Trump has lost. But he can still do a lot of damage to national security.
PRESIDENT TRUMP’S inflammatory rhetoric as his loss of the election emerged underlined the unprecedented danger the country now faces from an angry and unhinged executive who still has 75 days left in office. In addition to refusing to concede and poisoning the atmosphere with false allegations of fraud, Mr. Trump could do untold damage with last-days acts, from firing capable senior officials in the intelligence and national security communities to issuing pardons to his criminal associates — and perhaps himself.
Some of the most concerning possibilities involve foreign affairs, where the president’s authority to act unilaterally is least constrained. Before the election, Mr. Trump was threatening to undo years of work by U.S. troops and his own diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan. In October, he suddenly tweeted that 4,500 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan would be brought home “by Christmas.” Around the same time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to shut down the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad — something that would essentially terminate American engagement in Iraq.
If Mr. Trump, as a lame duck, follows through on those plans, the result will be a disaster for U.S. interests in the Middle East. Afghanistan will likely collapse into civil war and, possibly, renewed domination by the Taliban. As it is, Mr. Trump’s pledge has had the effect of freezing the peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government painstakingly brokered by his own administration’s special envoy. The insurgents are waiting to see if Mr. Trump will pull out the troops before they meet their commitments to reduce violence, break relations with al-Qaeda and negotiate seriously — none of which they have yet done.
In Iraq, a moderate and reformist prime minister has been attempting to rein in Iranian-backed militias that have made the country nearly ungovernable. Since before the U.S. assassination of Tehran’s top general last January, some of these groups have been firing rockets at bases where U.S. troops are located as well as the Baghdad embassy. Mr. Pompeo threatened that if the attacks on the sprawling embassy compound did not stop, it would be evacuated. That peremptory ultimatum handed Iran a golden opportunity to achieve the strategic goal it has been pursuing for years: to drive the United States out of Iraq, which it would then dominate. Experts such as Barbara A. Leaf, a former senior U.S. diplomat in Iraq, are warning that Iran may sponsor new attacks on the embassy during the coming weeks in the hope of triggering Mr. Trump to order a withdrawal of diplomats and the 3,000 troops still in the country.
Other nations may rush to take advantage of the transition. China could stage a provocation directed at Taiwan, or jail more senior opposition leaders in Hong Kong. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, could launch more settlements in the West Bank. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman could seek final favors from a president who has persistently favored them, despite bipartisan opposition from Congress.
Perhaps Mr. Trump, contemplating his political future, will choose to restrain himself. In the likely event he does not, it will fall to senior Republicans, including close allies such as Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Ron Johnson (Wis.), to prevent the president from doing further damage to national security.