Come for the chaos, stay for the consequences. The Flynn debacle is just the tip of the iceberg.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Stephen Miller, top White House policy advisor and creepy, unblinking throwback to totalitarian propaganda ministries of old, bragged that Donald Trump has gotten more done in his first three weeks than some presidents do in their entire terms of office. Seemingly allergic to facts as this champion of unsubstantiated scare stories is — from those about refugees to the myths of voter fraud — he may be on to something. Trump is already breaking records.
Disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s 24 days in office is by almost half a year the shortest tenure of any national security advisor in history. The scandal that brought Flynn down is almost certainly the earliest of real consequence to hit a fledgling presidency. From Flynn’s apparently illegal communications with the Russian government to Trump’s conducting of what should have been secret business in the middle of a dinner party at his Florida club, no White House has ever shown such contempt for the norms of operational security. Trump’s approval rating is the lowest for a new president in the modern era. His disregard for the Constitution has not only gotten him in trouble with the court system earlier than any president in recent memory, but it quite likely gives him the record for being the earliest serial violator of his oath of office ever. No president has ever been enshrouded by anything remotely like the web of conflicts of interest that envelops Trump, who has made being above the law a foundational principle of his presidency. He has done more to shake the confidence and earn the opprobrium of America’s most important allies — from the U.K. to EU and Mexican leaders to Australia — than any president since the United States became a world power. And as Miller barked out on last Sunday’s morning news shows, this president is just getting started. Attention must be paid.
The problem with “achieving” so much so quickly is that the mind begins to numb at the litany of outrages. The above list hardly begins to describe it; it really is only zeroing in on some of the most outrageous or unprecedented of Trump’s misdeeds and missteps. Each day, there are so many other disturbing developments that our ability to retain and maintain some order in our heads about them all is severely challenged. Which White House official is in the deepest trouble or has done the most damage to Team Trump? Flynn? Sean Spicer? Kellyanne Conway? Reince Priebus? Stephen Bannon? (Flynn clearly is in a category by himself at the moment — but stories swirled this past week that Spicer, Conway, and Priebus were all at risk of losing their jobs, and, of course, Bannon, the former executive of a media site that seemed to consider white supremacy both a marketing ploy and a star to steer by, looms as the most menacing of the lot.)
Even the story of Flynn’s Logan Act-violating contacts with the Kremlin, and his subsequent lies about it to the media and to the vice president, was not the only tale of problems to come out of the National Security Council (NSC). The vital nerve center of the government was in chaos. It was having trouble hiring quality people. One top appointee to a key deputy slot, Monica Crowley, had her nomination pulled because of a past history of plagiarism. K.T. McFarland, another deputy appointee who, like Crowley, hailed from that training ground for statesmen Fox News, took office only to hold just one deputies meeting in the first two weeks of the administration and, according to one former NSC staffer, surprised her colleagues by saying, “Hi, I’m from television — let’s keep all the comments to under two minutes.” (According to the New York Times, she is expected to soon follow Flynn in resigning.) Bannon got a permanent seat on the NSC, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence did not. Senior directors of the NSC were not invited to Oval Office meetings for calls with foreign leaders as is traditionally the case, resulting in a lack of proper briefing for the president. The president, however, did not seem to care for proper briefings, avoiding or truncating intelligence presentations on which presidents regularly depend. For that matter, he also allowed Flynn to cook up an alternative daily brief to the one traditionally supplied by the intelligence community. And the word went out to NSC staffers that briefing documents should be only one page long and contain lots of pictures and charts for a president famously averse to actually reading and learning about the substantive side of his job. A New York Times report recently revealed an NSC in chaos in which the driving intellectual ideas came from early morning tweets from the president’s private Twitter account (his use of his own phone and Twitter account being another reminder that security is not a priority for this commander in chief). Since none of those tweets was the result of a policy process, the staff — itself a patchwork of Barack Obama holdovers, Flynn military contacts, and second- and third-stringers from the GOP policy bench (due to the alienation of the Republican policy community from and by the Trump administration leadership) — was left scrambling to adapt to the president’s off-the-cuff ramblings.
Of course, we also saw the very serious consequences that come from having no policy process: the chaos surrounding the implementation of the president’s travel ban; a federal court putting a hold on that ban; the conflicting stories and framings of the ban from within the administration; and in other areas like the damage done to U.S.-Mexico relations by a presidential tweet (and presidential bad policy judgment) or that done to the U.S.-Australia relationship by a president who didn’t know his brief, anything about diplomacy, or have much of a grip on history or long-term U.S. interests.
Beyond that, there were daily shocks on the government ethics front from the president’s ongoing refusal to disclose his tax returns as all his modern predecessors had done, his flouting of standards against nepotism, his refusal to divest his corporate interests, and his almost certain repeated violations of both aspects of the emoluments clause of the Constitution prohibiting him to profit from either foreign government payments or any remuneration from the U.S. government other than his salary. His unorthodox living arrangement with his wife has created security costs that will surpass each year the level of funding required by, say, the National Endowment for the Arts, which the president allegedly seeks to defund. His sons travel the world doing business that benefits their dad and enriches their family at large while also racking up big burdens to the U.S. taxpayer in the form of security costs. (Not having paid taxes in roughly two decades, this is an area in which the president may not be able to relate to the outrage of his constituents.) Foreign business interests of the president have already resulted in apparent impact on conversations with leaders from the Philippines to Taiwan to Russia (more on that in a moment). He continues to own a hotel that leases its space from the U.S. government in apparent direct violation of his lease. And, again, the list of such outrages — from the participation of his children in official government meetings to holding official meetings with foreign leaders like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Trump’s private club in Florida, no doubt benefiting the club in myriad ways (and even resulting in using the Japanese prime minister as a prop to amuse guests at a Mar-a-Lago wedding) — is too long to contain in this article.
Where do we direct our outrage when this is the record of just three weeks? Where do we even begin? How do we even remember what to be outraged about? When there is a new scandal every six hours or so, it is hard to remember what happened four scandals ago (what we used to call “yesterday”). That is the fog of Trump. Like the fog of war, it makes decision-making difficult and makes apprehending the import of what is happening exceptionally challenging if not impossible to the average observer. (It’s even a challenge to commentators who, as one prominent columnist for the Washington Post recently confessed to me, have to keep spiking pieces they are working on because “some new story breaks and has me headed off in another direction.”) Is this all part of a great plan? That seems unlikely because folks like Miller and Flynn and Spicer and Conway and Priebus seem largely clueless and often deeply incompetent. But elements of this kind of shock-and-awe strategy may be cooked up and seen as clever by the likes of Bannon (though my guess is we often give him too much credit — in my experience, people who hold ridiculous and indefensible views often do so because they are not smart enough to know better). In any event, intentional or not, Trump has actually managed to avoid dealing with the consequences of his catastrophic first month in office (the worst since William Henry Harrison, who caught pneumonia at his inaugural and died a month later) to a remarkable degree.
Some of that is due to the complete failure to act of one of the government’s most important checks on such abuses — the U.S. Congress. Like others who support Trump when they can clearly see the mess he is making daily, congressional leaders like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have repeatedly put party before country or, just as bad, the prospect of advancing their own long-held legislative goals ahead of things like national security, morality, American values, and the well-being of those they are supposed to be serving. They have all sold out their constituents (and perhaps their souls) for the low price of political revenge or a brief ideological high. Their inaction in the face of evidence of massive wrongdoing has made them collaborators with Trump or, as the law would have it, accessories or co-conspirators (see McConnell’s reported statements that he would block the investigation into the Russian hack of the U.S. election for political purposes, thus enabling a Russian plan that intelligence data suggested was underway to continue).
This brings us back to the scandal that brought down the hapless and arrogant Flynn. If the White House thinks that throwing Flynn under the bus will relieve it of further scrutiny of Kremlingate, we had all better hope it is sadly mistaken. Flynn was just a small piece of this scandal. Other members of the president’s inner circle, including possibly the president himself, have had long, worrisome ties with the Russians. Some of these are reportedly still under investigation by the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities — such as those of former Team Trump members Paul Manafort and Carter Page. Given Trump’s steadfast support for Vladimir Putin despite evidence the Russian leader masterminded the hack of the U.S. election with the apparent purpose of getting Trump elected, his ties (opaque without his tax returns and because of his complex network of shell holdings) and those of family members — like his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; daughter Ivanka; and son Donald Jr. — with prominent business people close to the Kremlin also demand scrutiny. Further, the Flynn revelations are linked to information that he and possibly others were long in communication with the Kremlin, and the public deserves to know what was discussed. Beyond that, we need to know what Trump knew and when he knew it. (Remember, he had the audacity to actually cheer on the Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee and call for them and their agents like WikiLeaks to actually do more.)
In any other world, at any other time, a scandal that tied the president of the United States and his closest associates to one of America’s leading adversaries in the wake of action by that adversary that likely had a direct impact on the results of a U.S. election and subsequently resulted in a complete reversal of long-standing U.S. policy toward that adversary, would not just dominate U.S. political debate; it would obliterate discussion of anything else until it was fully resolved. Not only would it — but it should. There has never been a scandal like it in American history.
For that reason, we cannot and must not let the fog of Trump get the better of us. Nor can we let it derail necessary debate or the checks demanded by law on the other inchoate yet shocking outrages of the Trump Era (known otherwise as the past few weeks). We can’t let the number, scope, diversity, or complexity of the abuses of public trust currently underway serve as a defense for the perpetrators of those abuses, whether the fog is intentional or not. We must flag every wrong, challenge every lie, and demand action where the law and our values demand it. Nothing less than the future of American leadership, security, and credibility demands it.
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