Today’s read: 8 minutes.
Turkey follows through on war in Syria, why Trump pulled the troops out now and a fascinating study on political tribalism.
Screenshot of Syrian citizens fleeing / CNN
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Two Soviet-born men who donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Donald Trump and helped Rudy Giuliani dig up dirt on Joe Biden were arrested early Thursday morning. Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were businessmen in Florida who have appeared in now-deleted Facebook photos with Donald Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr. The men donated $325,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC and last May, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, identified the men as his clients. Now they have been arrested for violating campaign finance laws.
What D.C. is talking about.
Turkey. Yesterday, Turkey launched an air and ground assault in northern Syria, just as people expected they would after Trump moved hundreds of U.S. soldiers out of the region. The Syrian militia that was left behind has been a major U.S. ally, crucial in the fight against ISIS, and now faces a more advanced, heavily-armed Turkish army that is expected to lay waste to the region. Reports from the ground indicate that heavily populated civilian areas are being bombed, Turkish fighter jets are omnipresent in the skies and traffic jams are seizing the cities as citizens try to flee to safety. After six hours of airstrikes, Turkish troops crossed into Syria on the ground, The New York Times reported. 181 airstrikes have been conducted and 16 Kurdish soldiers, along with two civilians, are already dead.
What Republicans are saying.
This is exactly what we said would happen. Trump is almost universally alone on this — to a stunning degree — and apparently did not heed any warnings from the conservatives around him. Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham said Trump “shamelessly abandoned” America’s Kurdish allies and claimed the troop withdrawal “ensures the re-emergence of ISIS.” Marco Rubio hit a similar note: “We degraded ISIS using Kurd’s as the ground force,” he tweeted. “Now we have abandoned them & they face annihilation at the hands of the Turkish military.” Republicans and Democrats also crafted bipartisan legislation that they say will punish Turkey for its invasion of northern Syria. The legislation would impose harsh sanctions on Turkey, restrict Turkish officials’ visas to the U.S. and prohibit most U.S. military assistance to Turkey. In response, Trump has warned Republican leaders in the Senate that if any of them break ranks — either on Syria or impeachment — they risk feeling the wrath of POTUS, who is willing to sink re-election campaigns come 2020.
Some other Trump allies are sticking by the president, but they’re hard to find. Sen. Rand Paul has been an outspoken supporter of Trump’s decision, saying he is the “first President in my lifetime to understand what is our national interest and what is not.” More fringe Trump supporters, especially those with the “America-first” or nationalistic instincts, have also stuck by the president. Ryan James Gidursky, who authors a national populism newsletter, has also been backing Trump, taking the angle that bombing Arab countries and having a presence in them has only made the region hate us more. Pulling out now will be positive for the U.S. in the long run, even if it comes at a big cost at this moment.
What Democrats are saying.
“Told ya so.” Democrats are using this moment to remind Republicans that they’ve made a deal with the devil. Some of the conservatives who are most appalled now are also Trump’s biggest enablers and allies: Graham, Rubio, Nikki Haley — it’s a who’s who of the “establishment” Republicans who have spent three years justifying and defending every moment Trump seemed unfit for the job. Now that he’s pulled the rug out from under them with this, their embarrassment is complete. Even liberals who support reducing America’s presence overseas can’t get behind this move, saying it came to erratically and with little forethought or planning. There’s also the obvious elephant in the room: the Syria troop presence was fairly small and very low-risk. American troops weren’t dying on Syria’s northern border, their presence there alone is what kept things peaceful. Not only did Trump not “bring those troops home,” he just moved them out of the way to clear the path for Turkish forces. So the troops are still in Syria, just in a different part of Syria, and now our allies are at risk of being slaughtered.
Anytime I struggle to find an opposing viewpoint on issues like this, I get a little suspicious. Almost everyone I follow or interact with has fallen into a spectrum from harshly criticizing this move to supporting Trump’s motives but conceding it was done a bit too hastily. The one all-out defense and praise of the move came from Turkey’s communications director, who penned an op-ed in The Washington Post with plenty of creative liberties.
As a general rule, I am also skeptical of U.S. intervention overseas, particularly in the Middle East. I think Trump is onto something when he talks about the way our allies could step up with their military and their money to defend global NATO priorities. If you’ve ever spent time comparing the U.S. military budget to what it spends on its schools or health care you may also walk away feeling like we are due for a reduction in size, presence or investment. But as far as military operations go, what the U.S. was doing in Syria seemed like the best bang for its buck you could ask for. Our soldiers were not on the front lines of a war that they were dying in every day. They were keeping the peace by being there, acting as a deterrent that other nations would never attack for fear of retaliation. It was perhaps the starkest example of ruling with a big stick. We were also containing a massive prison with thousands of ISIS soldiers and family members who are now at risk of fleeing into neighboring countries.
Indeed, the moment the U.S. moved those troops, Turkey began wreaking havoc on the area. Two civilians, one an infant, are already dead. 46 are wounded and 16 Kurdish fighters have been killed. That’s as we just enter the beginning of Day 2. Along with the bloodshed, I tend to agree with the darkest predictions out there: that this will harm our alliances for years to come. The Kurds gave so much, more than 10,000 of their own people, to support us in the fight against ISIS. They were the fight against ISIS. And now we’ve broken the promise and left them behind for a battle they will inevitably lose. Trump can say he will ensure Turkey will act “humanely” or remain “in line,” but the battle has already begun and the people are already dying. The time to reverse course has passed.
Your questions, answered.
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Q: I was wondering why Trump would have picked now (or ever, for that matter) to pull troops out of Syria, when it seems like just about everyone is lambasting him for it. Is this just some passion project of his? Is it another attempt as we have seen before to create a distraction when there are other things in the news that he would rather everyone forget about? Does he maybe just like the cut of Erdogan's jib and want to do him a favor? Seems like too politically vulnerable a moment for him to do something universally unpopular.
- David, New York, NY.
Tangle: First, if you aren’t familiar with the situation in Syria, I encourage you to go read Monday’s Tangle. This is a question I’ve been surprised more people aren’t asking. Part of the reason the question hasn’t been answered is that to give it a holistic response requires a bit of speculation. As a reporter, speculating is almost like a cardinal sin — if you’re going to publish something you better either have some evidence or have some people you can attribute that speculation to.
Fortunately (for me and you), this isn’t a news article, it’s my newsletter, so the standards are a little different. I’m allowed and even asked to speculate a bit. So let me give you some speculation:
The first and most likely reason (to me) that Trump is doing this now is because he had a phone call with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. I know that might sound absurdly simple, but it’s not so far-fetched. What we know about the phone call, right now, is that Erdogan and Trump agreed on the outlines of a $100 billion trade deal, agreed to drop the ban on Turkey’s purchases of U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets, and set up an Erdogan visit to the White House. We also now know they agreed to create this safe zone in northern Syria, which effectively meant abandoning the Kurds — who have been U.S. allies for some time — and moving out U.S. forces.
But the biggest win Erdogan got in that deal was that Trump somehow suddenly felt comfortable leaving the Kurdish fighters alone in northern Syria. It’s no secret how Erdogan feels about them (he believes many are terrorists) and it’s not as if Trump didn’t know who these fighters were or what they’ve done. Take a look at this video from September 26, 2018:
Which brings me to the crux of my answer: Trump is always listening to the last person he spoke with. His shifting positions have long been something people grappled with, but about a year into his presidency reporters began cultivating a theory — and it’s one I subscribe to closely: In almost all cases, Trump’s position on an issue is tied closely to the very last person he spoke to. It’s why he’s been convinced to meet with DACA recipients despite wanting to dynamite the program or why he once briefly reversed course on whether or not China was a currency manipulator. He’s flip-flopped on NATO, NAFTA, health care, the Fed Chair, torture, and even his feelings on The New York Times. The Washington Post did a round-up of these flip flops, based on who he spoke to last, here. QZ has published an article about it here, too.
So why now? If I had to guess, I’d bet that Erdogan had Trump’s ear for an extended period of time and he convinced him that there were malignant forces amongst the Kurds, and perhaps even terrorists. He probably told a compelling story about how Turkish forces could move in without killing any civilians or very few soldiers and made it clear this was an old war that the U.S. could never solve. My best evidence for this is what happened after: as soon as Trump made the announcement, and the inevitable and predictable pushback exploded across TV and the political world, he backtracked. He began levying threats against Turkey about how he would destroy its economy if it didn’t act humanely. He oscillated between praising Turkey, threatening Turkey, praising the Kurds and claiming this was all part of a larger deal to bring the U.S. money. Each of these reflects what Trump was hearing and seeing on television and the heat he was getting from the people around him.
Of course, other things play a role in this, too. Trump has some dove-ish instincts when it comes to war, at least in the sense that not “wasting” American soldiers has long been a crux of his foreign policy. He was ripe for the picking, as folks might say, and Erdogan probably hit the sweet spot by trying to explain that the U.S. soldiers weren’t doing much. That has been Trump’s justification in the aftermath — that we aren’t the policeman of the world. Of course, the small number of soldiers in Syria was a low-cost, highly-effective way to keep Turkey out and keep things stable, but that’s not something Trump would have heard in his last phone call.
There’s also plenty of speculation about Trump and Erdogan’s business dealings and all the things we can’t see. There are a lot of wealthy, politically involved people in Turkey, and POTUS has two Trump towers there. It’s difficult for me not to at least imagine what kind of connections, inroads and leverage exist between the leaders, and what kind of favors or exchanges Erdogan may have called in. Those angles on this story (probably) won’t be known for a while, but what we do know is that the last person to have the president’s ear is usually the most successful.
A story that matters:
In Dallas, Texas, a social experiment called “America in One Room” took place last month. The experiment lasted a whole weekend and pitted Republicans and Democrats against each other on some major topics in America. Throughout the weekend, the researchers found that by discussing the issues face-to-face, both sides moved to the middle. Republicans softened “on ‘reducing the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the US’ by large margins,” according to Axios, and Democrats “weren't as steadfast about increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour.” Common ground was also found on DACA and increasing visas for low-skilled workers, among other immigration issues. While the study doesn’t mimic real life, where most people are surrounded by like-minded people in person and online, it shows that if Americans talk to each other they may be able to moderate their views. You can read more here.
The poll everyone’s talking about.
In a recent Fox News poll, 51 percent of Americans say Trump should be impeached and removed from office, up 9 percent from where it was in July. Four percent said he should be impeached but not removed and just 40 percent said he should be impeached (down 5 percent from July). Fox News cable may be known for its right-wing pundits, but its polling unit is one of the best in the business. Despite publishing many favorable polls for Trump in the past, the president attacked Fox News on Twitter.
Have a nice day.
Carbon emissions are already falling in 30 cities worldwide, according to members of the C40 summit. The group of global cities is reporting on its own emissions ahead of the World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen and they’re coming up with some encouraging results. Austin, Athens, Lisbon and Venice joined 26 other major cities in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, according to CityLab. On average, the 30 cities have reduced emissions by 22 percent. You can read more here.
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