Trump And The World

Trump's Big Lie Is Now Clear To All, And It May Not Matter

His false promises to the working class are being exposed. But the paradox of a new expose book is that it may actually strengthen his alliance with traditional Republicans.

Trump arriving at the White House on Jan. 7
Trump arriving at the White House on Jan. 7
E.J. Dionne Jr.

WASHINGTON — The most astonishing aspect of the response to Michael Wolff's book is that anyone is surprised. President Trump's unfitness for office was obvious long before he was elected. Once he moved into the White House, the destructive chaos of his administration was there for all to see. Future historians will scratch their heads to figure out why it took this particular book to break the dam of denial.

None of this takes anything away from Wolff's achievement in Fire and Fury. On the contrary, he deserves our thanks for creating Trump's "emperor has no clothes' moment, even if this point should have been reached before, say, Nov. 8, 2016. Trump's tweets on Saturday pronouncing himself "a very stable genius' only underscored the damage Wolff has done and Trump's dumbfounding insecurity.

But Wolff alone cannot bring this presidency crashing down, given how many Republicans still seem determined to protect Trump. Even as the news was dominated by Wolff's revelations, Republican Sens. Charles E. Grassley and Lindsey O. Graham made a criminal referral to the Justice Department on Friday — and not against anyone who might have colluded with Russia. Instead, they urged investigation of Christopher Steele, the former British spy who authored an explosive dossier including information that Trump may have been compromised by Moscow.

His flimflam has not deceived voters as to where his heart and his bank account lie.

Fortunately, this will not derail special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's probe, but the episode was one of many signs that Republican leaders in Congress are sticking with Trump in the face of the damage the president's increasingly obvious and glaring shortcomings are doing to our country. Over the weekend, Republican leaders trooped up to Camp David to meet with Trump and pledge their allegiance to a common agenda.

To chart a path forward from here, it's important to see why Trump has maintained enough support, or at least acquiescence, to keep himself in office.

The first key is his phony populism, with an emphasis on both words.

Trump will continue to try to rally what base he has left with tweets about kneeling NFL players, immigrants, law and order and "political correctness." He will keep attacking Hillary Clinton, the surest sign of his weakness, since his own record has done little to draw Americans his way. He needs targets to make his enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend approach work.

But it's not working as well as it used to. Trump's policies have shown that his true commitments are to himself and to other very wealthy people and corporate interests. The broad unpopularity of his tax cut is a sign that his flimflam has not deceived voters as to where his heart and his bank account lie.

His other policies, reflected in his slew of executive actions, have weakened federal protections for the environment, for workplace safety and worker pay, for civil rights and for small investors.

Last week alone, in the midst of the swirl around Wolff's book, the administration moved to open nearly all of our offshore waters to drilling even as the Department of Housing and Urban Development suspended an Obama-era rule requiring communities to address residential segregation. And the Justice Department, undercutting conservative states'-rights rhetoric, renewed enforcement of federal marijuana laws despite state legalization statutes.

What might be called the Wolff Effect will thus be paradoxical.

In response to what is little more than a traditional right-wing agenda, there has been a marked erosion of loyalty to Trump among voters who thought they were casting ballots for a populist and are getting ideological and plutocratic policies instead. A Pew Research Center survey last month found Trump losing ground particularly among whites without college degrees and white evangelical Christians, groups whose devotion Trump counts on.

On the other hand, the more Trump proves his populism to be phony and behaves like a traditional Republican, the more the congressional GOP will want to prop him up. Trump's break with Stephen K. Bannon, the nemesis of the Capitol Hill crowd, will bring the president and the elected conservative establishment closer, and Bannon's statement on Sunday attempting to soften his comments to Wolff without retracting them is unlikely to change this.

What might be called the Wolff Effect will thus be paradoxical. It could strengthen the bonds between Republican politicians and Trump at the very moment when everyone else is coming to terms with how dangerous it is to have a president who is so uninformed and unstable. In the meantime, more traditional journalists will carry on their painstaking work, piling up evidence that Trump did all he could to block a legal accounting for the methods that helped get him to the White House in the first place.

We should have gotten here sooner. But far better late than never.

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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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