Column: In Trump’s downward spiral there’s far more at stake than espionage etiquette
When Donald Trump was elected president six months ago, his supporters thought he’d soon grow into the job. He’d surround himself with smart people, listen carefully to their advice, and run his administration with the efficiency of a successful businessman. That seems a long time ago. Trump hasn’t grown, and now we’re seeing the consequences.
In domestic affairs, the president assembled a staff of family members, ideologues and hangers-on, some competent, others not, that quickly divided into warring factions jostling for a snippet of his short attention span.
In foreign policy, he appointed some of the nation’s best and brightest, such as national security advisor H.R. McMaster, but it’s not clear how much of their advice he actually absorbs.
The result is an administration that has lurched from one crisis to another.
Take the controversy over the intelligence Trump divulged to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov when they met in the Oval Office last week.
Trump’s unintended intelligence leak fits into a broader pattern of general incompetence, compounded by hubris.
According to the Washington Post, the president recounted intelligence reports that the Islamic State has devised a “thin bomb” hidden inside a laptop computer. (That wasn’t a secret.)
“I get great intel,” Trump bragged to Lavrov, according to the Post. In the newspaper’s account, he went on to tell the visiting Russians just enough — including the city where the information originated — to enable a smart spy service to deduce the source.
That’s a problem — compounded by the fact that the intelligence came from a friendly foreign intelligence government (later identified by the New York Times as Israel), and wasn’t Trump’s to give away. The White House even had to warn the CIA that Trump might have blown a foreign government’s secret.
There’s far more at stake here than the etiquette of information-sharing among friends. The United States depends heavily on foreign governments for on-the-ground espionage against terrorists in the Middle East.
“The cost for us, just on the intelligence level, is the likelihood that we won’t get similar information again — at least for a little while,” former CIA officer Paul Pillar told Vox. “Foreign partners will say, my goodness, even if we’re given assurances of how carefully our information will be used, as long we’ve got this guy at the top who does this sort of thing, those U.S. assurances don’t mean very much.”
The larger issue is that Trump’s unintended intelligence leak fits into a broader pattern of general incompetence, compounded by hubris.
“He is very inexperienced; this is an absolutely new world to him,” former CIA Director Michael Hayden said on CNN. “If I fault him for anything, it’s not that he’s inexperienced. He doesn’t have humility in the face of his inexperience.
“Here is a president who does not seem to prepare in detail, is a bit disdainful, even contemptuous of the normal processes of government,” Hayden said. “[He] seems to go into these encounters with, frankly, an unjustified self-confidence in the ability of his person to make these things come out right.”
Thus does each of Trump’s missteps — his bungled ban on immigration from Muslim countries, his confused proposals on healthcare and tax policy, plus the controversies surrounding the firings of Michael Flynn and James B. Comey — contribute to a growing crisis. The latest wrinkle, on Tuesday, was the news that Trump asked Comey to end the FBI investigation of Flynn, according to notes Comey made in February. (By the time you read this, a new revelation may have succeeded that one.)
In private, Republicans in Congress have grumbled for weeks about a White House that doesn’t know what it’s doing. Now they’re beginning to do the grumbling in public.
Incompetence erodes support for a president in his own party, even among people who generally agree with his policy views. (See: George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina.)
“They are in a downward spiral right now,” said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who was one of the people Trump considered as a potential vice president and who, until now, had been the gentlest of critics. “The chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating … a worrisome environment,” Corker said.
Republican chieftains who would normally be duty-bound to defend their president were mostly silent this time — or, in the case of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, acerbic.
“I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House,” McConnell said.
Trump has created his own troubles, and they are far from over. Republicans are joining Democrats in asking for tape recordings of White House meetings (whose existence the president hinted at in a tweet) and, now, a transcript of what he told the Russians. He’s renewed his war with U.S. intelligence agencies, accusing them of leaking secrets to undermine him — a gambit that rarely ends well.
The president’s supporters, echoing Hayden, say he doesn’t mean any harm. Some of his actions have appeared careless, they acknowledge. He’s still learning the job, they say. And he is, in truth, surrounded by adversaries.
But as examples of carelessness multiply, the ranks of Trump’s critics will swell. And they’ll begin, soon, to point out that carelessness isn’t much of an excuse. Not for a man whose job description, right there in the Constitution, says his first duty is to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
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