Maybe Republican elites aren't completely in President Trump's pocket after all.
Yes, they'll give him a pass for equivocating on racism or even stirring up racist grievances. They'll go against long-held free-market principles and let the president conduct his trade wars with little interference. They'll look the other way while his administration separates migrant families at the border, undermines the free press, and violates the most basic constitutional principles. They'll play dumb when he asks foreign countries to interfere in American elections. Hell, they'll even let him insult and defame their families and still they'll work tirelessly to prove their loyalty to him.
Try to pull the United States out of a foreign war, though, and GOP leaders find their spines.
It happened again Monday. On Sunday night, the White House announced that American forces were being withdrawn from northern Syria to make way for a Turkish invasion of the region that would presumably target the same Kurdish forces who have assisted the United States in its fight against ISIS forces in the Middle East.
Suddenly, there was no shortage of Republican criticism for Trump. Fox & Friends' Brian Kilmeade grumbled that the decision was a "disaster." Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), often an ostentatious lapdog for the president, said Trump's decision was "shortsighted and irresponsible." Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who normally finesses his disagreements with the president, offered a sideways rebuke. "American interests," McConnell said, "are best served by American leadership, not by retreat or withdrawal."
It's true that Trump's announcement was — in keeping with his character — a total mess. Some reports suggested he made the announcement without giving national security officials a proper heads-up. And he seemed to blow past the possible moral and strategic ramifications of leaving the Kurds to the mercy of the Turkish armed forces. Trump only compounded the error with an afternoon tweet boasting of his "great and unmatched wisdom" on the issue. This president has a habit of doing everything in the worst way possible.
But it's also true that the Washington establishment — and Republican leaders in particular — has never met a foreign war it wasn't willing to extend in perpetuity. Indeed, Monday marked the 18th anniversary of America's war in Afghanistan — the soldiers fighting there now were babies, at best, when the conflict started.
It's troubling enough, as my colleague Damon Linker writes, that national security hawks are "always expanding American commitments abroad, never pulling them back, and never even prioritizing among them." That tendency becomes positively offensive, though, when you realize that the normally feckless GOP is only brave enough to stand against its leader when he seeks to fight just a little bit less. War is the one conservative principle that conservative elites won't abandon, no matter what.
The last time Trump encountered this much opposition from his own party was in December, when he again tried to announce a withdrawal of American forces from Syria. Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned in protest. Graham went to the Senate floor to criticize the president. Republican senators yelled their heads off. Eventually, Trump backed down.
"The job of the Congress is to hold the executive branch accountable," Graham said in a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence. "He's the commander in chief, but he needs to be held accountable for his decisions. And I want hearings as soon as possible."
Those are words you'll hear from Graham in almost no other context.
Observers have spent the last few years trying to understand why Republican leaders seem so unwilling to abandon Trump, who would clearly throw them under the bus if it afforded him the slightest advantage. Some have proposed the issue is transactional — that as long as Trump gives conservatives tax cuts and judges, they'll tolerate his other shenanigans. Others, myself included, believe that GOP elected officials think they must align themselves with the president in order to keep their jobs.
There is probably a little truth in each explanation. But GOP officials on Monday proved that they're willing to risk it all — the tax cuts, the judges, their jobs — in the name of continuing America's "forever wars" over Trump's opposition. Republican elites are willing to let Trump get away with just about anything — so long as he doesn't start bringing American troops home.
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