While Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have taken to shrugging off President Donald Trump’s tweeting as background noise, political leaders in other countries don’t have that luxury. Trump’s words, coming from the commander-in-chief of the world’s largest power, necessarily carry the force of official pronouncements. Thus, when Trump on Wednesday shared three Islamophobic tweets from the fascist group Britain First, he ignited a diplomatic row with one of America’s closest allies. “I’m very clear that retweeting from Britain First was the wrong thing to do,” said Prime Minister Theresa May, denouncing Britain First as a “hateful organization.” Trump responded late Wednesday by insinuating that May is weak on terrorism:
The imbroglio provoked the shadow foreign secretary, of the opposition Labour Party, to complain that Trump was “trying to humiliate and belittle” May. London Mayor Sadiq Khan and other notable public officials have called on May to rescind her invitation of a state visit to Trump.
But Trump’s recent tweets aren’t just damaging relations with the United Kingdom. They’re also harbingers of an intensification of Islamophobia as a foreign policy agenda, one that parallels his increasing attacks on prominent African Americans in the United States. With his presidency floundering, Trump may be trying to shore up his base with the issues that he thinks—rightly, perhaps—won him the election.
A potential shakeup of the foreign policy team would make Trump’s Islamophobia even more virulent and dangerous. Trump is reportedly planning on firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replacing him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, whose job, in turn, would go to Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton. Though he’s gutted the State Department in an ill-conceived reform effort, Tillerson is also one of the most dovish members of Trump’s foreign policy team. He’s opposed to tearing up the Iran nuclear deal and has been an advocate for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff with North Korea. By contrast, both Cotton and Pompeo are extreme hawks, especially on the Middle East.
As The Intercept’s Lee Fang has reported, Pompeo subscribes to the view that the war on terror is a holy war. Speaking at a church meeting in Wichita in 2014, Pompeo said that radical Muslims “abhor Christians and will continue to press against us until we make sure that we pray and stand and fight and make sure that we know that Jesus Christ is our savior is truly the only solution for our world.” At a 2015 event, Pompeo said that the Obama administration “concluded that America is better off with greater Iranian influence certainly in the Middle East, but I think around—certainly it’s tolerated around the world.” Pompeo has also aligned himself with prominent anti-Muslim activists, notably Frank Gaffney, a conspiracy theorist who believes the American government is riddled with Islamist sympathizers.
Cotton, meanwhile, is easily the most hawkish member of the Senate. In June, he declared “the policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran,” and in October said, “If we are forced to take action, the United States has the ability to totally destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.” These comments go against the consensus of the American military that Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is too well-fortified to be completely destroyed. In the same talk in October, Cotton said, “One thing I learned in the Army is that when your opponent is on his knees, you drive him to the ground and choke him out.... If they’re on their knees in surrender, then you accept their surrender.” While Cotton said in 2015 that he disagreed with then-candidate Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, he defended President Trump’s executive order banning the entry of people from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Speaking of the prospect of Tom Cotton as CIA Director, agency veteran Paul Pillar said, “This is an awful appointment. Senator Cotton is a highly ideological individual who is not well suited to lead an agency part of whose core mission is objective analysis.” Trita Parsi, an expert on Iranian American relations, tweeted, “With Tillerson out, Pompeo in as new Secretary of State and Tom Cotton potentially in as new CIA director, the prospects of the #IranDeal surviving just plummeted and the risk of war with Iran just increased massively...”
Pompeo and Cotton are political extremists, and they’d be serving in key foreign policy roles for a president whose extremism seems increasingly psychological. New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who frequently interviews Trump and those around him, told CNN on Wednesday, “Something is unleashed with him lately.... I think the last couple of day’s tweets have been markedly accelerated in terms of seeming a little unmoored.”
Mike Allen of Axios reads a growing confidence in the president, reporting that, according to White House officials, “Trump seems more self-assured, more prone to confidently indulging wild conspiracies and fantasies, more quick-triggered to fight than he was during the Wild West of the first 100 days in office.” Trump is on the verge of winning his first major political victory with the Republican tax overhaul, and he will feel emboldened by the likely win of Senate candidate and accused hebephile Roy Moore, who is more Trumpian than Trump himself. Thus, Allen wrote, “White House officials expect Trump to be even more outrageous and cocksure in coming months.”
We can only speculate about why Trump’s outbursts have grown more frequent and unhinged. It could be that the tightening noose of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, and the steady press coverage of it, has put him on edge. Perhaps he’s starting to worry about next year’s midterm elections. Or maybe he really is becoming more confident in his position. Whatever the cause, his increasing pugilism will manifest itself not just in splenetic tweets, but actual policy. This is especially true if he’s surrounded by advisers like Pompeo and Cotton. The combination of a manic president and an ideologically extremist staff is a combustable one. Trump could feel empowered to incite violence against Muslims in the Middle East—or he could do so without even intending to! That’s what makes Trump’s recent turn for the worse so frightening. He’s truly capable of anything, and it’s possible that no one—neither those in his administration nor the foreign allies he’s alienating—will be able to stop him.