When the news broke that Donald Trump had essentially given Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan free rein to invade Syria and eliminate America’s ally the Kurds, the opprobrium came in fierce from his own party.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham called it “the biggest blunder of his presidency.” Sen. Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania) said it would “severely harm our credibility.” Even Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) said a withdrawal would “benefit Russia, Iran and the Assad regime.” About the only one who had his back was isolationist Sen. Rand Paul, also of Kentucky.
The backlash among Senate Republicans was all the more remarkable, coming on the heels of their response to the cavalcade of revelations around Trump pushing Ukraine and China to investigate political rival Joe Biden.
Aside from the always “troubled” Mitt Romney of Utah, Senate Republicans either played down the allegations (see Florida’s Marco Rubio telling reporters that Trump was joking when he asked China to probe the Biden clan) or had Trump’s back (McConnell released a campaign ad touting himself as the man stopping impeachment). And as McConnell knows well, there’s a clear political benefit to the GOP to redirect the discussion onto Biden.
But give these guys truth serum and they’d clearly find Trump’s moves unseemly at best. Former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake said there would be 35 Senate Republican votes to remove Trump … if the ballot were kept secret. Alas, most of them are still answerable to voters. And Republican voters aren’t bailing on the Trump train.
So why does someone like Sen. Cory Gardner, fighting for his political life in the blueish state of Colorado, see the need to duck and dodge and deflect rather than answer a question of whether it’s appropriate to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival, and then demand Trump reverse course on Syria? Because only one is fixable.
The notion that Trump could act more traditionally presidential or stop tweeting off the cuff or tone down those rallies has long been proven fanciful. And even though the apparent scheme to leverage his foreign relationships for domestic political gain is several points higher on the Richter scale than juvenile tweets, it comes from the same place. That’s Trump being Trump — transactional, self-centered, unconcerned with any norms or standards of behavior.
But when it comes to military policy, the president can be moved. We’ve seen this before, even down to the specific tug-of-war between Graham and Paul. Trump announced an abrupt pullout of all U.S. troops from Syria late last year, but after Graham and others got to him, he reversed course to extend the timeline.
That’s why you saw the quick slapback against Trump’s decision to move 50 U.S. troops and let Turkey go H.A.M. And Trump showed a bit of wiggle room in the ensuing days, such as when he threatened to “obliterate” Turkey’s economy if they do anything “off limits.”
Does a widely criticized foreign policy blunder change the impeachment political calculus? Not a whit. Trump’s red Senate firewall remains firmly intact. But the episode has been instructive for what it reveals about what it takes for Trump’s own party to hold him in check.