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Donald Trump plots his own ‘brilliant’ course in week of turmoil

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Via Financial Times

During a White House meeting this week on the Turkish incursion into Syria, Donald Trump levelled an insult at Nancy Pelosi that prompted the speaker of the House of Representatives to rise from her seat and walk out of the room in protest.

Revealingly, neither party could agree on the exact epithet employed by the US president. The White House said he called Ms Pelosi a “third-rate” lawmaker. The California Democrat believed that she had been described as “third-grade”.

The resulting impasse was just one — of many — illustrations of the tumult gripping the nation’s capital in recent days as Mr Trump has responded to bipartisan criticism of his policy on Syria and a growing clamour for his impeachment over allegations he sought Ukrainian help for his 2020 re-election campaign.

After the aborted meeting on the Turkish incursion, the White House released a photo of what it called a “crazy” Ms Pelosi standing at a table across from the president. Trolling Mr Trump with his weapon of choice, she had the photo installed within hours as her banner image on Twitter. Outside the West Wing, she declared that she had just witnessed the president having a “meltdown”.

Ms Pelosi walked out on Mr Trump after 129 Republicans joined all 225 Democrats to pass a House resolution censuring Mr Trump for removing US troops from north-east Syria in a decision that gave Turkey the go-ahead to launch its incursion.

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The next day, Mr Trump landed in Texas for a “Make America Great Again” rally, boasting that his handling of the crisis on the Turkish-Syrian border had produced a “great day for civilisation”. Hours earlier, Mike Pence, US vice-president, announced in Ankara that he had brokered a “ceasefire” that would see Turkey halt its military operations in exchange for a withdrawal of Kurdish forces from a “safe zone” in north-east Syria.

Mr Trump basked in glory even though there was almost unanimous agreement in Washington that his decision to remove US troops had given President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish president, the space to attack Kurdish forces who had been critical in fighting Isis.

Addressing thousands of fans in Dallas on Thursday, Mr Trump elaborated on what he had earlier described as a “strategically brilliant” plan to engineer a victory. 

“It was unconventional what I did,” Mr Trump said. “Like two kids in a lot, you gotta let them fight and then you pull them apart.”

The White House says Mr Trump did not give Mr Erdogan the green light when they spoke on October 6. It then leaked a letter Mr Trump wrote to Mr Erdogan, in which he warned him not to take action that would make the Turkish leader “the devil”. But the letter was dated three days after the call, after Turkey had begun its invasion.

“Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” Mr Trump wrote to Mr Erdogan, before concluding: “I will call you later.”

While Mr Trump took a victory lap in Texas, Mick Mulvaney, his acting chief of staff, was creating problems in Washington at a Thursday news conference intended to announce that the president had decided that next year’s G7 summit would be held at his Doral golf resort near Miami.

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Mr Mulvaney said the president had withheld almost $400m in military aid from Ukraine this year because he wanted the country’s help in investigating “corruption” in the 2016 US election — an apparent quid pro quo that provided House investigators with a damning admission as they pursue the impeachment inquiry. Mr Mulvaney later claimed he had been misconstrued, but his protest fell on deaf ears.

The admission came after several days during which former and current US officials told House committees they were concerned about the role Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, had played on Ukraine policy. Gordon Sondland, the wealthy hotelier who is Mr Trump’s ambassador to the EU, said the president had ordered him to deal with Mr Giuliani on Ukraine. 

Mr Mulvaney, a former South Carolina lawmaker who is still “acting” chief of staff because Mr Trump wants to keep him on his toes, also gave a bizarre reason for why Mr Trump had chosen Miami over locations like Utah for the G7 summit.

“There was one place . . . where we actually had to figure out if we’re going to have oxygen tanks for the participants because of the altitude,” Mr Mulvaney said.

As Washington grappled with the enormity of the recent events — which saw Russian forces enter the vacuum that US forces left in Syria — Jim Mattis, the retired general who resigned as defence secretary last year when Mr Trump first threatened to leave Syria, provided some perspective.

During his meeting with Ms Pelosi, Mr Trump referred to Mr Mattis as “the most overrated general” in American history. Speaking at the Al Smith dinner in New York on Thursday, Mr Mattis shot back.

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“I’m not just an overrated general, I am the . . . world’s most overrated,” he said to laughter. “I’m honoured to be considered that by Donald Trump, because he also called Meryl Streep an overrated actress . . . So, I guess I’m the Meryl Streep of generals.”

Mr Mattis went further, saying that while he had earned his spurs on the battlefield, “Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor”, in a reference to the medical exemption Mr Trump received that allowed him to avoid military service in Vietnam.

Speaking hours after Mr Trump had claimed that his own brilliance had saved the day in Syria — a claim that was widely ridiculed — Mr Mattis had the last word.

“Between me and Meryl, at least we’ve had some victories,” he joked.

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi

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