I have been struck by the strong pushback among Senate Republicans to the president in deciding that the CIA’s sources nail Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman for ordering the death of journalist and U.S. permanent resident Jamad Khasshogi in Turkey last month. For two years, these guys have remained silent as one foreign policy faux pas has followed the previous one.
It’s not that this criminal finding is really controversial, but for these senators to speak out in what is a slap of Trump, who has decided to defend the Saudis no matter what, well, that seems notable.
Indeed, the problem underscored here is that most of the president’s men merely repeat Trump’s ill-founded conclusions, even if they ignore whatever evidence has been gathered. Days before, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis insisted that there was no strong conclusion reached by the CIA about the Saudi leader’s involvement in the murder. Now here came CIA Director Gina Haspel, appointed to replace Pompeo, with the actual information, and Republican senators were challenging the president as a result.
Here’s the question: Are these important cabinet members merely toadies to Trump? Can we believe anything they say?
Both Pompeo and Mattis are considered substantial, thinking people on their own and for the representation of their agencies. Certainly, their considered opinion would be weighty even with another sort of president, but especially so when the president is Trump, someone who gleefully insists that his gut outthinks all the brains around him, absolving him from any responsibility to listen to actual fact-gathering even by his own intelligence agencies.
So, in recent days, Pompeo announced that the administration would begin the formal process of dumping the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty within 60 days unless Russia proves it is complying. Pompeo also used a speech to NATO to trash a host of international treaties, alliances or international institutions to promote the Trump proclamation of American nationalism. Along the way, he threw the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the European Union and the African Union under the bus.
For someone like Pompeo, whose job it is to engage other countries towards the support of American and democratic values, these incidents impressed me as being particularly undiplomatic and, well, shallow in substance.
Likewise, Mattis, picking his fights, has allowed for the deployment of active U.S. military troops to the southern border to help in anti-immigration efforts and slow-walked orders to weed out transgender troops, just to placate his boss.
My question, again, is whether this is Pompeo or Mattis themselves, or merely the cabinet puppets sent out there to speak words for a president who is increasingly being isolated by world leaders.
The toady issue is not inconsequential. John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, is out in front saying that the president is — and should be — meeting again with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, even though North Korea has failed to follow through with promises to start dismantling its nuclear weapons. Again, Bolton is a hawk on many issues, but, in the end, he is an informed hawk, not a dupe.
Or there was Larry Kudlow, the White House’s top economic adviser, this week sent out to praise the would-be deal that Trump supposedly wheedled with China on trade, only to have to acknowledge moments later that there really is no such deal, there may not be more than “aspirations” to such a deal. In the meantime, the vacillations prompt the stock market to drop by nearly 800 points in a single day as a reflection of what happens in times of economic uncertainty.
My argument is not that cabinet members should be “disloyal” to the president or his messages. Indeed, we expect that these secretaries are dispatched to televised interviews to explain and perhaps to persuade the public. The comparisons this week with George H.W. Bush were impossible to ignore: It is hard to think of James Baker or Dick Cheney merely going out there and uttering a slogan without substance. Of course, Bush knew how to back up at least most of his opinions with some fact-gathering.
But it is a starting point in these interviews that cabinet members are offering a realistic, true reflection of the White House’s understanding.
More importantly, in a time in which Republican senators generally have decided to give the president’s hold on truth a wide berth, we want to believe that someone in the Trump administration has a working understanding of what the country actually is facing — whether in national security, economic, environment, immigration or whatever front is being recognized today might be problematic.
In this time when our senators are still figuring out how to react appropriately to a president who ignores science, intelligence-gathering, analysis, diplomacy, protocol, tradition or even humane behavior, we should remind them that we expect to hear some realism from the Cabinet even if we cannot get it from the Oval Office.