On 6 October, Donald Trump made a phone call to Recep Erdoğan signalling the withdrawal of around two hundred US troops who were protecting Kurdish soldiers in northern Syria. Trump announced that he would soon make room for Turkey to clear the area and create the buffer zone Erdoğan had long wanted to impose against a hostile political entity. This sudden declaration was doubtless meant above all to nudge the publicity needle. Trump goes the round every month or two: trade war, Iran sanctions (maybe war), ‘go home’ denunciations of Democrats and, most potent of all, immigration and the wall with Mexico. The pieces can be juggled almost at random. Still, the apparent evacuation of Syria was major news, and it hogged the headlines very satisfactorily.
It was, he said on Twitter, ‘time for us to get out’ and let others ‘figure the situation out’. Believers might see this as a first step in Trump’s design – announced in the 2016 campaign – to pull the US back from the function of policing the world. ‘Time,’ he added, ‘for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal.’ A few advisers have been pushing him in this direction (the mainstream media call it ‘isolationist’) – among them, Senator Rand Paul and the conservative TV news host Tucker Carlson. In the absence of his third sacked national security adviser, John Bolton, the role of empire-minder has been taken over by Democrats and the anti-Trump media. (Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, accordingly averred that any withdrawal from Syria is as unthinkable as withdrawal from Germany or Japan would be. Having those permanent garrisons abroad ‘keeps countries from doing things you don’t want them to do’.) Trump’s decision, made without advance notice or preparation, it should be added, would put the Kurds at the mercy of Erdoğan, whose intentions could be hostile to the point of slaughter. Trump didn’t care a whit. He needed to make news and be ‘unpredictable’ again. He seemed to back off the plan when faced soon afterwards by the disapproval of his closest political allies; but the Turkish forces have taken his first cue and are making their sweep undeterred.
Two days after his call to Erdoğan, on the evening of 8 October, Trump published an eight-page letter refusing to honour the impeachment inquiry led by congressional Democrats. Among other acts of defiance, he would not respect subpoenas from the chair of the Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff. He called the investigation ‘illegal and unconstitutional’: ‘Chairman Schiff cannot covertly assist with the submission of a complaint, mislead the public about his involvement, read a counterfeit version’ of a phone call by Trump to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, ‘and then pretend to sit in judgment as a neutral “investigator”.’
There was the usual distracting grain of truth in this. Schiff has in the past had a tendency to gild the lily. He claimed as far back as 2017 that there was ‘ample evidence of collusion in plain sight’ between Trump and Putin, but the evidence never materialised, and after the anticlimax of the Mueller inquiry findings on Russia, it looked as if Schiff had put all of his chips on Mueller without admitting it. ‘Chairman Schiff,’ the Trump letter continued, ‘chose to concoct a false version of the call and to read his made-up transcript to the American people at a public hearing.’ Schiff had indeed offered a ventriloquised impression of Trump’s gangster lingo, punctuated by offers-you-can’t-refuse – a stolid and misbegotten attempt at humour by a sober public servant with about as much talent for ‘parody’ (as he called it) as a woodchuck has for breaking into a sprightly trot. And in the course of his remarks, Schiff exaggerated the number (though not the quality) of Trump’s insinuated quid pro quos to Ukraine. Schiff’s dramatic version had Trump asking the president to ‘make up dirt’ on Joe Biden – a different thing from digging up dirt. By denying Republicans on the committee the power to issue subpoenas, Trump asserted, the Democrats had abandoned the ‘standard, bipartisan practice in all recent resolutions authorising presidential impeachment inquiries’. In response, Trump speaks of throwing over the whole apparatus of the constitutional proceedings against him. His distant hope is perhaps to take the question to the Supreme Court, by what route no one can say, and get a judgment by Republican justices on the pattern of the 2000 decision in Bush v. Gore, which broke the election deadlock by appointing George W. Bush president.
It is a desperate ploy; and it could work. Trump told Zelensky the US had been very good to Ukraine, and it would be nice if he got a ‘favour’ in return – Roy Cohn’s mother taught Roy the concept of ‘the favour bank’ and it seems to have been passed on to Trump. The thing he wanted was help with his own effort to find out information about former Vice President Biden’s possibly corrupt dealings in that country; also, some insight into the once active but now dormant investigation of the energy firm Burisma, which gave Biden’s son Hunter a seat on its board at a high rate of remuneration. This could, of course, be presented as an ordinary international request, but it happened to be in pursuit of damaging facts about a likely political rival in the next election; and Trump made unavoidably plain the conflict between personal and national interest when he asked Zelensky to talk first of all to his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. In a constitutional government, such a meeting would be assigned to a delegated representative of the Justice or State Department and not the president’s lawyer.
The whistleblower whose report of the call set off the congressional inquiry was privy to its contents at second hand; but before Trump issued his letter of formal defiance, the Democrats had announced their discovery of another witness whose knowledge is first-hand. Meanwhile, a man called Gordon Sondland, a hotel magnate, Trump campaign donor and now US ambassador to the EU, had been conducting a series of text exchanges with, among others, the highest-ranked US diplomat in Ukraine, Kurt Volker. The series was published by the Intelligence Committee on 3 October, after Volker’s resignation from his post on 27 September.
‘Counting on you to be right about this interview, Gordon,’ William Taylor, the chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Kiev, texted Sondland on 9 September at 12.34 a.m.
Three minutes later Sondland replied: ‘Bill, I never said I was “right”. I said we are where we are and believe we have identified the best pathway forward. Let’s hope it works.’
‘As I said on the phone,’ Taylor wrote back ten minutes later, ‘I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.’
Five hours later – having spoken to Trump in the meantime, according to the Wall Street Journal – Sondland wrote: ‘Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The president has been crystal clear: no quid pro quos of any kind. The president is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign. I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.’
Sondland here seems to take at face value Trump’s mobster minimalism, which issues a command while seeming to say nothing, but the dialogue explains itself. Everyone is crossing their fingers about an action suspected of being criminal, but which, if words alone are relied on, can be explained away as (after all) not definitely criminal. Let’s hope it works. The most edifying subtext was supplied last February, in the congressional testimony by Trump’s fixer Michael Cohen:
‘Have you ever seen Mr Trump personally threaten people with physical harm?’
‘No: he would use others.’
‘He would hire other people to do that?’
‘I’m not sure he had to hire them, they were already working there. Everybody’s job at the Trump organisation is to protect Mr Trump.’
With all these challenges gathering force, on 3 October Trump invited China on national TV to join the party investigating the Bidens. He does this kind of thing on the theory that, if he does it in the open, it will be seen as legitimate. So far, he hasn’t been proved wrong.
American troubles in this area come most of all from the existence of the presidency itself – Alexander Hamilton’s worst idea. The office was meant as a bulwark of executive ‘decision, activity, secrecy and dispatch’ against anticipated encroachment by the great empires at the time of the founding of the United States – Spain, France and, most of all, Britain. Executive decision and activity, however, since the early 19th century have been the main instrument for the transformation of the US from a republic to an empire. Residual American fondness for the presidency is almost entirely connected with the historical memory of the two ‘good wars’, against slavery and against fascism, directed by Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt – wars (it is generally believed) that would not have been fought or could not have been won without the extraordinary gifts and determination of those men. There is truth in the nostalgia, but overall the cost has been high: too high, if one looks at the more typical cases of the wars fought by Polk, McKinley, Wilson, Truman, LBJ, Nixon and George W. Bush, and the weakening of civil liberty that has come with every war.
What chance do the Democrats have with the impeachment? Schiff, in a dignified press briefing on 8 October, listed four questions that would occupy his committee: 1. whether there was ‘strong evidence of obstruction’ of an investigation by ‘a coequal branch of government’; 2. ‘whether the president solicited foreign help in a US presidential election’; 3. whether Ukraine was given reason to believe that US assistance was being withheld until it made commitments to look into Biden; 4. whether there has been an effort by the president, the secretary of state and others to cover up conduct that amounts to a ‘fundamental breach of [the president’s] oath of office’. The best hope may be that the whistleblowers multiply to such an extent that popular imbecility is no match for their accumulated weight and direction.
A casualty of the erratic progress of the impeachment may turn out to be the candidacy of Joe Biden. Protestations on his behalf – that he knew nothing at all of Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma – strain credulity; and as in 2016, the money-grubbing aspect softens the contrast with Trump that Democrats rightly feel they must offer: a miscalculation that Hillary Clinton also made, with her high-priced speeches for the Wall Street money firms. The appearance of the thing, in Ukraine as much as at Goldman Sachs, matters more than whatever was said or done. It is entirely possible that Trump will be impeached by the Democratic House and acquitted by the Republican Senate. (The senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, is already running campaign ads which blazon the up-front boast that he will stop the impeachment – a promissory note of his judgment before he has heard the evidence.) The mood of the country has been more poisonous than this; at the time of Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia in 1970, and again in the run-up to the Iraq War. Worse, yes; but it has never been crazier.