What we’ve found out in the past 24 hours is that Ann Coulter matters more to Donald Trump than James Mattis.
That seems to be the only logical conclusion to draw based on the two big stories that riled Republicans this week: Trump’s initial decision to sign a stopgap spending measure to keep the government funded, and his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.
The former decision had people like Ann Coulter worried that Trump might never get around to keeping his campaign promise about a beautiful border wall. The latter had men like James Mattis worried that we were throwing our allies, the Kurds, under the bus, appeasing Vladimir Putin, and potentially repeating the mistakes of the Iraq withdrawal by creating a safe haven for ISIS.
Guess which side won out?
Of all the commentators, advisers, and stakeholders, the most influential voice seemed to belong not to a retired four-star Marine general in charge of Trump’s Department of Defense, but to the author of such classic books as In Trump We Trust.
It was Coulter—joined by other infotainment voices, including Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh—who seems to have convinced Trump to scrap plans to sign that funding bill and enter into a government shutdown at Christmas in hopes of getting $5 billion in border-wall funding.
Coulter’s warnings that Trump would lose in 2020 without the wall, coupled with her threats not to vote for him if he didn’t complete the wall by then, apparently upset Trump so much that he unfollowed her on Twitter.
Now, compare Coulter’s successful lobbying for a shutdown to Gen. Mattis’ attempts to persuade Trump to reverse his decision about Syria.
“Officials said Mr. Mattis went to the White House on Thursday afternoon in a last attempt to convince Mr. Trump to keep American troops in Syria,” The New York Times reports. “He was rebuffed, and told the president that he was resigning as a result.”
This, after all, is a man who warned in September that “getting rid of the caliphate doesn’t mean you then blindly say, ‘OK, we got rid of it,’ march out, and then wonder why the caliphate comes back.” And in his resignation letter to Trump, Mattis wrote (in not-so-subtle fashion) that the president deserves someone “whose views are better aligned” with his.
Trump apparently agreed with Mattis on that part, which, I suppose, means we should gear up for Ann Coulter to become the next secretary of defense.
These are perilous times, even by the standards of the Trump administration.
Despite being a norm-breaking force of nature during his first years in office, Trump felt compelled to surround himself with people who had institutional credibility. Long a fan of General George Patton, he wanted to shroud himself in their valor. And so he picked distinguished military men like H.R. McMaster and John Kelly to serve alongside Mattis. Elsewhere, he placed reliable people: veterans of Wall Street in key economic posts and even former Sen. Jeff Sessions—who might not have been my cup of tea—as attorney general.
They weren’t always perfect, but these men sought to temper Trump’s worst impulses—and God knows what crises were averted that we don’t even know about.
Now, McMaster and Sessions are gone and Kelly and Mattis are headed for the exit doors, likely to be replaced by more malleable men.
While Trump is in the process of insulating his administration from adults who might tell him “the emperor has no clothes,” he is simultaneously becoming more susceptible to being lobbied and cajoled by right-wing talkers on the outside.
The obvious takeaway is that Trump is now almost solely dedicated to preserving his base support, that he cares more about not offending the Coulters of the world than humoring the Mattises. How else do we explain how we now are hurtling toward a government shutdown over a wall that a minority of Americans really want… at Christmastime? This makes zero political sense, until you ask yourself: Can a president whose approval rating is at 42 percent afford to piss off some of his most prominent and passionate supporters?
Not if he wants to weather the storms of scandals, investigations, and (potentially) impeachment. And so we enter a very dangerous phase of the Trump presidency. The problem with the entertainment wing of the GOP is not that they are politically conservative (that would generally be fine by me) but that they are irresponsible actors.
People like Jim Mattis served as guardrails. They were in the administration, in large part, to simply keep Trump from careening off a cliff. They served even as the president’s temperament tested their will and his policy pursuits tested their patience. Now, they are engaged in a mass exodus, just as Trump becomes even more susceptible to the provocateurs. It’s getting scary.