Foreign Affairs, The Trump Wars

Are the President’s Advisers on Strike?

Trump’s juvenile letter to Erdogan suggests that responsible White House staffers are pulling a ‘John Galt.’
October 17, 2019
Featured Image
US President Donald Trump reaches to shake Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's hand before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 21, 2017 in New York City. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Recently in The Bulwark, I speculated that President Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds would lead to much crazier things happening, or at least to much crazier things seeing the light of day, without responsible adults around to make everything look grown-up and professional.

That result was not long in coming. And yes, I’m talking about Trump’s crude, childish letter to Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which had everybody asking whether it could possibly be real.

Let’s be clear. Nobody was asking whether this was something Trump would write, because we’ve all seen his Twitter feed and we know that this sort of thing is his natural style of expression: “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool! I will call you later.” That’s actually a bit more literate than his average tweet. What was a surprise is that this wasn’t coming from his personal Twitter feed but was released by the U.S. government, that it was not scribbled in crayon but typed out neatly on White House stationery.

How did that happen?

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Tom Nichols wonders about “the letters we haven’t seen.” But I have no doubt that this is what the first draft of every Trump letter has looked like, before the serious people come in and translate it to adult human. But now we’re getting Donald Trump unfiltered, as he is, with no help and no enablers. Why?

Maybe his aides had no choice. Maybe the president has finally reached the point at which he feels confident overriding all of his advisors. Maybe he has gotten away with so much and become so fed up at the sense that he is being “handled” that he has decided to write his own letters and make his own foreign policy without anybody else’s involvement. Or maybe he has fired and driven away all of the serious people, so there is nobody left who is willing or even able to make the president look more serious. But the abruptness of the change raises another big possibility: maybe his aides and advisors have gone on strike.

Imagine this situation from the perspective of a highly qualified professional expert, the kind of person who is there to help the president make informed decisions, implement them smoothly, and communicate them in a sober way. It’s your job to make sure the president always looks like he knows what he’s doing, like he has the relevant facts available, and like he is able to speak to foreign leaders and to his own federal bureaucracy in a way that commands respect. Now imagine that the president has ignored and overridden you repeatedly, and this debacle with the Kurds—a vicious and impulsive decision, made against everybody’s advice—is the last straw. You’re tired of the fact that the president never listens to you but does listen to random noisemakers on the Internet. You are ashamed that our allies are paying in blood for it. So at some point, you’re going to get fed up, and you’re going to stop even trying to make Trump look good.

You’re going to decide that if the president wants to write a letter that makes him sound like a not especially bright toddler, he can go ahead and do it. You’re going to lift up the curtain and let everybody see what he is really like.

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It’s not just the letter. There is Trump’s shambles of a meeting with congressional leaders to discuss Syria, where he actually boasted about that letter to Erdogan.

Or there is his meeting with the parents of a young British man killed in a car accident by the wife of an American diplomat who fled back to America claiming diplomatic immunity. Trump expressed his sympathy—then ambushed them with a harebrained reality-TV scheme to introduce them for the first time to their son’s killer in front of a bank of cameras. He was supposed to look sympathetic and conciliatory—and just came across as that much more callous.

Where are the aides who could have nodded their heads gravely, then quietly killed this obviously bad idea? Has he fired them all, or have they simply given up?

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A year ago, when an anonymous “senior White House advisor” confessed to the New York Times that he and others were only staying on to try to hold things together and repair the damage from Trump’s worse impulses, I made an extended analogy to the plot of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. This is partly because I have Atlas Shrugged on the brain a lot these days—but bear with me, because the analogy is even more relevant now.

In Rand’s novel, the main character is a competent professional who spends her time cleaning up everybody else’s messes and undoing their damage in a desperate attempt to save her family’s company and the country from disaster. It’s a good motive, but eventually she realizes that she’s achieving the opposite of her goal. Every time she bails her brother and his political cronies out of a disaster, they have an excuse to stay in power. She’s helping them evade responsibility so they can keep making all the same stupid mistakes.

She’s not saving the country, as she thinks. She’s serving as an enabler for the people who are destroying it. So what does she eventually do? She goes on strike. She stops trying to solve their problems and clean up their messes. She lets them collapse under the weight of their own viciousness and incompetence.

I’m guessing a few more people at the White House, maybe even the author of that anonymous op-ed, have reached this stage.

The point of going on strike is that you have decided that it’s time for everyone to know the worst and deal with it. You have decided that the short-term disaster of exposing the worst of Trump may be painful, but it will lead to a quicker recovery.

And we need to recover as quickly as possibility. When Erdogan got that letter from Trump, do you know what he did with it? He threw it in the trash. He knows by now that this is just empty bluster from an unserious leader. I shudder when I consider what Trump’s successor is going to have to do to make other world leaders take the United States seriously again.

The sooner we start that process, the better.