Forget “No Collusion,” Trump Is Now Pro-Collusion
There is no such thing as an outrage-free week anymore. On Wednesday, President Trump offered us a particularly stunning example of this new political reality, telling the ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos that he would welcome foreign interference in an election and probably wouldn’t bother to tell the F.B.I. about any outside governments bringing him dirt on his opponent. On Thursday, he doubled down on this position, arguing, in effect, that accepting help from Vladimir Putin would be no different than dining with the Queen of England and the “Prince of Whales,” as he put it in a tweet. Trump, instead of proclaiming “no collusion,” now seemed to be announcing that he is pro-collusion. It didn’t take long for commentators to wonder about his strategy here as much as about his poor spelling: Does the President actually want Congress to impeach him?
One of Trump’s great skills has been to confound his opponents. In the third year of his Presidency, this is as true as it was on his first day in office, and his critics, at home and abroad, have, in the intervening time, become more skilled at reading Trump but hardly less capable or united in agreeing what to do about him. They have received the message that he is a threat to the established order—just about any established order—but resistance has often been more loud than effective, and the divisions over how to take him on seem to widen by the day. He is historically unpopular for a President by many measures, but no matter what he does the allegiance of some forty per cent of the American public has so far remained unwavering.
In Washington, Democrats currently have two opposite and contradictory theories of the case. They cannot both be right. For the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, the idea is to beat Trump politically in the 2020 election and, while using Congress’s powers to aggressively investigate him and his Administration, refuse to be drawn into a politicized impeachment proceeding that will not result in his removal from office. “A reluctance to drop the hammer is a healthy thing in a democracy,” Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who agrees with the Speaker’s approach, told reporters on Thursday, when confronted with the President’s latest insult to his own law-enforcement agencies. Many of the nearly two dozen Democrats running for President are also believers in a version of this theory. Though some have endorsed impeachment and all are vociferously anti-Trump, they are focussing their campaigns less on the damage the President poses to the constitutional order than on wonky, issues-oriented appeals to voters.
Then there is the Biden school. The former Vice-President regularly called Trump an “existential threat” to the country this week in an Iowa campaign swing. In this, he is more or less in synch with those lawmakers back in Washington who believe that the evidence of Presidential obstruction assembled by the special counsel Robert Mueller warrants immediate impeachment proceedings, regardless of whether they turn out to be politically advantageous for the Democrats. So far, there are about sixty members of the House (including a majority of the Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee and a lone Republican, Justin Amash, of Michigan), who are on the record as supporting this course, which leaves a couple hundred more to convince. On the campaign trail, Biden leads early polls with his “Make America America Again” approach, but, if his opponents are right that voters want more than just an anti-Trump crusade, then his theory of the case will be not just wrong but disastrously so.
A fight between Pelosi and her fellow-Democrats is exactly what Trump wants. He seeks division and discord; he benefits from it. It is surely one reason, among many, why the damaging revelations reported by Mueller have had almost no effect on his public standing. If anything, this week’s tiresome outrage cycle is a reminder of Trump’s uniquely successful brand of public crazy. Does anyone remember that he also announced this week that he will soon meet alone with Putin again, despite the uproar over their still mysterious one-on-one summit this past year, in Helsinki? Or that Trump said that he wouldn’t allow the C.I.A. to spy on his “friend,” the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, after revelations that Kim’s murdered half brother had been an American informant? Or that Trump spent the first part of the week claiming that he had cut a secret deal with Mexico on illegal immigration, a deal which Mexico denies exists and whose particulars he has yet to produce?
Trump is a political octopus, squirting so much diversionary black ink at us that diversion is the new normal. The new issue of Foreign Affairs out this week declares this historical moment “the self-destruction of American power” and offers a depressing autopsy on the vanishing of U.S. global leadership. But there are too many outrages of the day, of every day, to think about it. Some members of Congress are now publicly confessing that they haven’t had time to even read the Mueller report (and more are saying so in private, as I myself have heard). I doubt that they are stopping to consider the collapse of the liberal international order.
I happened to watch this week’s edition of the Trump show from the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate, in Berlin, which, later this year, will celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the American-midwifed reunification of Germany that followed. I attended a meeting of fervent transatlanticists that was dominated, as conversations invariably are these days, by the question of what to do about Trump. The Germans are no less confounded than the Democrats.
Back in the spring of 2017, when I attended another conference in Berlin sponsored by the same group, Atlantik-Brücke (the “Atlantic Bridge”), a Cold War-era effort at reconciliation between Germany and the United States, the President’s rhetoric was just as incendiary then as it is today, but the Europeans in attendance weren’t yet convinced that he was a serious threat. Trump had just fired the F.B.I. director James Comey, triggering the hiring of Mueller, and many of the Germans wondered whether impeachment was imminent. Words like “chaos,” “fool,” and “clownish” had been thrown around. “People here think Trump is a laughingstock,” a senior German official told me.
Two years later, they are taking the clown show far more seriously, so much so, in fact, that the soul-searching now is less about how to take Trump’s measure and more about the long-term consequences of an American turn away from Europe—and whether Europeans are prepared to do anything about it.
Trump, of course, has made Europe in general and Germany in particular a target of his animus and has dismissed the value of NATO and the European Union. To the transactional President, the long postwar alliance that won the Cold War and (largely) kept the post-Cold War peace is just another bad deal for America, in which Americans protect the West from Russia while the Germans get rich. Presidents before Trump have long complained about European “free riders” (the term was used by no less a continental favorite than President Obama) and demanded that defense budgets be raised to meet the threshold of two per cent of G.D.P. that NATO members had agreed to spend by 2024.
But Trump has elevated those complaints to the level of a new catechism, and no one really thinks this is about a few billion euros. This is about bigger and far more worrisome trends.
In Germany today, Trump’s approval rating is somewhere around ten per cent, and surveys have shown that Putin is more trusted as an international actor than the American President. Trump’s bad name is giving Germans pause about the entire relationship, and that is making it much harder to push through the defense-spending increase that Germany’s leadership says that it supports. This striking fact was only reinforced when Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the handpicked successor to the outgoing German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, spoke to the group on Wednesday.
A.K.K., as she is known, offered a moving story about her own father, a student when he was pressed into German military service in World War II, during which he was later taken prisoner by the Americans. This, he told his daughter after the war, had been a “great fortune,” because the Americans not only healed his wounds but taught him about “forgiveness and friendship.” Yet nostalgia for what was can only work so far in the present crisis, and when A.K.K. came to the case for the U.S. alliance in today’s world she sounded defensive and unsure. Twice she reminded the audience that, no matter how much they disliked Trump, at least he was no Putin. Trump may call journalists “enemies of the people,” she pointed out, but there are no “show trials” for them in America, as there are in Putin’s Russia. “We have to see that difference,” she pleaded. “It can’t be levelled.” All of which made for hard listening a few feet away from where the Berlin Wall so long stood. Daily outrages can obscure some truths about the moment, but they cannot undo them, and one of the truths about the Trump era is that it marks a dividing line in America’s role in the world, one that was certainly foreseeable before Trump but is now accelerated by him.
Unlike any of his predecessors, Trump believes that America’s historic “friends, partners, and allies” are the problem, not the answer, as Sigmar Gabriel, the former German Foreign Minister, put it to me in our interview at the conference. To Trump, Gabriel said, “Europe now seems to be a conspiracy against American interests.” Depending on the day, Trump’s version can sound a lot like he considers the U.S. military little more than a mercenary force whose European employers have refused to pay the bills.
As if to prove the point, Trump was meeting in Washington that same day with the Polish President, Andrzej Duda, a like-minded nationalist hard-liner who has become a controversial figure in Europe for his attacks on the independent judiciary and media. Unlike leaders in larger European nations like Germany that have pushed back on Trump, Duda has aggressively wooed the American President as a counterbalance to Russia next door, even promising to build a “Fort Trump” if he would agree to permanently base U.S. troops there. Trump told reporters that he signed an agreement to send a thousand troops from Germany to Poland in what he characterized as an explicitly punitive measure: “Germany is not living up to what they are supposed to be doing with respect to NATO, and Poland is,” he said to Duda. “I have to congratulate you. Thank you very much.”
As snarky Trump comments go, it understandably rated little mention amid the other news. But the vision of an America whose foreign policy is driven by personal pique, whose troops can be rented out by the highest, most obsequious bidder, is a searing one. In a week of outrages, this was far from the worst, but in some ways it ranks among the most consequential. The President’s supporters often tell those who are alarmed about his words to skip the tweets and focus on the substance of his Administration’s policies. But they are wrong. Trump is telling us exactly what he is going to do— and then he is doing it.