Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: Buckle your seatbelts


It might seem a contradiction in terms to write that chaos is taking shape, but ... in the Trump White House, chaos is taking shape.  What we have witnessed in the last 14 months, as unsettling as it has been, has indeed been the calm, and that relative calm has come to its end, on a variety of fronts.

We see it in Donald Trump’s legal team, where, in a matter of days and despite claims to the contrary, the president has shoved aside lawyers skilled in the courtroom and at the negotiating table, replacing them with those adept at selling conspiracy tales for the Fox News studios, where he will apparently make his stand against Robert Mueller. 

We see it on the economic front, where Trump has dismissed the “globalists” from his court of intrigue, taking counsel now from fringe figures peddling nonsense that trade wars are good and easily won. Investors who had celebrated his “greed is good” mentality and his tax cuts for the wealthy and powerful have suddenly grown skittish, as if they just now realized that there are also ticking time bombs in the pile of gilt-wrapped gifts that Trump left under their Christmas tree.

In his dealings with Congress, Trump has tested the limits of what Republican Washington is willing to tolerate, and he has found that effectively, there are no such limits. Congress may not give him everything that he wants, but it also won’t stop him from taking whatever he can. He has beaten them all into meek submission, convincing them to mothball whatever principles they once claimed to hold dear in return for the one principle that matters most to them, the principle of self-preservation.

Small men -- and most are men --- have come to believe that their own weak grasp on power and status and access depend on their fealty to Trump. Some believe wholeheartedly in his message and leadership, however erratic it might be. Others see him as a necessary evil, and in that conclusion they have lost all sense of proportion. They tell themselves and each other that they will stand up to him if and when the time comes, as men in such situations have always told themselves, but as they reassure themselves with such thoughts they continue to retreat, to cower, to stay silent lest they be the one at whom he points his finger, whom the mob then assaults.

History will teach them that installing judges was a high price to pay for the damage that is being done to us economically, internationally, legally, culturally, environmentally and morally. Already they not just tolerate but defend what in any other time, place or circumstance they would condemn outright. They know it’s wrong, but the small, daily compromises they make to stay in his unruly graces are easier and safer than the breach they must otherwise risk.

This week, those small men in Republican leadership cobbled together a major spending bill to keep the government open, wrangling votes from their members with the promise that this is what the president would support, this is what the president wants them to do. Trump was kept fully informed and fully involved, with congressional leaders traveling to the White House to seek and get his blessing.

Then, Friday morning, came this:


A few miles away, at the State Department, the once-proud chairman of Exxon, a titan of international industry, stood humiliated and ashamed Thursday before the nation’s diplomats and international experts whom he had been named to lead, and he bid them farewell.

“Never lose sight of your most valuable asset, the most valuable asset you possess: your personal integrity,” Rex Tillerson told them. “Only you can relinquish it or allow it to be compromised. Once you’ve done so, it is very, very hard to regain it.”

Tillerson did not explain why he thought such a warning was important, understanding like his audience that no explanation was required. Nor did he acknowledge that under his own supervision, many in the State Department who would not make those compromises had already fled, and more are doing so all the time. Tillerson himself had made the opposite choice, enduring months of repeated public humiliations, shame and abuse, and in the end was leaving not because he had found his limit and would no longer abase himself, but because Trump had tired of toying with him and wanted another playmate.

In the White House itself, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, a three-star Army general, has also been summarily dismissed. His replacement -- Trump’s third national security adviser in barely a year -- will be John Bolton, another face familiar to viewers of Fox & Friends, otherwise known as the Trump human-resources department.

Trump won election as a post-invasion critic of the Iraq War and of military adventurism in general. He won election, in other words, in opposition to everything that Bolton has represented and advocated. Bolton has argued that negotiation with the North Koreans is hopeless, that pre-emptive war is not merely permissible but necessary to remove the North Korean regime and install new leadership more amenable to the United States. That is not an outcome that China will accept without military action of its own, but Bolton brushes that aside with a twitch of his trademark mustache.

Bolton has taken that same position regarding Iran.

“The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program,” Bolton predicted in 2015, shortly before Iran did exactly that. “Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure. The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.”

Even now, Bolton demands the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, a step that would leave us no option but the military option. Once again, Bolton is fine with that. Earlier this year, he argued that the goal of U.S. policy is not just the end of Iran’s nuclear ambitions but the removal of the current Iranian government, a goal that he acknowledged would require war. 

As he wrote from his post at the American Enterprise Institute, which played such a major role in justifying the invasion of Iraq:


“America’s declared policy should be ending Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution before its 40th anniversary. Arab states would remain silent, but they would welcome this approach and might even help finance it. Israel can also remain silent but pressure Iran’s forces, as well as its clients, in Lebanon and Syria, to maximize the stress on Iran’s security assets.

“Recognizing a new Iranian regime in 2019 would reverse the shame of once seeing our diplomats held hostage for 444 days. The former hostages can cut the ribbon to open the new U.S. Embassy in Tehran.”

That gives us a deadline of Nov. 4, 2019 to remove the mullahs and again install a pro-American regime. It will make the invasion and attempted pacification of Iraq seem like the cakewalk it was promised to be by the likes of Bolton.

As we watch, all across Washington, TV “experts” given TV time because their extremism makes for good ratings and excites emotions are now getting the chance to turn their rants into policy in this made-for-TV administration. These are people who have little standing of their own, fringe figures whose intelligence and judgment give them no call upon authority except through their association with Trump. He is shedding those who would advise or dispute, those who would dare to tell him “DO NOT CONGRATULATE,” in favor of those who will pander to and exaggerate his own worst instincts.

And those in Washington who look at this and think of it in terms of what it might mean for Republicans in the November mid-terms really do not grasp what is happening before their eyes.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.