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By Noah Rothman, associate editor of COMMENTARY magazine
If you’re a Republican voter, President Donald Trump has spent the last week irritating you. In varying degrees, the president managed to alienate every contingent of the GOP’s coalition.
The GOP’s frustration with Trump is most evident in how the political class responded to the White House’s demand that the small but effective contingent of U.S. military advisors in Syria abandon their posts. This strategically dubious decision prompted what might be the most serious revolt of Republican lawmakers in the history of this administration.
For Republicans who view the interdiction of radical Islamist terrorism abroad as a priority, the move made no sense. ISIS is far from “defeated,” as the president claimed. As recently as late November, coalition forces repelled a coordinated assault by members of the jihadist organization in Syria’s ungoverned Middle Euphrates River Valley. The coalition conducted hundreds of air and artillery strikes in Syria in just the first half of December. On December 15 alone, Syria was the scene of “47 strikes consisting of 90 engagements against ISIS.”
The GOP’s frustration with Trump is most evident in how the political class responded to the White House’s demand that the small but effective contingent of U.S. military advisors in Syria abandon their posts.
This snap decision, reportedly made without consulting national security officials or allies, also directly led Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to resign in protest over what will likely be the result of a rapid drawdown of American troops in Syria: the slaughter and subjugation of America’s anti-ISIS Kurdish and Arab allies. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a rare rebuke of the president’s conduct, saying he was “particularly distressed” by the “sharp differences” between Trump and his defense secretary as revealed in Mattis’s resignation letter. Sen. Marco Rubio wrote that Trump was “headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower our adversaries.” Sen. Lindsey Graham agreed. “[W]e are setting in motion the loss of all our gains and paving the way toward a second 9/11,” he wrote.
Not every Republican was incensed by the president’s knee-jerk decision to abandon America’s commitments abroad and those who suffered to achieve them. The right’s libertarian contingent seemed contented with the president’s decision, but they had a separate bone to pick with the president this week: The Trump administration’s decision to ban so-called bump stocks.
“President Obama never tried to go this far when it comes to guns,” the Washington Examiner’s Philip Wegmann wrote. Indeed, he noted, Obama’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) determined that a ban on these accessories absent Congressional action would be unconstitutional. The Trump administration, by contrast, evinced no deference to the Constitution’s checks on executive authority. Americans have less than 90 days to destroy their bump stocks or turn them in to the ATF. Influencers on the right responded by calling the move “legally dubious,” almost impossible to enforce, and a “feel-good move” that amounts to an “infringement” of American civil rights.
But maybe you’re a Republican who is generally suspicious of America’s sprawling military commitments abroad and also likely to defer to Trump’s judgment on things like constitutional checks and balances. Republicans in this camp, home to some of the president’s most ardent supporters, found themselves at odds with Trump this week over his genuinely historic, bipartisan legislative criminal justice reform bill.
The First Step Act, which the president signed into law on Friday, gives judges more latitude when applying sentencing guidelines, relaxes the three strikes law, expands earned time and good behavior credits and retroactively relaxes crack cocaine possession penalties to bring them more in line with powdered cocaine possession. The bill won 358 votes in the House and 87 in the Senate, but that consensus was not reflected in the responses from influencers representative of Trump’s base.
The bill won 358 votes in the House and 87 in the Senate, but that consensus was not reflected in the responses from influencers representative of Trump’s base.
“Good news for all the criminal aliens,” Ann Coulter declared, “Trump is allowing to stream into the country.” Though he conceded that the reforms were in part “legit” and “necessary,” Rush Limbaugh savaged the bill as an effort by both parties to appease narrow interest group in Washington and “tell minorities how much they care.” Earlier, Sen. Tom Cotton warned that the law will allow traffickers of heroin and fentanyl to escape penalties for their actions. Sen. John Kennedy fretted that “somebody is going to get killed” as a result of this legislation.
Of course, nothing has so frustrated Trump’s core supporters more than the president’s on-again, off-again willingness to risk his presidency to secure even a modest amount of funding for a physical barrier along the border with Mexico.
In the thick of negotiations over a continuing resolution to keep the government funded through the holidays, Trump appeared to back off his demand that Congress appropriate a meager $5 billion for the construction of “the wall.” This acknowledgement of the reality that there were not enough votes in Congress to support his proposal ignited a virtual revolt among the president’s otherwise indefatigable grassroots defenders. Coulter called Trump “gutless.” Limbaugh said Trump would get “less than nothing” from Congress if he did not press for his signature campaign trail promise. Freedom Caucus member Rep. Mark Meadows predicted “major damage” to the Trump’s 2020 prospects without wall funds being part of any stopgap funding bill. Even the hosts of “Fox & Friends,” some of the president’s most reliable cheerleaders, noted that any continuing resolution that fails to explicitly allocate funds to a wall amounts to an “I win, you lose” thumb in Trump’s eye.
And so, perhaps burnt by this criticism, Trump reversed himself. On Thursday, the president told Republican congressional leaders that he would not sign any continuing resolution that did not include funding for border security. But even though the House managed to consent to Trump’s request by the narrowest of margins, the Senate remained opposed. And thus, Republicans were unable to avoid at least a partial government shutdown over the Christmas holiday. Amid this latest fiasco, the mainstream GOP’s consternation over the president’s reckless and mercurial conduct this week is likely to burn even brighter.
And yet, this did not have to be such a disastrous week for the president. He could have spent the week taking a victory lap over a major legislative achievement and laying the groundwork for future bipartisan compromises in the new year, potentially including the inclusion of border security funding in a broader infrastructure bill. Instead, he occupied his time by aggravating his favorite voters and dividing the Republican coalition against itself. Trump can’t be expected to make everyone happy, but it takes an uncommonly inept performance to make no one happy. As portents go, that is an ominous one for the GOP in 2019.