Throughout the 2016 presidential primaries and through the presidential campaign, those of us who were classified as “Never Trump” or “anti-Trump” conservatives repeated the same mantra, time and time again: Character is destiny. A man’s temperament, knowledge, and integrity inevitably shape his conduct. As much as voters may hope that the weight of the office or the influence of advisers can shape or influence a flawed president, those flaws will still burst forth — especially when a man is as headstrong as Donald Trump.
While we have seen the consequences of Trump’s character throughout his presidency, no series of crises has demonstrated his profound flaws more thoroughly and completely than the twin foreign policy scandals in Ukraine and Syria. All of the character traits that Trump’s critics most feared are present — including his petty corruption, his temperamental unfitness, and his rank incompetence.
Let’s begin with Trump’s incompetence. There is no question that Trump faced a difficult strategic and diplomatic challenge in northern Syria. He inherited command of a complex military conflict, and then proceeded to make terrible decisions that had immediate and profound consequences.
Two weeks ago, America enjoyed an alliance with Kurdish allies who had borne the brunt of ground combat (and taken horrific casualties) in the successful fight against the ISIS caliphate. America also enjoyed a longstanding (though increasingly difficult) alliance with Turkey. In mere days, however, his abrupt and shocking retreat after a single call with Turkish President Erdogan destroyed our nation’s alliance with the Syrian Kurds, granted ISIS a lifeline as allied Kurdish forces lost control of ISIS detention facilities, and put our alliance with NATO partner Turkey under unprecedented strain as Trump then imposed sanctions that were too little, too late to avoid a profound military and diplomatic setback.
Adding insult to injury, Americans watched in shame and embarrassment as Russian mercenaries and Russian media toured a former American base — a base that was abandoned so hastily that American soldiers left equipment, food, and even personal belongings behind.
The disaster in Syria pushed temporarily shoved Ukraine from the headlines, but the impeachment inquiry further reveals Trump’s corruption and unfitness.
Evidence continues to pour out that Trump was attempting to coerce Ukraine to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden. In fact, beyond the blindingly-obvious quid pro quo revealed in the transcript of the conversation between Donald Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, messages reveal that a key American diplomat believed that Trump was conditioning military aid on Ukrainian assistance in his harebrained schemes.
Even the most defensible of Trump’s requests — that Ukraine help investigate foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election — is tainted by his unfitness. As the transcript makes clear, he is obsessed with fringe conspiracy theories, including the bizarre idea that there exists a Crowdstrike server in Ukraine that’s indispensable to disrupting the mainstream narrative of Russian interference on Trump’s behalf. The idea is that proof of the “real” story of 2016 (and perhaps even copies of Hillary Clinton’s missing emails) is located in a missing server stashed in Ukraine. There is no evidence any such server exists.
While Trump’s entire presidency has been marred by his chaotic behavior, his defenders have long accurately noted that many of his policies—on taxes, abortion rights, court appointments—have been squarely in the Republican mainstream. They’ve also accurately noted that many of his advisers tempered his worst impulses. But all that is changing. The guardrails have collapsed.
Trump’s character chased off his best advisers. General Mattis is long gone. He resigned after Trump’s first attempt to destroy the American alliance with Syrian Kurds. White House Counsel Don McGahn is long gone. He arguably saved Trump’s presidency by refusing to fire special counsel Bob Mueller. John Kelly is gone. H.R. McMaster is gone. The list goes on.
So now Trump’s character has free reign. Just this week we learned that he tried to engineer a jolting surprise meeting (with photographers present to document the moment) between grieving British parents and the American diplomat who killed their son and then fled the country under diplomatic immunity. It’s hard to conceive of a more insensitive idea. And then today we learned that Trump intends to host the 2020 G7 summit at his company’s own property, the Trump Doral resort near Miami. Only a man who cares nothing for reasonable advice (or negative public perception) could engage in such brazen self-dealing.
There was a time when it wasn’t difficult to convince Republicans that character counts. GOP officials and activists warned America that Bill Clinton was a lying lothario. They warned about his reckless personal conduct. And they were correct. Not even the great weight and responsibility of the Oval Office (much less his marriage vows) could keep him from a tawdry affair. Not even the solemn legal responsibility of an oath could keep him from illegally lying about his misconduct. Clinton’s reckless behavior so marked his presidency that even his own Vice President, Al Gore, distanced himself from Clinton during his own presidential race. Voters appreciated peace and prosperity, but they were exhausted by the drama in the White House.
But if there is anything we’ve since learned about the partisan mind, it’s that it’s capable of endless contortions and rationalizations in the pursuit of power. For the GOP partisan, character is no longer destiny. It’s an increasingly-irrelevant factor in the quest for power — even when the exercise of that power consistently and increasingly results in outcomes and policies that Republican stalwarts once opposed.
Imagine, just for a moment, the Republican outcry if the Obama administration had so abruptly abandoned the Kurds. Republicans, in fact, demanded that Obama intervene in Iraq in 2014 to save Iraqi Kurdistan from ISIS. And when he did, they demanded that he fight harder, that he “take the gloves off.”
While it’s gratifying to see a number of Republican senators and congressmen condemn Trump’s Syrian retreat, few are (publicly, at least) acknowledging the full truth of the moment. Trump’s Ukraine and Syria policies represent Trump unleashed. This is the man in full, and the man in full is demonstrating that he’s just as corrupt, unfit, and incompetent as his critics feared. Character doesn’t just count, character controls, and the diplomatic, military, and moral fruits of Trump’s are bitter indeed.