer thinks he needs to listen to anybody. James Mattis is not an imposing man. At five-foot-nine, with a slight build, he doesn’t have the physical presence you might expect from someone whose nickname is “Mad Dog.” He doesn’t have, say, H.R. McMaster’s bull neck or booming voice. Yet Mattis loomed large over U.S. national security policy, such as it is, under this presidency—so much so that his long-expected but still-sudden resignation Thursday had Washington reporters competing to see who could dial up the most hair raising quotes warning of catastrophe ahead.
(My contribution: One former top official who speaks regularly to the White House offered only a one-word reaction over email: “Alarming.”) When I met Mattis for the first time, at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, the retired Marine general was still fuming over his treatment by the Barack Obama administration—he was fired as Central Command chief, basically, for urging a more aggressive Iran policy—and though our conversation wasn’t on the record, it was clear he was somebody who wasn’t to be trifled with.
Now, he’s aiming his considerable capacity for outrage at a different occupant of the Oval Office, with the stakes far higher given that the president today is, well, Donald Trump. Every journalist in Washington knew Mattis opposed Trump on the biggest foreign policy issues of the day, be it pushing back against a revanchist Russia, managing the messy conflicts in the broader Middle East, or handling a surging China. He made it known around town that he was only running the Pentagon to protect it, if not the world, from the president, and for nearly two years he was more or less able to prevent an outright crisis. The question was always when Mattis would reach his breaking point—when the president’s isolationist instincts, impulsive decision-making and attempts to use the military as a political weapon would push him over the edge.
It wasn’t, apparently, Trump’s deployment of U.S. troops to the Mexican border in a transparent effort to swing the November midterms that did it; Mattis went along with that. It wasn’t the president’s repeated snipes at NATO, the transatlantic alliance that has underpinned American national security for seven decades; nor was it his assiduous adoption of Kremlin talking points or his periodic eruptions at U.S. allies—it was basically all of that, Mattis made clear in his extraordinary resignation letter, which contains not a scintilla of praise for his boss and outlines several major points of disagreement.
“Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours,” Mattis wrote, “I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.” Obviously, Mattis couldn’t abide Trump’s sudden and apparently unilateral decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, where they were supporting predominantly Kurdish forces in fighting against ISIS and keeping an eye on an encroaching Iran. Word soon leaked out, too, that Trump plans to yank a big chunk of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, a flailing war effort the president has long questioned as pointless. It’s not that these moves are indefensible—one can easily imagine a President Hillary Clinton determining that the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze and ordering U.S. forces home.
But in a normal administration, a big move like that would have taken place only after endless rounds of discussions at multiple levels of governments, arguments between agencies, and consultations with allies. There would be plans for every possible contingency, and a carefully coordinated PR rollout. Trump seems to have just ordered it done at the speed of a tweet, and it’s clear his administration hasn’t worked through the dangers that accompany any withdrawal of troops from a war zone. On Wednesday, the administration hastily announced a conference call to brief the press on the president’s Syria decision, then struggled to explain what it was and when or how it would happen. The Pentagon pointed reporters to the White House; the White House told reporters to talk to the Pentagon. It was a level of chaos I hadn’t seen in a decade of covering U.S. foreign policy.
So it isn’t surprising that Mattis left—with his advice so conspicuously spurned, he might have realized he could no longer be effective. For years, he had ignored or slow-walked Trump’s wilder ideas, such as his reported order to assassinate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but this time the president doesn’t appear to have consulted him at all—and reportedly rejected his desperate final attempt to change his mind over Syria. Any Cabinet secretary would have resigned. So what now?
Each occupant of the Oval Office claims ever-vaster powers in foreign policy, and Congress has steadily ceded its oversight powers as the complexity of conflicts, and the speed and might of the U.S. military, has increased. So those looking to Capitol Hill for a public intervention may end up disappointed. After all, Republican senators have wished away their differences with Trump on foreign policy for many months, occasionally rebuking him but generally doing little to rein him in.