If you wanted mayhem for Christmas, it’s your lucky day. In the span of one week, Donald Trump has:
- Presided over the slow, groaning collapse of the stock market as all economic indicators scream “recession” thanks to his tariffs, his generally lawless behavior and his deliberate disruption of long-standing foreign alliances.
- Abruptly ordered all US troops out of Syria without consultation with aides or allies, losing Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in the process.
- Boxed his fellow Republicans into a corner by celebrating the preposterous anti-Affordable Care Act ruling in Texas, once again making the GOP look like what it is: the party that wants to destroy your health care.
- Outraged his xenophobic base by seeming to waver on his much-ballyhooed border wall.
- Blown up the budget process by suddenly pivoting away from a deal to avoid a looming federal government shutdown, to the dismay of many non-Freedom Caucus Republicans in Congress, because Fox News told him to.
All this, of course, comes after the White House chief of staff resigned with no successor in place, Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen was sentenced to prison at a hearing where the bagman made it clear who gave him the bag, and a federal judge delivered a scalding come-down-the-mountain scolding to Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Portions of the federal government that include insignificant piffles like the State Department, the Justice Department, the Transportation Department, the Agriculture Department and the Department of the Interior will shut down tonight if the White House and congressional Republicans fail to get out of their own way. If this comes to pass, hundreds of thousands of federal employees will get Christmas cards from Grover Norquist after watching their jobs get drowned in Trump’s bathtub.
It did not have to be this way. Earlier this week, it became clear that the $5 billion Trump wanted for his border wall was a political impossibility. The Democrats were not the problem; there were and still are not enough Republican votes. Trump signaled his acquiescence to this reality, and the Senate passed a budget stopgap, minus the wall money, punting the larger questions down the road to February.
Then Trump met with Freedom Caucus leader Rep. Mark Meadows, who told him flat out that the base would revolt if Trump signed the Senate’s stopgap measure absent funding for the wall. Come February, Nancy Pelosi and the new House majority guarantees the wall’s final doom; if that money is not appropriated in this bill, it’s all over, and every red hat who chanted “Build That Wall” at the rallies will forever spit at the mention of Trump’s name.
In the background, Ann Coulter called Trump “gutless,” Rush Limbaugh bathed his microphone in white-hot rage spittle, and the entirety of Fox News rose up in high dudgeon to name Trump a fraud and a failure if he fails to secure funding for the border wall as promised. Perhaps for the very first time, Trump realized that his people took all that wall nonsense really, deeply seriously; it wasn’t just another rhetorical flourish to them, but a deal-breaker requirement.
For a man who requires lavish praise the way houseplants require sunlight and water, it was all too much. Trump turned on a borrowed dime on Thursday and announced his refusal to sign any measure that lacked funding for the wall. The House obliged him by cobbling together a new measure that has the funding and passed it on a straight party-line vote. The Senate must pass this new measure today against nearly impossible odds before Trump can sign it. If the Senate can’t pass it, and Trump refuses to back down, the lights go off at midnight.
Anyone who thought an evening’s repose might calm the waters awoke to disappointment this morning:
The Democrats, whose votes we need in the Senate, will probably vote against Border Security and the Wall even though they know it is DESPERATELY NEEDED. If the Dems vote no, there will be a shutdown that will last for a very long time. People don’t want Open Borders and Crime!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 21, 2018
Shutdown today if Democrats do not vote for Border Security!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 21, 2018
Let’s be clear about a few things as we watch the rest of this long, odd day unfold. First, Trump’s attempt to blame Democrats for this mess is ridiculous on its face. He proudly took responsibility for it — “I’m not going to blame you for it, Chuck” he said with the cameras rolling — in that contentious Oval Office meeting with Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. This is a fight among Republicans, with the Freedom Caucus in the House laying siege to their fellow Republicans in the Senate.
Second, and most importantly, there is no rhyme or reason to any of this, no studied policy goals in mind, no nothing beyond a failed president trying to raise as much ruckus as possible in order to distract from the avalanche of legal woes that is about to bury him and his family. Bedlam is the policy; confusion is the goal; and attention is, as ever, the byproduct.
This is a portrait of perfect chaos. A White House without a functioning chief of staff and defense secretary — indeed, a White House where the last remaining voices trusted by the president belong to known fascists like Stephen Miller — may as well be one of those inflatable bouncy houses that blow away in a high wind … and the wind is rising.
Before antiwar progressives celebrate Trump’s move to withdraw troops from Syria and perhaps even Afghanistan (a welcome diminishing of the Forever Wars under normal circumstances), we must understand that he has no plan whatsoever for this incredibly complicated and perilous move. At present, the only people who appear happy about Trump’s wing-it Syria decision are in Russia.
All of us who oppose US militarism want these troops home, but the process of getting them home cannot be some throwaway blurt meant only to change the headlines for an afternoon. An army is never in more danger than when its back is turned in withdrawal, and half-assing a necessary retreat endangers the very people we want to bring home at long last.
Finally, each and every single bit of this disaster belongs to Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham and every Republican officeholder, media personality, and financial sponsor who coddled and protected this Superfund site of a president because he was good for a tax cut and some judges. As a nation, we are loose and untethered in very dangerous space, and we are here because of them, period, end of file.
As of this printing, the new House stopgap bill still awaits a doubtful Senate approval, and Trump refuses to budge. The ball is now in McConnell’s court, and we may have finally arrived at the moment when he tells this rogue president he cannot have what he wants. As I write this, McConnell and friends are on their way to the White House for another meeting.
This has the feel of a farce with long legs. We watch, and we wait, once again.