Trump's pivot on Syria: When final decisions aren't final
President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, after a meeting with Congressional leaders on border security, as the government shutdown continues Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, as Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Vice President Mike Pence, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of La., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., listen. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
All the anguished hand-wringing by media and political figures, all the doom-and-gloom predictions about global instability, turn out to be overblown.
That became clear over the weekend, and it says something about this White House that its sharpest critics fail to understand.
What was pitched at first as an immediate pullout of all U.S. troops from Syria now won't take place for months, perhaps years.
Now anyone who wants to criticize Trump for an erratic style, for snap decisions, for zig-zagging on policy, be my guest. It's not the most efficient way to run a railroad.
But here's the thing: In many cases, Trump's edict is not the end of the process. It's the beginning.
And it's part of the way he disrupts government.
With traditional presidents, there is an elaborate decision-making process, with meetings, memos, inter-agency consultations. White House officials consult congressional leaders, interest groups and, on foreign policy matters, American allies.
And then a careful rollout plan is devised to announce, market and sell the president's decision.
The idea is to get buy-in from potential supporters and neutralize potential opponents. But even more, it's to present the POTUS decision as final, measured and carefully considered. For a president to change his mind afterward would be an embarrassment.
Trump doesn't care about that.
He'll announce that he wants to withdraw from NAFTA, but that creates enough pressure that he was able to hammer out a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico. During the internal debate on NAFTA, according to Bob Woodward's book, Trump said: "The only way to get a good deal is to blow up the old deal."
In my book "Media Madness," I broke the story of how Reince Priebus had given the president a decision memo on transgender troops in the military, with four options. They spoke on the phone and a White House meeting was slated for that morning. But Trump simply picked the third most-severe option and tweeted his decision.
The kicker is that Jim Mattis slow-walked the thing and, a year and a half later, a transgender ban has yet to take effect.
So it was with Trump's order to remove the remaining 2,000 troops from Syria — which some conservative commentators, and such Republicans as Lindsey Graham, strongly opposed.
But John Bolton, the former Fox News contributor who is now national security adviser, laid out "conditions for a pullout that could leave American forces there for months or even years," as The New York Times put it.
Bolton, in Israel, told reporters that American forces would stay in Syria until the last remnants of ISIS are defeated and Turkey offers guarantees that it won't attack Kurdish troops backed by the U.S. The president, of course, had proclaimed that ISIS already had been defeated.
"We don't think the Turks ought to undertake military action that's not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States, at a minimum so they don't endanger our troops," said Bolton, who is said to have led a behind-the-scenes effort to slow down the Trump order. The president said last month he'd pull the troops within 30 days.
Trump pushed back yesterday, in a tweet endorsed by Bolton:
"The Failing New York Times has knowingly written a very inaccurate story on my intentions on Syria. No different from my original statements, we will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!....."
Even if the Times story is off to some degree, the process has clearly changed from the original presidential announcement of a month-long withdrawal.
It's not that these post-decision debates are without cost. The initial Syria announcement alarmed allies and upset much of Congress. And it cost Trump the services of his Defense secretary, although he and Mattis were probably headed for a breakup anyway.
But all the media chatter about Trump losing the "last adult in the room" turned out to be overheated. There are other adults, including Mike Pompeo, who helped persuade the president to essentially drop the idea of an immediate pullout.
Trump goes beyond Yogi Berra. With this president, it's not over till it's over — and even then it's not over.
Footnote: In my column on Jill Abramson's book about the New York Times, I said that one reporter for the paper, Eric Lichtblau, later joined CNN and was one of three journalists fired when the network retracted a story about Anthony Scaramucci. I have often used that term when people are involuntarily forced out. But for the record, Lichtblau and the other journalists resigned as part of their arrangement with the network.