- More than 2 years into his administration, there's a growing disconnect between President Trump and the Republican establishment on foreign policy
- Trump's own advisers have been pushing back, challenging his views on North Korea, Russia, Syria and Daesh
WASHINGTON — They think pulling out of Syria and Afghanistan would be a debacle. They think North Korea cannot be trusted. They think the Daesh is still a threat to America. They think Russia is bad and NATO is good.
The trouble is their president does not agree.
More than two years into his administration, the disconnect between President Trump and the Republican establishment on foreign policy has rarely been as stark.
In recent days, the president’s own advisers and allies have been pushing back, challenging his view of the world and his prescription for its problems.
The growing discontent among Republican national security hawks was most evident on Tuesday when Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader and perhaps Mr. Trump’s most important partner in Congress, effectively rebuked the president by introducing a measure denouncing “a precipitous withdrawal” of American troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
The senator’s repudiation came on the same day that Mr. Trump’s own intelligence chiefs, led by Dan Coats, a former Republican senator, gave Congress a radically different assessment of international threats facing the United States from the president’s own.
They warned about fresh Russian efforts to interfere in American elections, predicted that North Korea would never agree to give up its nuclear weapons and made clear that the Islamic State is still plotting attacks around the world.
They made no mention of Mr. Trump’s top security priority of building a wall along the southwestern border.
Nearly two weeks ago, more than two-thirds of House Republicans voted to overturn the Trump administration’s move to ease sanctions on Russian companies linked to a prominent oligarch, Oleg V. Deripaska.
And last week even more House Republicans voted to bar Mr. Trump from withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as he privately suggested to aides several times last year.
“Perhaps as we now pivot to the presidential elections, the Republicans may finally be thinking, well, maybe we ought to recalibrate a little here and understand there are real risks and we have to provide a check and balance on the commander in chief in whatever ways we can,” said Wendy Sherman, an under secretary of state in the Obama administration.
Many traditional Republicans have been uneasy about Mr. Trump’s foreign policy since the beginning and from time to time have pushed back, most notably in 2017 when Congress nearly unanimously passed sanctions on Russia over the president’s objections.
Disgruntlement over shutdown
But the rupture of recent days comes amid disgruntlement over the 35-day partial government shutdown that ultimately failed to achieve Mr. Trump’s goal of extracting money for his border wall.
We’ve had a couple of rapid-fire shocks to the system...There’s no dearth of evidence of the disconnect between the president and Republican orthodoxy.
“We’ve had a couple of rapid-fire shocks to the system,” said Eric S. Edelman, under secretary of defense under President George W. Bush now at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
In addition to the shutdown, he cited Mr. Trump’s abruptly announced decision to pull American forces from Syria, resulting in the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and quickly followed by the president vowing to withdraw half of American troops from Afghanistan.
“There’s no dearth of evidence of the disconnect between the president and Republican orthodoxy,” said Mr. Edelman, a longstanding critic of Mr. Trump.
But Mr. Edelman noted that the disagreement has been rooted in Congress.
“As you look at the Republican Party in the electorate, I think it’s lining up a little more with the president because I think he’s shifting Republican voters more on things like trade and Russia, maybe on Syria and Afghanistan.”
Protectionist trade stance
Indeed, many of Mr. Trump’s supporters have cheered his more protectionist stance on trade and the tariff wars with China as well as American allies.
Likewise, many Trump supporters have grown weary of overseas military ventures that never seem to end and therefore applaud his moves to bring home American troops.
Polls have even detected a shift in Republican views on Russia, which throughout the Cold War was a unifying force in the party.
In Republican circles in Washington, however, the unease coincides with a critical juncture in Mr. Trump’s foreign policy.
Many initially welcomed the president’s pursuit of diplomacy in North Korea. But after Singapore, many questioned whether North Korea was sincere in coming to the negotiating table. Since that time, North Korea has continued to play hard to get, calling its sincerity to denuclearize into further question.
His pullouts from Syria and Afghanistan come as trade talks with China head toward a climactic deadline and Mr. Trump prepares to get together next month with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, for their second summit meeting after an initial encounter in Singapore last year.
Olivia Enos, a policy scholar on Asia at the Heritage Foundation, said doubts had grown about Mr. Trump’s negotiations with North Korea to eliminate its nuclear program.
“Many initially welcomed the president’s pursuit of diplomacy in North Korea,” she said. “But after Singapore, many questioned whether North Korea was sincere in coming to the negotiating table. Since that time, North Korea has continued to play hard to get, calling its sincerity to denuclearize into further question.”
Some analysts said it was the way Mr. Trump makes his decisions as much as the decisions themselves that rattle the foreign policy establishment. Announcing the Syria pullout by Twitter without preparing the allies or framing the public explanations left even some of the president’s strongest supporters in Washington unnerved.
“I don’t think Leader McConnell or anyone else wants to take the wheel from the president or even give him rudder direction,” said Frederic C. Hof, a former State Department official who worked on Syria and is now diplomat in residence at Bard College.
“They want to be sure he’s at the helm and he knows he has a crew. They want real deliberation to take place on these tough issues. They want the president to be part of it.”
I don’t think Leader McConnell or anyone else wants to take the wheel from the president or even give him rudder direction. They want to be sure he’s at the helm and he knows he has a crew. They want real deliberation to take place on these tough issues. They want the president to be part of it.
The administration has yet to even agree with itself on the state of affairs in Syria.
At first, Mr. Trump declared the Islamic State defeated, then said it was not but could be finished off by others.
Patrick M. Shanahan, the acting defense secretary who took over for Mr. Mattis, predicted on Tuesday that the terrorist group would lose its final stronghold in Syria by next month. “Ninety-nine-point-five percent plus of the ISIS-controlled territory has been returned to the Syrians,” he said. “Within a couple of weeks, it’ll be 100 percent.”
Mr. McConnell seemed less than convinced. In a speech introducing his measure on Tuesday, he took on Mr. Trump’s approach to the Middle East.
“Simply put, while it is tempting to retreat to the comfort and security of our shores, there is still a great deal of work to be done,” he said. “And we do know that left untended, these conflicts will reverberate in our own cities.”
'Leader of the free world'
While not mentioning Mr. Trump by name, Mr. McConnell directly rebutted the president’s argument about the limits of American responsibility for patrolling the globe.
“We are not the world’s policeman,” the senator said. “But we are the leader of the free world. And it is incumbent upon the United State to lead.”
The White House declined to comment on Tuesday.
Mr. McConnell attached the amendment to a bill intended to extend aid to Israel and offer protections to state and local governments that refuse to do business with companies that boycott Israel.
The Senate advanced the main bill on Tuesday on a 76-to-22 vote, with all the negative votes coming from Democrats.
About a half-dozen announced or possible Democratic presidential candidates voted against the bill, defying their party leaders, who favoured it; just one of the potential candidates, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, voted for it.
Mr. McConnell’s decision to offer his measure on Syria and Afghanistan, which has no binding force, was notable in part because he has sought to avoid open rifts with the president.
Unlike current or former Republican senators like Jeff Flake of Arizona or Mitt Romney of Utah, Mr. McConnell rarely speaks out against Mr. Trump, preferring to keep focused on mutual priorities like judicial appointments.