The bar is set so low for Donald Trump that every day he doesn’t trigger a nuclear confrontation with a distant adversary is seen as a bonus. Today was one such day, as Trump signalled that he would not, after all, tear up the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, as many – including his closest lieutenants – once feared he would.
Sure, he disavowed the accord, slamming Tehran as a “rogue regime”, imposing fresh sanctions on the Revolutionary Guard and refusing to certify that Iran has complied with its terms, but he did not feed it into the shredder. Instead, he kicked the decision on its future over to Congress. That certainly puts the deal’s survival in jeopardy, but it does at least live to see another day..
That’s a cause for relief, because the international agreement that put severe, if not watertight, constraints on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions had looked set to be the latest victim of an emerging Trump doctrine. Distilled, that credo amounts to: “In the absence of a vision of my own, I’ll destroy everything Obama did.”
The day before the Iran decision, Trump made two moves, one involving the gutting of subsidies, designed to wreck Obamacare. Having tried and failed to get Congress to repeal it altogether, Trump is now working to render it unviable, thereby denying millions of Americans affordable healthcare. Whether it’s health or the Paris accord on climate change, Trump is bent on dismantling every last achievement of his predecessor – whose legitimacy as president, whose legitimacy as a US citizen, he never accepted.
But the Iran decision also stands as the latest instance of a strategy of containment. Normally that term is used by diplomats to describe policy towards an enemy state. This time, the one being contained is Trump himself.
Those doing the containing are the highest ranking officials in the administration, handily abbreviated as MMTK: national security adviser HR McMaster; defence secretary James Mattis; secretary of state Rex Tillerson; and chief of staff John Kelly. Three are former generals, who have concluded that it is their patriotic duty to save America from their president.
Republican senator Bob Corker, chair of the senate foreign relations committee, describes Kelly, Mattis and Tillerson as the “people that help separate our country from chaos”. As he put it, “I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him.”
The fudged decision on Iran seems to be their handiwork. It fits a pattern in which Trump’s most senior officials work to thwart, defy or deceive him. When Trump was railing against the Iran deal, Mattis told Congress it was in the US national interest. When Trump was taunting North Korea’s “little rocket man” by tweet, Tillerson was opening up a secret back channel for talks with Pyongyang. When Trump tweeted his decision to ban transgender people from serving in the military, Mattis quietly ignored him, ensuring that it remains the military’s decision who can and cannot serve.
Apparently Tillerson was incensed by Trump’s desire to increase America’s already massive nuclear arsenal tenfold
All these moves, coupled with the sight of Corker – a conservative Republican from conservative Tennessee – breaking ranks have led to fevered talk – and hope – that things might be coming to a head, that the Republican dam might be about to break.
It has been fuelled by Tillerson’s failure to deny that he had referred to the president as a “fucking moron”. (Apparently Tillerson was incensed by Trump’s desire, expressed during a White House briefing, to increase America’s already massive nuclear arsenal tenfold – as if the ability to destroy the world several times over is not enough.) This week another Republican senator asked Trump if he was recanting his oath of office, in which he had promised to “preserve, protect and defend” the constitution. Hours earlier, Trump had trampled on the first amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech, by saying: “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write.” Trump then called for broadcaster NBC to be stripped of its operating “licence”. Never mind that such a thing does not exist: it’s the thought that counts.
The notion that Trump’s own party is about to turn on him is not solely wishful thinking by his opponents or the liberal media. Steve Bannon, who exited the White House in August, is said to have told Trump he had only a 30% chance of serving out his full term. Bannon warned his undoing could be the 25th amendment to the constitution. To which Trump naturally replied: “What’s that?”
It’s the section that provides for a situation in which the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”. If the vice-president and a majority of the cabinet declare Trump unable to do his job, and Congress agrees, they have the power to remove him. Which is why the question of Trump’s mental capacity has suddenly gained traction.
Note this week’s depiction of Trump by Vanity Fair as “unravelling” – a lonely, “increasingly unfocused” figure, raging that he hates everyone in the White House. Note too the comments of Trump’s ghostwriter for The Art of the Deal, Tony Schwartz, who tweeted this week: “I know this man. He’s out of control and it’s getting worse … Trump’s grip on reality is spiralling down into paranoia and delusion.”
As a fantasy, the 25th amendment has tremendous appeal: who wouldn’t want to end this presidency, swiftly and cleanly? But it is itself a delusion. Can you imagine the current US cabinet, stuffed as it is with sycophants and billionaire know-nothings, turning on their patron for the sake of the country and the world? Several are in trouble for billing the US taxpayer for the needless use of private jets; one is currently being taunted for insisting that, in the manner of Queen Elizabeth, a flag be raised whenever he is in residence. Selfless patriots they are not.
Even if they did turn on Trump, would the invertebrates who make up today’s Republican party in Congress do the same? Corker has spoken out – but only after he announced he’s quitting the Senate. The rest barely dare raise a whisper of protest against Trump, even when he’s soiling the flag they claim to revere. If, by some miracle, they did find their spine and remove him, the Trump loyalists would not just swallow it. There could well be street violence, even civil war.
No, the only way to remove Trump is for Democrats to do the hard graft of organising, campaigning and winning elections – starting with the midterms of November 2018. So long as Republicans control the House and Senate, Trump is safe.
I’m glad that Mattis, Kelly and the others are there to grab Trump’s wrist should he reach for the nuclear button. But even that is only a small comfort. A democracy that relies on a group of generals to frustrate an elected leader is in a bad way. The president does indeed pose a clear and present danger to America and the world. But democracy is what put him there – and only democracy can get him out.