It’s been a seismic week for American democracy, as the nation confronts the serious possibility that the president of the United States has been compromised by Russia—or at least is being “manipulated,” as Republican Congressman Will Hurd put it in a New York Times op-ed. But President Donald Trump, whom even Fox News castigated, has insisted there’s a good reason for his unusual relationship with Russia: He’s the only thing standing between his critics and war.
“As president, I cannot make decisions on foreign policy in a futile effort to appease partisan critics, or the media, or Democrats who want to do nothing but resist and obstruct,” Trump said Monday in his prepared remarks after the Helsinki summit. “Constructive dialogue between the United States and Russia forwards the opportunity to open new pathways toward peace and stability in our world. I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than to risk peace in pursuit of politics.”
There’s a certain canniness to Trump’s claim, since it’s one of the only ways he could plausibly defend his chumminess with Vladimir Putin, despite evidence that the Russian president had ordered the plot to sway the 2016 election. Trump justified his unorthodox summit last month with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in similar terms: as a means to avoid nuclear war, fears of which he had stoked himself. But in Russia’s case, the excuse is even more self-serving. Even the most ardent critics of Russia’s attacks on the American democratic system aren’t seriously proposing military force as a response.
His tweets also betrayed his bad faith. “The Fake News Media wants so badly to see a major confrontation with Russia, even a confrontation that could lead to war,” Trump wrote on Thursday. “They are pushing so recklessly hard and hate the fact that I’ll probably have a good relationship with Putin.” He doubled down a few hours later: “Some people HATE the fact that I got along well with President Putin of Russia,” Trump added. “They would rather go to war than see this. It’s called Trump Derangement Syndrome!”
Trump’s latest excuse for appeasing Putin reveals his unserious, performative approach to the role of commander-in-chief. Though Trump’s predecessors made frequent use of the military in armed conflicts, few if any so lightly invoked the prospect of mass death and destruction. For Trump, war appears to be a largely abstract concept, one he invokes as a political threat without regard for the consequences of doing so.
Trump clearly enjoys being commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces. If nothing else, he appears fond of the aesthetics. In the summer of 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Trump at that year’s Bastille Day festivities in Paris. Trump reportedly returned to the U.S. eager to stage a similar parade in the streets of Washington.
Large-scale reviews of troops, tanks, and other materiel in peacetime are usually more familiar in defunct authoritarian states like East Germany and the Soviet Union. But in France, the annual march down the Champs-Élysées reaffirms the endurance of the country’s revolution and the power of the French Republic, not any one leader. On this side of the Atlantic, the idea is largely unprecedented. American political culture didn’t shed the founders’ fear of standing armies in peacetime until the mid-twentieth century. Open displays of armed might were taboo for most of U.S. history, except to celebrate the end of major wars. The U.S. has achieved no such victory in recent years, but Trump nonetheless touted the parade as a way to honor the nation’s armed forces.
In reality, the parade’s true focus appears to be honoring Trump. His staffers originally asked the Pentagon for tanks, missile launchers, and other military hardware to take part in his inauguration in early 2017. The Pentagon turned down the request, offering the diplomatic excuse that the large tire treads would likely damage the streets in the nation’s capital. Now the military is halfheartedly planning a parade for this fall that would pass muster with the White House and its eager occupant—a stunt that does little but assuage the president’s personal insecurities.
While Trump enjoys playing the role of commander-in-chief, that interest doesn’t appear to translate into exercising any deeper responsibility in the position. His highest-profile exercises of military power have been largely theatrical: a series of missile strikes in Syria that won him praise in D.C.’s foreign-policy circles, followed by the dropping of the largest non-military bomb in the U.S. military’s arsenal in Afghanistan. Neither well-publicized blow actually changed much: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime recently celebrated the capture of the rebel uprising’s birthplace, while the U.S. government is preparing to hold direct talks with the Taliban to end almost two decades of war there.
There’s also evidence that Trump is employing military force more indiscriminately: Watchdog group Airwars estimated that the number of civilians killed in Syria and Iraq by coalition airstrikes rose 200 percent in 2017 over 2016. This comports with the president’s views. “Trump’s words, both in public and private, describe a view that wars should be brutal and swift, waged with overwhelming firepower and, in some cases, with little regard for civilian casualties,” The Washington Post reported in April. On the campaign trail, he vowed to “bomb the shit out of” the Islamic State and to “take out” the families of terrorists.
So it was no surprise when Trump spent the end of last year and the first few months of 2018 engaged in a war of insults with Kim, whose ballistic missile tests unsettled East Asian countries. As tensions ratcheted up with Pyongyang, Trump appeared to view the situation primarily through the lens of his own ego. “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times,’” he tweeted in January. “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” For a president who campaigned against “dumb” wars, he sure seemed eager to start an even dumber one.
Defensively invoking a potential war with Russia to escape blame fits another habit of Trump’s: framing the nation’s political debate as a polar choice between his views and a catastrophic alternative. If you oppose his plans to ban Muslim travelers from entering the United States, Trump says you bear responsibility for future terrorist attacks. If you criticize his coercive policy of separating asylum-seekers’ children from their parents, you want open borders. If you think U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement should be abolished for its role in that policy, Trump says you’re on the same side as the MS-13 gang.
In fairness, politicians rarely describe their opponents’ views in generous terms. What sets Trump apart is the degree to which he acts first in his own self-interest, with all other concerns coming second. That’s a troubling approach to any of the presidency’s powers and responsibilities. When it comes to war and the potential use of military force, it’s a time bomb waiting to go off.