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Unfit to Command

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 4/15/2018 David Frum
a man in a suit standing in front of a door © Yuri Gripas / Reuters

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The weekend news from Washington featured two story lines: the U.S.-led coalition missile strikes against Syrian government forces, and President Trump’s most extreme Twitter meltdown to date. The question for all the world to worry over: How closely are these two story lines interconnected? How and to what extent is the president’s increasingly extreme mental state obtruding on the national security of the United States?

The most important business of the day on Friday, April 13, was to sign off on that night’s planned missile strike against government forces in Syria. The decision was a heavy one, involving risks of conflict with Russia and Iran. It also sharply reversed Trump’s public statements only nine days before that the U.S. would be ending its Syria role soon.

And yet that’s not where Trump’s brain was. Starting at 8 am that day and continuing into the afternoon, the president erupted in a sequence of rage tweets against former FBI director James Corey, demanding that he be prosecuted, calling him as a “slime ball,” and congratulating himself for firing Comey.

Yet when the president stepped before the TV cameras at 8 p.m. to announce the strikes, most pundits and most politicians temporarily disregarded that same-day evidence of the president’s agitated mental state. The impulse to rally around the flag seized American elites, even many Trump critics, who saluted the president’s leadership. The strong dormant desire to discover some normality in this most abnormal administration reasserted itself. As happened the last time he launched missiles into Syria, almost exactly a year before, Trump went to bed that night to praise that he had proven himself presidential.

Whatever satisfaction he got from that praise quickly faded. On Sunday morning, Trump apparently awoke again in a state of crazed rage. He was angry that his Saturday morning use of the phrase “mission accomplished” had raised eyebrows. He tweeted an angry insistence that his use was not a mistake. It was smart! He would do it again!  He resumed blasting at Comey from 7:42 onward, coming to rest only at 10:44 with a message of self-reassurance about the great job he was doing and how popular he was.

"Just hit 50% in the Rasmussen Poll, much higher than President Obama at same point. With all of the phony stories and Fake News, it’s hard to believe! Thank you America, we are doing Great Things.”

So many people have so much difficulty joining their awareness of the president’s instability to their commentary on U.S. military actions. They mentally update the famous line of Donald Rumsfeld’s: “You don’t go to war with the commander-in-chief you want. You go to war with the commander-in-chief you have.” Yet if any other aspect of U.S. military power were in the same damaged condition as the supreme executive authority, responsible people would pause at going to war at all. If the aircraft were inoperable, the warships unseaworthy, or the troops disaffected—wise decision-makers would refrain from deploying them. All those instruments are in good condition, fortunately. But the person in charge is not. His severe personal legal jeopardy dominates his thoughts and deranges his behavior. That’s a strategic fact at least as real and important as the need to uphold the taboo against chemical weapons.

Even if he’s offering to take you to church, you don’t get into a car with a drunken driver. That same caution should operate with Trump, even if you might otherwise approve any particular decision that emerges from his administration.

This president is not in command of himself. He’s obsessed with his own problems. He seethes with rage and resentment for all the world to view—and those emotions are visibly distorting his decision-making. The consolation we’re offered for this broken presidency is that the president is not in fact truly in charge of it. Decisions about war and peace are not really being made by Trump, but by more judicious and responsible people behind the scenes. Even if that were true, it’s not exactly cheering: The safety of the United States and the peace of the world is being protected by subverting the American constitutional scheme. But worse, it’s not exactly true. The second year Trump foreign-policy team is being restaffed in ways that make it even less judicious and responsible than the year one team. And it is Trump who is responsible for that restaffing.

The Syria operation was mostly a stunt: It sends a message of disapproval without altering the administration’s inward acceptance of Assad’s victory in the Syrian Civil War. Trump even tweeted notice of the missile strike 60 hours in advance, extending the Russians and Syrians time to ready themselves. The risk that this strike could escalate into something more serious seems vanishingly small.

But other and larger military decisions loom ahead: Iran, Korea, Afghanistan, and conceivably even confrontations with China. The person nominally in charge is in no psychic state for his office. His condition is deteriorating—and with that personal deterioration, there also deteriorates America’s security and standing in the world.

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