The Political Tide is Turning

14 mins read
President Donald J. Trump meets with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressional leadership Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019, in the Cabinet Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead) [Public Domain]

Originally posted on Facebook on October 16 at 9:24PM. Re-posted with permission.

Today it felt like the day the nation shifted. There has been so much unbelievable news that as early as 3:00 I was texting my political friends with just the fire emoji and exclamation marks, but the twists and turns seem to add up to the fact that Trump’s firewall is breaking.

Since he declared his candidacy, supporters and undecideds have been able to explain away behaviors by saying they were jokes, or misunderstood, or, if something was really bad, by accepting Trump’s own insistence that what had happened was not at all what the media was reporting. But that is no longer possible. Since September 13, we have learned of a plot from the White House to weaken our ally Ukraine in order to force its leader to intervene in our 2020 election. That was bad enough that it led to an impeachment inquiry, and began to crack Trump’s support even in the Republican Party. And now, over the course of the past ten days, the profound debacle of our withdrawal from northern Syria, leading to the ethnic cleansing of our former allies, the release of valuable ISIS fighters, and a huge victory for Putin’s Russia has ripped away whatever shreds of excuse for Trump’s behavior his supporters could still clutch. These two disasters, both entirely of Trump’s own making, are reinforcing each other to collapse the Trump presidency with really shocking speed. As that happens, Trump himself is melting down, increasing the momentum of the crisis.

This morning, Trump tried to change the narrative on what had happened in Syria– a story we all saw as it unfolded after his abrupt October 6 announcement that the US would pull back the troops that were stationed in the Kurdish region of Syria, where the Kurds were fighting ISIS on our behalf. In that announcement, he said that Turkey would be moving into Syria, and that the US would get out of its way. There was an instantaneous bipartisan outcry that we would be risking the release of thousands of ISIS prisoners, and abandoning our allies, who would likely be slaughtered. As this happened just as predicted, Trump tried to change the story. He has said that he didn’t green light the incursion (I will attach the press release and you can see what you think), that the Kurds were deliberately releasing ISIS prisoners, and this morning told reporters that what was happening in the Middle East had nothing to do with the US, and that the Kurds, who lost 11,000 soldiers fighting for us against ISIS, were “no angels.” He also voiced something previously kept secret: we currently have 50 nuclear weapons in Turkey, which is obviously something of enormous concern as we are now at odds.

Then, midday, news broke that Trump had cancelled a briefing for congressional leaders on the Syrian situation, saying that things there were “nicely under control.” This was too much for Congress to stomach, and this afternoon, the House overwhelmingly, by a vote of 354 to 60, passed a bipartisan resolution (129 Republicans voted for it) condemning Trump’s actions in Syria and asking what his “clear and specific plan” was for combatting ISIS. Trump supporters Senators Lindsay Graham, Mitch McConnell, and Marco Rubio also expressed dismay over the president’s actions in Syria.

After the vote, the White House invited congressional leaders to meet with Trump. There, they asked what his plan for Syria was, and the conversation went poorly. Apparently, Trump attacked his former Secretary of Defense James Mattis as weak and claimed that he alone– Trump– had won victory over ISIS. He said that Turkey and Syria would fight ISIS, but his advisors admitted there was no sign they were actually going to do it. And Trump refused to engage with the reality that Russia has now swept into Syria, taking positions there that had been ours hours before (and making propaganda videos about it). When Pelosi said he had given Putin the foothold in the Middle East he had always wanted, and then followed it up with “All roads with you lead to Putin,” Trump blew up. He said such insulting things to the Speaker of the House– who is, after all, the primary representative of the American people– the Democratic leaders walked out. They went straight to waiting cameras, where the men expressed shock at Trump’s attack on the House speaker, but Pelosi herself emphasized that the president was taken aback by such a dramatic rebuke by Republicans in Congress (129 of them voted for the resolution). She also noted that Trump is not well.

Love her or hate her, Pelosi is a masterful politician, and she called this exactly right. The Syrian crisis has provided a clear issue around which people turning against Trump can coalesce. It is now clear that there has been growing concern among career diplomats for months that Trump and his people have been using the State Department to spur foreign attacks on Democrats at home. The whistleblower complaint about Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine president Zelensky that came to light on September 13 was the first inkling of this, but since then, there has been such a flood of alarming information the whistleblower complaint has been eclipsed. Career state department officials– Marie Yovanovitch, Fiona Hill, George Kent, and today, Michael McKinley– have bucked the White House embargo on testimony to add details to the story of a shadow foreign policy run by Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuilani and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, along with special envoy Kurt Volker, and facilitated by acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, to pressure Ukraine leaders to smear Joe Biden’s son Hunter. In May, Mulvaney allegedly put together the “three amigos:” Sondland, Volker, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry to take over Ukraine policy from career diplomats.

With the arrest last week of Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas (fyi, I can’t keep all these names straight either) we learned that the story was even deeper: these men were funneling money from Russian oligarchs to GOP politicians, while trying to cement control over Ukraine’s gas industry. Another person named in the indictment, David Correia, was arrested today at JFK airport. We have also learned that Rudy Giuliani is, and has been, under federal counterintelligence investigation, suggesting that the FBI thinks he might be actively working for a foreign country.

The story of Syria, and that the domestic story is getting so bad that people are defying Trump, has cracked open the wall that has protected the president. People are heading for the exits. Last night, news broke that a federal appeals court has reopened a case charging Trump with violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause and profiting illegally from his hotels while in office. Today, we learned that there are major discrepancies between Trump’s taxes and bank records for loans, suggesting he might well have committed tax or bank fraud. Then Time Magazine published a piece by David Schulkin, Trump’s first Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs, presenting his interview for the job as virtually a Saturday Night Live skit, to which he compared it in the piece.

Pelosi is right: Trump is spooked by his collapsing power. In a desperate attempt for good press, Trump today tried to manufacture a win on social media by trying to resolve an emotional international incident before cameras. On August 27, the wife of a US diplomat in the UK, driving on the wrong side of the road, struck and killed a young man coming her way on a motorcycle. Citing diplomatic immunity– the law that protects diplomats from being prosecuted for crimes in foreign countries– the woman took refuge from the UK’s justice system by returning to America. The man’s parents, along with the British government, have appealed for the US government to waive her diplomatic immunity and return her for a trial. The man’s parents are in the US to press for her return, and Trump invited them to the White House. Unbeknownst to them, he had the woman who had killed their son waiting in an adjoining room to meet with them in front of cameras. They declined, later saying they had been “ambushed.” Rather than looking like a peacemaker, Trump looked like someone trying to use parents suffering from the death of their son for a photo-op.

After a day of disastrous news and the meeting with congressional leaders, Trump tried tonight to look calm, and to spin the walkout as Pelosi’s meltdown rather than his. He tweeted out a picture showing Pelosi standing up to him while he was seated at a table surrounded by advisors. But the body language of the men around Trump was startling: they are slumped, staring at their folded hands. It was an astonishing self-own, followed up by worse. To demonstrate that he had, in fact, been hard on Turkish President Erdogan rather than green lighting his attack on the Kurds, Trump released to Fox News personality Trish Regan a letter he allegedly wrote on October 9, the day Turkish troops crossed into Syria and began to slaughter the Kurds. “Let’s work out a good deal!” he wrote to Erdogan, and then went on to conclude: “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!…. I will call you later.” The letter was so wildly inappropriate reporters had to check to make sure it was not a parody. But the White House verified it.

For their part, White House spokespeople insist that Trump is calm and in control. Tonight, he resurrected complaints about Hillary Clinton,’s emails and echoed Pelosi’s observations about him, tweeting that “Nancy Pelosi needs help fast! There is either something wrong with her “upstairs,” or she just plain doesn’t like our great Country. She had a total meltdown in the White House today. It was very sad to watch. Pray for her, she is a very sick person!”

I have spent more than 30 years studying political history, and I have nothing to which to compare the craziness of today. I have no idea what will happen in the hours after I hit the send button. But it does feel like the political tide is turning.

Heather Cox Richardson is a political historian who uses facts and history to make observations about contemporary American politics. She is the author, most recently, of To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party.

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