WASHINGTON (AP) — A common denominator runs through the impeachment probe and the chaos unfolding in Syria: President Donald Trump’s improvisational style of conducting foreign policy.
The president’s decision to push Ukraine to investigate a political rival prompted Democrats to launch the House impeachment inquiry, and Trump’s critics equate his abrupt decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria with throwing a match on a powder keg.
Both actions reflect an increasingly confident Trump’s inclination to listen to his gut over his foreign policy and national security advisers, a proclivity that is rattling U.S. allies and emboldening enemies. Where Trump believes that standing up to the foreign policy establishment holds appeal for voters in next year’s election, his critics see him gambling with U.S. national security and making America’s word worthless on the global stage.
Trump’s response has been to dig in his heels, despite bipartisan criticism on both counts.
The president says he did nothing wrong on the July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that is now at the heart of the impeachment inquiry — a conversation that set off alarm bells throughout his foreign policy apparatus.
In the call, Trump urged Zelenskiy to investigate a firm tied to political rival Joe Biden’s son Hunter and to look into Ukraine’s own involvement in the 2016 presidential election. Trump staffers expressed concern that he was misusing his presidential authority in making the request and White House lawyers ordered that a memorandum documenting the call be moved into a computer network typically used for covert operations to keep it under wraps.
On Syria, Trump insists he understands the situation “better than most.” He argues that America should not be the world’s policeman — but admitted over the weekend that “now I’m sort of an island of one” on his decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria.
Indeed, the House delivered a bipartisan and overwhelming rebuke Wednesday of Trump’s withdrawal of American forces, voting 354-60 to condemn the action.
The president is taking a backwards approach to policymaking, in the view of foreign policy experts.
Instead of listening to his advisers, then making a decision, Trump does the reverse.
In the case of Syria, Trump talked to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the phone and warned him against launching an offensive against Kurdish forces. Turkey views them as terrorists, but they were America’s ally on the battlefield against Islamic State militants.
After warning Erdogan that he would pull the trigger on economic sanctions, Trump announced that he was pulling U.S. forces out of Syria. The Kurds felt abandoned. IS fighters that Kurds were guarding escaped from detention. Iran, and Russia saw a green light to amass more influence in the region.
“It’s a complete debacle,” said Mark Dubowitz, who has advised the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations and lawmakers on U.S. foreign policy.
“He keeps doing the same thing — making decisions without advisers — and then everybody has to scramble to mitigate the damage,” Dubowitz said. He cited Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s rush to craft new sanctions against Turkey and the president’s decision to dispatch Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the region to mediate.
Trump, for his part, sees his approach to Turkey and Syria as “strategically brilliant.”
It also dovetails nicely with his campaign pledge to bring American troops home from what he calls never-ending wars. He has told aides that the chants of “Bring them home!” from his rally crowds, including one in Minnesota earlier this month, are evidence that the decision is popular with his base supporters.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, typically one of the president’s strongest allies on Capitol Hill, says the president is “not listening.”
“This decision and line of thinking is against all sound military advice,” Graham said. “No one in his national security team believes that Turkey’s invasion of Syria is of no consequence to us.”
On Ukraine, meanwhile, Trump and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, did an end-run around the formal diplomatic circles in Ukraine, asking Kyiv to investigate the Bidens. Trump listened to Giuliani instead of seasoned diplomats. Former White House aide Fiona Hill testified that then-national security adviser John Bolton was so alarmed by Giuliani’s back-channel activities in Ukraine that he described him as a “hand grenade who is going to blow everybody up.”
There’s little sign that any of the criticism on either Ukraine or Syria has caused Trump to rethink his approach. In fact, he sees political gold in both. He seemed to conflate the two issues when he lashed out Wednesday and called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a “third-rate politician.”
“I think we’re going to take the House, based on what’s happening with the impeachment stuff,” he told reporters earlier in the day.
He was equally bullish on the politics of pulling troops out of foreign entanglements.
“I won an election based on that, and that’s the way it is,” he said. “Whether it’s good or bad, that’s the way it is.”
EDITORS’ NOTE: Deb Riechmann has written for The Associated Press domestically and abroad for more than 30 years.