Today was another relatively quiet day in Washington as the holiday break continued. The biggest story was that Trump made a secret visit to Bagram military air base in Afghanistan on Thanksgiving. Since he took office in January 2017, this was his first trip to Afghanistan, where Americans have been fighting since 2001, making it the longest war in American history.
It’s hard to know how to think about this visit. We know that Trump does not like discomfort, and does not especially like to visit the troops: this was only his second visit to a war zone since he became president, and he did not do so until almost two years into his term (Obama visited the troops three months into his first term).
Trump’s first visit to a war zone came on December 26, 2018, just after he had announced that he was removing troops from Syria. He made this announcement over the objections of his national security advisors on December 19, 2018, prompting Secretary of Defense James Mattis to resign on December 20. Indeed, the backlash was so strong to this decision that, in February 2019, Trump agreed to leave about 400 troops in Syria after all… until October 2019, when he removed them abruptly from northern Syria, abandoned our Kurdish allies, and essentially turned northern Syria over to Russia.
The fact that Trump’s first visit to troops happened right after he had infuriated national security officials sheds light on this visit. Trump again infuriated military officials last week with his pardon of both a convicted war criminal and a similarly accused soldier, along with his insistence that Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher retire at full rank over the wishes of Navy leadership that he undergo a review. Trump’s interference in military discipline led the Secretary of the Navy to protest publicly, and Trump fired him. Under these circumstances, Trump might well want to try to mend some fences with military leaders just as he wanted to back in December 2018.
That’s the charitable view. Considering his recent pardons of war criminals and his insistence that he is on the side of our fighters against their officers, he could also be trying to shore up his own personal support with a certain kind of soldier.
Supporting that interpretation is that he announced on his trip that he has reopened talks with the Taliban militants, which he abruptly canceled in September, and claimed that the Taliban wants a cease-fire in its war against the government of Afghanistan and America. A cease-fire would help him argue that he can bring troops home. His assertion was out of left field: both Taliban leaders and leaders of the Afghan government said there had been no discussion of a cease-fire and there was no such discussion on the table.
To me, the trip looks mostly like Trump desperately wanted to look like a Commander-in-Chief as he is facing renewed bad news at home.
Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani is all over the news these days, and none of it is good. It appears that Giuliani was cashing in on his association with Trump by hitting up foreign governments for lucrative contracts as he claimed to be doing the president’s bidding. Trump has tried to distance himself from Giuliani by saying he had no idea what Giuliani was up to, but this is going to be a very hard sell. Several of the witnesses before the House Intelligence Committee testified that they understood Giuliani to be the conduit between them and the president, and since even Trump’s own rough readout of the July 25 phone call between him and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky has Trump saying: “Rudy very much knows what’s happening.” Further, Trump and Giuliani share a long history, and Giuliani has hinted quite strongly that he has incriminating dirt on the president that he’ll use if Trump tries to make him take the blame for the Ukraine scandal. Trump does not want to go down with Giuliani, but he also can’t get rid of him easily.
Trump’s associations and behavior are getting harder and harder for Republican leaders to defend. Today CNN ran a story that former GOP congressman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who has become a Trump critic, claims that current House GOP members are “absolutely disgusted and exhausted by the President’s behavior.” We are becoming accustomed to this sort of shadow criticism of Trump—and are well aware that it, along with $2.50, will get you a cup of coffee—but Trump knows that perilously few Republicans in Congress are defending him over the Ukraine scandal. Instead, most are simply attacking the Democrats. Those are not the same thing. He has got to have been eager for a win in the realm of public relations, and a long-overdue trip to visit troops certainly fit the bill.
Two relatively quiet days in this administration have felt to me like the eye of a hurricane, and I’m crossing my fingers we’ll have two more days of it.
Even if we do, though, I suspect we’d better be getting ready to brace ourselves for the storm that hits, as it always does, when the eye passes over.