'Meltdown': Donald Trump's week of intense political peril

David Smith in Washington
Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

On his 1,000th day as president, Barack Obama flew to North Carolina to launch a bus tour through smaller communities, selling a jobs act he hoped to get through Congress. Those were the days of politics as usual. Donald Trump spent his 1,000th day seemingly hellbent on self-immolation.

The 45th president was busy on Wednesday, and the rest of this week, strengthening the case for his own impeachment, with a notable assist from his acting chief of staff. If the old rumours are true – that Trump never wanted to win election, that he would be happier on the golf course, that he is secretly looking for a way out – it is hard to imagine what more he could have done to bring it about.

“It was appalling and counter-productive,” said Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist. “You have support for impeachment rising, you have the White House admitting impeachable acts in public and you the president holding rallies where he’s out of control. I think the country’s getting tired of it.”

For critics, this was the week when Trump finally destroyed America’s reputation abroad, committed the most flagrant ethics violation yet to benefit his own business, lost another cabinet member, got outplayed by his old foe Nancy Pelosi yet again and wrote the most embarrassingly puerile letter to a foreign leader in living memory.

The context was two self-inflicted wounds of conflict in the Middle East and the impeachment inquiry at home. The situation in northern Syria was rapidly deteriorating after Trump ordered the withdrawal of the US military, widely seen as a callous abandonment of Kurdish allies and the worst foreign policy blunder since the Iraq war. Washington remained gripped by House Democrats’ investigation, sparked by Trump pressuring Ukraine to investigate a political rival.

What we witnessed on the part of the president was a meltdown

Nancy Pelosi

The week brought a steady drip of damaging revelations from current and former diplomats and officials behind closed doors. Among them was Fiona Hill, former top Russia adviser at the White House, who reportedly told the inquiry her boss, the then national security adviser, John Bolton, compared efforts to strong-arm Ukraine to a “drug deal” and described Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, as “a hand grenade who’s going to blow everyone up”.

If future historians dig up day 1,000 of the craziest show on earth as a time capsule of the Trump presidency, they will not be disappointed. He continued to defend his treatment of the Kurds, who sought help from Russia-backed Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

“Syria may have some help with Russia, and that’s fine,” Trump insisted. “It’s a lot of sand. They’ve got a lot of sand over there. So there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”

The Kurds, he said several times, were “not angels”.

Trump also wrote a letter for the ages to the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “Let’s work out a good deal!” it said. “You don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy – and I will … Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool! I will call you later.”

At first, no one could quite believe it was real. But it was. Commentators likened it to the writing of a juvenile and suggesting Trump’s grasp of foreign policy was barely more sophisticated.

Brad Simpson, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut, tweeted: “I am a historian of US foreign policy. I have read many, many letters from US presidents to foreign leaders, and I have never read a letter from the US president so unhinged, so threatening, so bizarre, so completely lacking in basic etiquette. Trump is deeply, deeply unwell.”

As if to prove the point, Trump sat with congressional leaders in the cabinet room and derided his former defense secretary, Jim Mattis, as “the world’s most overrated general”. Mattis later shot back: “He also called Meryl Streep an overrated actress. So I guess I’m the Meryl Streep of generals.” He told Pelosi, per her account, “You are a third-grade politician.” But it was a photograph of her, a lone woman, standing and rebuking him that will endure.

“What we witnessed on the part of the president was a meltdown,” she said.

What we have done to the Kurds will stand as a bloodstain in the annals of American history

Mitt Romney

On Thursday, the nightmarish torrent continued as the vice-president, Mike Pence, and the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, brokered a five-day ceasefire in Turkey which was criticised for giving Erdoğan everything he wanted. Trump, meanwhile, cut the ribbon at the opening of a new Louis Vuitton factory in Alvarado, describing the French luxury brand as “a name I know very well. It cost me a lot of money over the years.”

Later, speaking at a campaign rally in Dallas, he likened Turkey and the Kurds to children scrapping on a playground.

“It was unconventional what I did,” he boasted, using a word that defines his political career. “Sometimes you have to let them fight a little while. Sometimes you have to let them fight like two kids. Then you pull them apart.”

Back in Washington, where the House of Representatives had voted overwhelmingly to condemn Trump’s withdrawal from Syria, there was a landmark critique from the Senate floor. Mitt Romney of Utah said: “What we have done to the Kurds will stand as a bloodstain in the annals of American history. The decision to abandon the Kurds violates one of our most sacred principles – that the United States stands with our allies.”

At the White House, there was a rare press briefing. Astonishingly, the acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney confessed there was indeed a quid pro quo with Ukraine, telling reporters the administration held up aid to pressure the country to investigate whether it had helped Democrats in 2016.

“I have news for everybody: get over it,” he said, brazenly driving a coach and horses through Trump’s own denials. “There is going to be political influence in foreign policy.”

Realising he had shot himself – and his boss – in the foot, Mulvaney retracted his statement a couple of hours later and tried to blame the media. But his sincerity seemed doubtful when the Trump re-election campaign began selling t-shirts emblazoned with the legend: “Get over it.” The “o” even had Trump’s peculiar blond hair.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi stands and speaks during a meeting at the White House. Photograph: White House/Reuters

Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said: “It does not help when you have Mr Mulvaney stand at the podium and say, ‘Oh yeah, we do all quid pro quos all the time in foreign policy,’ and then put out a statement because he realised he’d screwed it up for the president.”

Steele reflected: “When you take this week and look at the totality of the storylines and narratives that emerged, my analysis leads me to believe that what the president is doing is reacting to a tightening of events around him. They are closing in on him from so many directions at the same time that there is no way out.”

Yet Mulvaney had another surprise. He announced that Trump would host next year’s G7 summit at his own Doral resort in Florida. Following widespread anger and disbelief, the president made a rare and humiliating climbdown on Saturday night, tweeting that the decision had been reversed, “based on both media & Democrat crazed and irrational hostility”, and he would seek an alternative venue.

Related: Mulvaney admitted to a quid pro quo with Ukraine. Was that a genius move? | Cas Mudde

All this … and Rick Perry too. The energy secretary, who had been drawn into the Ukraine scandal, told Trump that he would quit the cabinet – crowning a thousand days of turmoil that have seen record White House turnover.

By then, Fiona Hill’s testimony felt like a lifetime ago and Washington was crying for mercy and a rest. But there were reports from Syria of Turkish mortar fire breaking the ceasefire. Trump said he had just spoken to Erdoğan and “there’s a ceasefire, or a pause, or whatever you want to call it”.

The coming weeks are likely to bring only more turmoil on the road to impeachment, to be followed by a trial in the Senate as Trump tests his conception of absolute authority to destruction.

Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University in Rhode Island, said: “This is the man who said he could shoot someone in the middle of Manhattan and get away with it.

“He believes the president is all powerful and can get away with anything. The House is saying there should be constraints on a president and that is resonating with the people. He’s pushing the envelope because he’s pushing it for his whole presidency. Now he’s probably going to go down as the third president in history to be impeached – and it’s driving him crazy.”