- By Derek CholletDerek Chollet served in the Barack Obama administration for six years in senior positions at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, most recently as the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Currently the executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, his books include The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (co-written with James Goldgeier), and The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World (co-edited with Samantha Power). A native Nebraskan, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his family. Chollet is a co-editor of Shadow Government., Colin KahlColin H. Kahl is an associate professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. From 2014 to 2017, he was deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. From 2009 to 2011, he served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. In 2011, he was awarded the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service by Secretary Robert Gates. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and two children. Kahl is a co-editor of Shadow Government., Julie SmithJulianne ("Julie") Smith is director of the strategy and statecraft program at the Center for a New American Security. Prior to joining CNAS, she served as the deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2012 to 2013. Before going to the White House, she served as the principal director for European/NATO policy at the Pentagon. Smith lives in Washington with her husband and two children. Smith is a co-editor of Shadow Government.
Has it really only been a month? We wish we could say that Trump surprised us, but from the minute he took the oath of office one month ago today, he hasn’t: This has been the worst, most unsettling start of a new president in modern memory. This period is supposed to be the honeymoon. Yet there has been so much churn and breaking news it’s hard to keep up. While the drama has provided plenty of fodder for the readers (and writers) of Shadow Government, it has been very damaging to the country. But how much? It’s important to step back and reflect on the top ten things we have learned in recent weeks — and what this means for the future.
1. Process, process, process. Washington wonks love to talk about process, but the sloppy and rushed way in which the administration rolled out its Executive Order on immigration makes the best case for why process really matters. On the merits, we think the EO is a terrible, self-defeating policy to address a phony threat. As Michael Morell pointed out, there is little evidence that refugees or immigrants are terrorist threat to the United States — the real risk is homegrown radicalization, which the discriminatory EO may contribute to. The suspension of legal migration from seven Muslim-majority nations also risks complicating cooperation with counterterrorism partners across the Muslim world (with Iraq being a notable case in point).
But even for those sympathetic to Trump’s actions, the EO could have been met with far more applause among Republicans if the administration had shown basic competence — taking the time to include the interagency, brief Capitol Hill, line up its surrogates, and ensure that organizations like Customs and Border Control had a clear understanding of how the order would be implemented in practice, particularly in regards to Green Card holders. Beyond the EO debacle, other failures of process include the green lighting of the Jan. 28 Yemen raid (in which one U.S. Navy Seal and numerous civilians were killed) over dinner without interagency deliberation, and the absence of any clear process to review responses to early provocations by Russia and North Korea. (The frantic review of documents on the North Korea missile launch by cell phone light at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort doesn’t count).
2. Who is speaking for whom? The administration continues to present two sides to every story — one presented by the White House (often in the form of a presidential tweet) and another presented by cabinet officials like Secretary of Defense Mattis. The mixed messages are making it hard for anyone — Trump supporters, the press, or our allies — to get the ground truth on U.S. policy on Russia, North Korea, the Islamic State, alliances like NATO, and Iran. One month in, what’s striking is that aside from all the noise and bluster, U.S. policy on these issues has not changed much from the Obama approach. The outcome may or may not be good (depending on your perspective), but the confusion and contradiction is dangerous. It befuddles allies and emboldens adversaries.
3. Staffing gaps are a YE-HUGE problem. Trump prides himself on the speed with which his administration has made cabinet picks (which in reality was an average pace). But his team has been setting records for the slowest appointment of second and third tier political appointments — the folks who actually make the machinery of government run. Four weeks in, not a single foreign policy official has been named below the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense.
Partly this reflects a reluctance of many qualified candidates to be associated with this administration (such as retired Navy Vice Admiral Bob Harward, who passed on the National Security Adviser job); partly it reflects Trump’s own vindictiveness toward anyone who criticized him during the election (as the torpedoing of Elliot Abrams demonstrates); and partly it reflects the disorganization and total lack of preparation to govern on display during the transition that persists today. And even if they start naming deputy, under, and assistant secretaries soon, this problem will go on for several months given the time it takes to get nominees confirmed.
The NSC staff, meanwhile, is in a full tailspin. Professional NSC staff have been marginalized from the outset, and many of the political appointees who had been hired at the senior director level were Mike Flynn people not well known to the Trump team or the foreign policy establishment. With Flynn gone, their futures are very much in doubt.
4. Kremlingate isn’t going away. Given Flynn’s unceremonious departure over his calls to the Russian Ambassador during the transition and his supposed misrepresentation of those calls to his own colleagues (including Vice President Pence), the story about Trump’s ties to Russia can’t simply be swept under the rug (as both the administration and some Republicans in Congress hope). There are too many unanswered questions: Why would Flynn reassure the Russians that their interference in the U.S. election could be smoothed over? Did Trump know about Flynn’s engagements ahead of time (given that Trump clearly approved of the outcome — Russian restraint in the face of Obama’s sanctions — after the fact)? Was there collusion between those in the Trump campaign and Russian officials involved in passing hacked information to WikiLeaks? These are only some of the questions likely to dog — and potentially consume — the administration in the coming months. The demands to launch a bipartisan investigation — or, potentially, a 9/11-style commission — into what Russia did during the election last fall and the connections between Trump campaign officials and Russia are only getting louder.
5. Competing centers of gravity at the White House only bring dysfunction. At present, the U.S. government and our friends and allies have to navigate three separate centers of power inside the White House: the NSC, White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s newly minted Strategic Initiatives Group (SIG), and Jared Kushner. We’ve heard that key ambassadors are being told to engage with Kushner, not the NSC staff. In addition to creating real uncertainty about who is in charge, those three centers of power are raising serious questions about the decision-making process more broadly. And as the vacuum and dysfunction at the NSC persists (see problem 3), the influence of parallel national security structures that involve no interagency input — especially the SIG — will likely grow (worsening problem 1).
6. For all the big talk, major shifts in national security policy have yet to be seen. Trump’s rhetoric, early-morning tweets, erratic personality, and scratchy phone calls have unsettled many of our closest allies and partners, and left many around the world worried about the course Trump plans to set. Yet despite expectations that the Trump team would shred the Iran deal, cut a grand bargain with Russia (starting by lifting sanctions), launch a new plan on defeating the Islamic State, move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and push back on China from an economic and trade perspective, the world has seen little in terms of major changes in policy. Maybe this is because of incompetence, lack of bandwidth, or White House infighting (see 1, 3, and 5) — or maybe it is because like so much else, Trump just talked his way into these policies without any real desire to follow through. We hope it is the latter, because actually following through with Trump’s foreign policy agenda would create massive problems for U.S. national security.
7. Mattis is becoming too big to fail. Allies and many across Washington (including some of us) regularly cite Secretary of Defense Mattis as the guy that will save us by injecting sanity into the administration. His stature has only grown in the last month, as he has been sent abroad to sooth allies in Asia and Europe (and soon the Middle East), and by the fact that Trump says he would defer to his favorite Mad Dog on issues like torture and the campaign against the Islamic State. Senator John McCain is putting it all on Mattis as well, almost encouraging him to just pretend the White House doesn’t exist. So Mattis is quickly becoming too big to fail: Just imagine how the press, the Washington community, and the world would react if rumors started speading that Mattis was ready to walk because he couldn’t work with the Trump White House.
But Mattis’s job is not going to get any easier: His comments in Brussels this week about European defense spending — in which he tried to reassure NATO of America’s commitment, while suggesting that commitment may be “moderated” if NATO allies to pay more for their own defense — show how challenging his tightrope walk will be. What will happen when Trump overrules Mattis on an issue that could fundamentally compromise U.S. security or American values? And what will happen if the gap between what Mattis and the president believe — and what Mattis does contrary to White House desires — grows over time?
8. Trump will not change. Last year, all of Trump’s opponents — in the Republican primary, and Obama and Clinton during the general election — agreed on one thing: that he is temperamentally (and many would drop the “temper”) unfit to be leader of the free world. Trump is erratic, self-absorbed, intellectually un-curious, and vindictive. And he lacks two of the most important traits a successful president must have: humility and empathy. Even the most talented team managing the most rigorous, well-run process can’t make up for the fact that Trump is Trump; he will not change. Remember all those folks who thought that once in the White House, Trump would become more normal? Sad!
9. Checks and balances sort of working? Despite all the drama, we’ve also seen early signs that, despite all the fears of creeping authoritarianism under Trump, elements of America’s democratic system are pushing back. Civil society has mobilized enormous protests and marches across the country. Courts have blocked the immigration EO (for now). The professional bureaucracy is raising concerns, and bringing them to light (the State Department dissent cable on the EO, signed by more than 1,000 diplomats, is a good example). And the media (not to mention every late night talk show, led by Saturday Night Live) is calling out Trump and speaking truth to power (the Flynn resignation is an early sign of impact). So far, the one institution doing little to rein in Trump’s abuses is Congress. Democrats in the Senate have doggedly grilled Trump nominees, and support is building on both sides of the aisle for a thorough investigation into Kremlingate. But the big question remains: when Trump’s actions compromise our security and shared values, will the GOP leadership in Congress step up?
10. Strap yourselves in, because the real test is still coming. Trump likes to claim that he inherited a mess at home and abroad that he alone can fix. But what’s remarkable is how every part of this month of perpetual crisis has been self-created: The world has not thrown him many curveballs — the closest one was the North Korea missile test that will forever be remembered for christening the Mar-a-Lago SitRoom. Trump has brought all of this on himself. And in a weird way, he’s been lucky: Unlike Obama in 2009, Trump inherited a situation at home and abroad that was relatively good (the United States is not in the midst of an economic meltdown and does not have 170,000 troops in combat).
So this brings us to the scary part: There is nothing we have seen in the last month to suggest Trump or his team will handle a crisis well. In fact, there are ominous signs to expect the opposite. When there is an Orlando-style attack; or a North Korea ICBM test; or a meltdown in Venezuela that sparks a refugee crisis in our hemisphere; or a natural disaster like the 2010 Haiti earthquake; or something we’re not thinking of (one of the scarier scenarios is a terrorist attack on a Trump hotel abroad), we have to expect that Trump and his team will not only act with incompetence, but use such events to justify all sorts of policies at home and abroad that will only further undermine America’s position in the world — and test our constitutional system.
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