On Sunday morning, while most of America was thinking about the Super Bowl, CBS aired an interview with President Donald Trump in which he gave an answer to a question about Syria that was absurd even by his standards.
Before he won the presidency, Trump liked to criticize then-President Obama for announcing potential military decisions before they happened. Trump has maintained this line during his presidency, saying in April 2017 that “militarily, I don’t like to say where I’m going and what I’m doing.” But just recently, he did — announcing his plan to withdraw US troops from Syria well in advance.
CBS’s Margaret Brennan asked Trump about this contradiction in the interview, pointing out that “you’re telegraphing your retreat” from Syria. Here’s Trump’s full answer to Brennan’s challenge. I have omitted nothing:
I’m not telegraphing anything. No, no, no. There’s a difference. When President Obama pulled out of Iraq in theory we had Iraq. In other words, we had Iraq. We never had Syria because President Obama never wanted to violate the red line in the sand. So we never had Syria. I was the one that actually violated the red line when I hit Syria with 59 Tomahawk missiles, if you remember. But President Obama chose not to do that. When he chose not to do that, he showed tremendous weakness. But we didn’t have Syria whereas we had Iraq. So when he did what he did in Iraq, which was a mistake. Being in Iraq was a mistake. Okay. Being in Iraq — it was a big mistake to go — one of the greatest mistakes going into the Middle East that our country has ever made. One of the greatest mistakes that we’ve ever made.
I understand some of the individual words and phrases in Trump’s monologue. He’s talking about Obama’s “red line,” the president’s threat to attack Syrian forces if they used chemical weapons (a threat he backed down from in 2013). Trump is saying Obama’s climbdown was bad, and that he’s better for following through on attacking Syria after regime forces used chemical weapons again in 2017 and 2018. That makes sense, as far as it goes.
But that isn’t an answer to Brennan’s question. Trump doesn’t explain the contradiction between his past words and his current actions because he can’t, at least not without admitting he was wrong in the past (which he hates doing). So he ends up offering an increasingly incoherent series of rambles like “we didn’t have Syria whereas we had Iraq,” and concludes by talking about how the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 (which Trump supported) was a mistake. It’s just nonsensical.
It’s tempting to write this off as the kind of silly flailing all politicians do. But plenty of politicians contradict themselves or flip-flop on a supposed principle; they are then expected to explain the contradiction, or say what they got wrong in the past or why they changed their mind. Trump is so adrift on actual policy details, so sloppy in his thinking, and so unwilling to admit mistakes that he cannot do that. This is a failure in basic democratic accountability: A leader of democracy is so incapable of answering core policy questions that he offers word salad and expects the public to eat it up.