President Trump stood in a crowded East Room on Wednesday afternoon with the Italian president at his side, scores of aides and reporters at his feet, and a bank of cameras relaying his words to millions.
Yet he seemed alone against the world.
The House on Wednesday condemned his sudden Syria pullout in a lopsided 354-to-60 vote. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky, repeatedly branded Trump’s actions “a mistake.” The Italian president visited the White House with rebukes from Europe on Syria, NATO and trade. U.S. officials, defying Trump, continued their damaging testimony to the congressional impeachment inquiry. Authorities arrested a fourth associate of Rudy Giuliani.
And Trump acted the way he increasingly has lately: as if the walls are closing in. Trump lashed out, indiscriminately, in all directions. His unfocused rage was as cogent as a primal scream and as subtle as a column of Turkish tanks.
He attacked the media and the Democrats, of course, and James Comey, Andrew McCabe, James Clapper, John Brennan and “the two great lovers,” Lisa Page and Peter Strzok. But he also attacked NATO members and the European Union. He attacked Germany, Spain and France. He attacked his guest (“Italy is only paying 1.1%” of gross domestic product for defense “instead of the mandated 2%”). He attacked Google and Amazon. He attacked those seeking to rename Columbus Day. He floated a new conspiracy theory saying, “I happen to think” 2016 election corruption “goes right up to President Obama.”
Sickeningly, he attacked just-abandoned Kurdish allies as if they deserve the massacre they are now receiving. He portrayed these friends as enemies, saying they’re “not angels,” that it’s “natural for them” to fight and that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party is “more of a terrorist threat in many ways than ISIS.”
Trump even attacked his fellow Republicans over Syria, unleashing particular fury on the GOP legislator who has compromised himself more than any other to appease Trump, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Told that Graham had warned Trump’s abandonment of northern Syria could be a “disaster,” Trump snapped: “I think Lindsey should focus on Judiciary.”
Implicitly threatening Graham, Trump continued: “The people of South Carolina don’t want us to get into a war with Turkey, a NATO member, or with Syria. … The people of South Carolina want to see those troops come home. And I won an election based on that, and that’s the way it is, whether it’s good or bad.”
From there, Trump went on to a private meeting with congressional leaders in which he called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a “third-grade politician” and his former defense secretary, Jim Mattis, “the world’s most overrated general.”
More revealing was whom Trump didn’t attack: Turkey and Russia. He said Turkey’s invasion “didn’t surprise me.” He praised Turkey for being “almost paid up” with NATO. He said Russia, Iran and Syria can be trusted to take over the fight against the Islamic State.
Such incoherent rage, combined with confusion distinguishing between friend and foe, is uniquely disconcerting coming from the most powerful man in the world. Trump once worried that “the world is laughing at us.” Now the world is staring at us, mouth agape.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella, likely briefed on a similar rant Trump gave while meeting with the Finnish president, listened without expression to Trump’s expansive grievances and said, “I’m not here to judge what other countries do” when asked about Trump’s Syria pullout. Mattarella gently but firmly restated Italy’s – and the democratic world’s – position, all at odds with Trump’s utterances: “The Turkish attack on Syria is a serious mistake.” The invasion has “already caused a number of casualties and tens of thousands of refugees and displaced people and there are plenty of victims amongst civilians.” Mattarella also defended Italy’s NATO contributions and the United Nations and counseled against a trade war.
Trump, by way of rejoinder, boasted about new U.S. tariffs and said: “We cannot lose a war of tariffs.”
But that was mild compared with much of Trump’s wandering fury. He trained it on Pelosi and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.; on the “military industrial complex”; on the EU’s digital tax; on ABC News; and even on a disturbance in the back of the room (“Excuse me? Is there a problem back there?”).
His furor only increased each time he was confronted with reality. Asked earlier about Erdogan rejecting a cease-fire, Trump shot back: “He didn’t say that at all.” (Erdogan said: “We will never declare a cease-fire.”) Trump then coldly washed his hands of the Syrian mess, saying: “I wish them all a lot of luck.”
They’re going to need it. So are we.
Dana Milbank is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.