Voices: There’s only one word to describe a Trump second term

Will the Ukraine conflict be long over by the time Trump can have a tilt at the White House?  (Reuters)
Will the Ukraine conflict be long over by the time Trump can have a tilt at the White House? (Reuters)

The success or failure of decisions of monumental importance – including going to war – can be decided by timing.

If Argentina’s dictator, Leopoldo Galtieri, had waited just six months to invade the Falklands, there would have been no task force for Britain to retake the islands. The aircraft carriers, Invincible and Hermes, intrinsic to the mission’s success, would have been delivered to Australia and India.

Would Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine have floundered so badly had he waited until 2024 when Donald Trump could possibly be president? Would Trump, the man accused of being the Muscovian candidate for the White House – who was prepared to accept the Russian occupation of Crimea, and had faced an impeachment inquiry for withholding military aid to Kyiv – really have provided Volodymyr Zelensky’s government with billions of dollars of arms, enabling his country to fight back?

If China’s Xi Jinping, sabre-rattling at present over Taiwan, was to delay any invasion he may have planned – what would be the reaction of Trump? After all, he threatened to pull US forces out of the Indo-Pacific, and warned allies in the region that they should not expect the US will defend them against Beijing.

Trump confirmed his 2024 run for the White House in a speech at Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday night. It is, of course, far from inevitable that Trump will win the Republican nomination, trailing as he is Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, in the polls. The showing of the candidates he endorsed in the midterm polls has been poor.

More and more senior Republicans (including those previously ardently loyal) are now saying it is time for the party to move on. A YouGov poll at the weekend showed that DeSantis had a seven-point lead among Republicans and Republican-leaning voters for the nomination. But it is worth remembering that in 2016, nine months before Trump won the presidency, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll had given Ted Cruz a two-point lead over Trump. There is a long way to go before the nominations close.

A Trump second term will be stormy. One can imagine how a bitter and vengeful, twice-impeached president would go after his domestic enemies, including those in the Republican party, law-enforcement agencies, the military high-command, the judiciary, the media and more.

A whole raft of international issues – from conflicts to human rights and the international rules-based order – will be affected; as will the climate crisis under a president who pulled out of the Paris accords during his first term. At the same time, Trump’s authoritarian allies will no doubt believe they have a degree of impunity.

Following the second round of the election in Brazil on 30 October, there was genuine concern that Jair Bolsanaro would refuse to accept defeat after losing to Lula Inacio Lula da Silva. The “Trump of the Tropics”, as he revels in being described, had been parroting the Trump script that any loss would prove him the victim of “stolen” votes.

One reason this did not happen was the speed with which Joe Biden acknowledged Lula as the winner. This was followed by Emmanuel Macron, Rishi Sunak, Putin, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi. The US administration, according to reports, was prepared to send Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, to read Bolsanaro the riot act.

Trump, meanwhile, had intervened in the last days of the campaign to urge voters to block Lula: “A radical left lunatic who will quickly destroy your country.”

Jair Bolsonaro and I have become great friends over the past few years for the people of the United States,” he said. “He is a wonderful man and has my complete and total endorsement.”

Even as Bolsanaro’s chances of hanging on faded, there was hope among some supporters of another roll of the dice with another election: the US midterms. A Republican takeover of the Congress, the theory ran, would help ameliorate any measures the Biden administration may take against Bolsanaro if he refused to leave office.

The Republican “red wave” did not take place. In a gathering of Bolsanaro supporters at the G-16 gun club in Sau Paulo, Heitor Pereira, a businessman, spoke of the feeling of being let down by the US. “There was a time when the US stood for strong government in South America,” he said. “Now, they choose not to stop a communist who will try and turn this country into Venezuela. This is a big mistake by Biden. They’ll regret it.”

The bad days of the CIA deposing democratic, progressive governments in Latin America – and replacing them with murderous military regimes for the sake of American political and commercial interests – appear, thankfully, to have passed.

Trump, however, had reportedly proposed in 2017 to his astonished White House team – including national security advisor HR McMaster and secretary of state Rex Tillerson –invading Venezuela to remove the government of Nicolas Maduro.

The following day, speaking at his New Jersey golf course, he warmed to the theme. “We have many options for Venezuela,” he said. “This is our neighbour. We’re all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away... we have many options for Venezuela – including a possible military option – if necessary.”

There may well be opposition to something like the Venezuelan adventure from the military and intelligence agencies if one is proposed in the future. But there remains the likelihood that Trump may carry out a purge of their hierarchy.

There is a chance that, if back in power, Trump will sack Christopher Wray – who he appointed FBI director after sacking James Comey over the Russiagate investigation. Wray became a target following the Mar-a-Lago raid to retrieve classified documents taken by Trump. Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn – who was pardoned by him for lying to the FBI about secret meetings with the Russian ambassador to the US – may once again be given a senior security role.

The chairman of the joint chiefs, General Mark Milley, incurred Trump’s wrath by refusing to use troops against demonstrators and then apologising for taking part in a Trump-led staged photo opportunity during the George Floyd protests. It was just one of many clashes between the then president – a Vietnam draft-dodger – and current and former senior officers.

The CIA, in Trump’s world, has been part of the dark state which had set out to undermine his presidency and sabotage his attempts to improve relations with Putin. The former president had talked frequently of “witch hunts” organised to get rid of him. The fact that the whistleblower whose revelations led to Trump’s impeachment inquiry turned out to be a CIA officer added to this narrative.

The president, it was alleged, had stopped an urgent $400m military package to Ukraine in an effort to pressurise the Zelensky government to start an inquiry into the financial affairs of Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden – then his Democrat rival in the presidential race.

Trump has claimed that his special relationship with Putin would have prevented the Ukraine war. He has also called for an immediate ceasefire in the conflict – which would effectively mean that Ukrainian forces would be halted in their tracks as they successfully liberate occupied territory.

Trump supporters (and his son, Donald Jr) have been vocal in their opposition to continuing military aid for Ukraine. Fox News host Tucker Carlson has frequently repeated the Kremlin version in the conflict. In Congress, hard-right Republicans like Marjorie Taylor Greene have accused Ukraine of provoking the Russian invasion.

Will the Ukraine conflict be long over by the time Trump can have a tilt at the White House? There is that possibility, but it does not seem likely for the time being. The retaking of Kherson by Ukrainian forces is another major reversal for the Russians. But the next stage in the fight – in the south and the Donbas – is likely to be prolonged and attritional.

Even if the current war does end in the near future, it does not mean that Ukraine or other European countries would be safe with another Trump presidency.

During his first term, Trump regularly attacked Nato – now backing Ukraine with arms and funds – while praising Putin. One of his last orders before leaving office was to pull US troops out of Germany. He had suggested that countries with authoritarian rulers outside Europe – Saudi Arabia under its de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman, and Bolsanaro’s Brazil – should join the alliance.

Before the last US election, retired lieutenant general Douglas Lute – a former US ambassador to Nato – said that if Trump won: “His announced intention to remove US forces from Europe would become reality, thereby demonstrating withdrawal of US commitment and reducing Nato’s deterrence posture.”

Some held that Trump may leave Nato altogether in his second term. John Bolton, his former national security adviser, claims that there was a real possibility of the US pulling out in the absence of people like him persuading Trump to stay.

“It wasn’t that we convinced him that Nato is actually a pretty good alliance, but that he just saw he couldn’t go across the line and actually call for withdrawal,” Bolton said. “Once he’s re-elected, that political guardrail – if it doesn’t disappear entirely – is substantially diminished.”

Three months ago, the Ukrainians were losing more than 100 people and seeing 300 injured every day in the Donbas. Moscow seemed close to seizing the region.

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In the town of Lysychansk – about to be overrun by the Russians – Major Andriy Eremenko, with a bloodstained bandage around his head, spoke of his despair. “We are getting outgunned, we can’t match their firepower. Soldiers, civilians are getting slaughtered. I really don’t know what’s going to happen, we simply can’t keep sustaining losses like this.”

Last month, Major Eremenko was in the newly liberated town of Lyman, helping local people put up Ukrainian flags. The Russians were in retreat and the talk was of liberating the separatist-held Donetsk and Luansk “people’s republics”.

The key to the astonishing battlefield reversal was advanced Western weaponry, especially the Himars (high-mobility artillery rocket system) and MLRS (multiple-launch rocket system). “Keep sending us more and more, please,” said Major Eremenko. “They really, really work well.”

I asked the major – who I had met for the first time during the battle for Donetsk airport in 2014 – how long he thought the war would continue. “Don’t forget: for us here in the east, the war didn’t start in February,” he responded. “It has been going on for eight years, and it’s not going to end soon.”

What would happen if US support ended in the meantime? “Putin cannot end the war this humiliated. He will keep coming back. The Russians are rearming – they will try to attack again. Obviously we need Europe’s help, especially America’s help.

“We’ll do the fighting, we just need the weapons. We’ll not stop fighting if the help ends, but a lot of people will die. And the Russians won’t stop here – there are other parts of the old Russian empire they want. We’ll be looking at a very dark future.”