Trump’s Russia Scandal Is Already Swallowing His Foreign Policy

As investigations close in on the White House, the pressure will inevitably take a toll on its diplomatic agenda.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 27:  U.S. President Donald Trump listens while meeting with women small business owners in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on March 27, 2017 in Washington, D.C.  Investors on Monday further unwound trades initiated in November resting on the idea that the election of Trump and a Republican Congress meant smooth passage of an agenda that featured business-friendly tax cuts and regulatory changes. (Photo by  Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 27: U.S. President Donald Trump listens while meeting with women small business owners in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on March 27, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Investors on Monday further unwound trades initiated in November resting on the idea that the election of Trump and a Republican Congress meant smooth passage of an agenda that featured business-friendly tax cuts and regulatory changes. (Photo by Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)

On Aug. 8, 1974, President Richard Nixon famously gave an address to the nation in which he declared: “I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.” What’s mostly been forgotten is that 40 percent of that speech focused on foreign policy.

That’s of a piece with the entire 15-month period between the May 1973 appointment of Archibald Cox as special prosecutor to investigate the Watergate break-in and Nixon’s departure from the White House. The Nixon administration made consequential foreign-policy decisions throughout this time — from approving the U.S.-backed coup of democratically elected Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende in Chile; to authorizing Operation Nickel Grass, a strategic airlift to deliver weapons and supplies to Israel during the Yom Kippur War; to participating in two summits with Leonid Brezhnev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R., that resulted in limits on strategic nuclear weapon – that were undoubtedly influenced, in ways overt and subtle, by the mounting domestic pressures of the Watergate scandal and cover-up.

Which brings us to Donald Trump. America, and much of the world, is understandably fascinated with the circus of leaks, self-sabotage, and scandal currently emanating from the White House. The past 24 hours has brought a number of explosive revelations about the Russian interference in the election, and Washington is eagerly awaiting former FBI Director James Comey’s Thursday testimony. But Trump is likely to remain in the Oval Office at least until the various investigations into allegations of his presidential campaign’s cooperation with Russia are completed; if history is any indication, together these should take two or three years to finish. That’s long enough for important foreign policies to be devised and implemented (or not) and unforeseen crises to force Trump to respond (or not).

If you follow international relations and are interested in America’s role in the world, you’d be wise to divert your gaze from the daily headlines and reckon more seriously with Trump’s foreign-policy agenda. But you should also note that agenda won’t be static relative to the scandals that are engulfing his administration. In 1973, Anthony Lake and Leslie H. Gelb wrote a fascinating essay for this magazine titled “Watergate and Foreign Policy,” which outlined all the ways that scandal would influence Nixon’s foreign policy. Much of what they warned about happened, and all of it applies today.

Because Trump will have less time to focus on pursuing his foreign-policy agenda, the foreign-policy bureaucracy will have incentive to be more resistant than usual to dictates from Trump-appointed leaders, while bureaucratic entrepreneurs will have an invitation to expand their power and influence (as Henry Kissinger did under Nixon). Meanwhile, congressional Republicans, sensing the White House’s weakness, will be less likely to approve funding for Trump’s pet foreign-policy projects, like a 350-ship Navy or a border wall with Mexico. And foreign allies and partners, if they believe Trump is unlikely to serve out his entire term, will be less willing to support Trump’s specific diplomatic goals

Consider an issue at the center of Trump’s present diplomatic agenda: North Korea. The most alarming and potentially consequential foreign-policy change since Jan. 20 has been the Trump administration’s rhetorical approach to North Korea. After promising that the administration would “have no further comment,” senior officials made a series of escalatory demands on Kim Jong Un’s nuclear and missile programs and imposed a timeline for action on the United States by declaring “the clock has now run out” and “this problem is coming to a head.”

While telegraphing its desire to instigate a crisis with North Korea, the Trump administration has publicly articulated no plan or theory of success for how the “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula actually happens. And in conversations with White House, Pentagon, and State Department officials and staffers about North Korea, I have heard nothing that indicates such a plan exists. The default course of action — tried unsuccessfully by the last two presidents — is to further lean on Beijing to further lean on Pyongyang. This will not work. Two weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend a workshop in Beijing, where a well-connected Chinese foreign-policy scholar stated bluntly: “You have to understand, China is more afraid of the United States than it is of North Korea.” He further indicated that China’s leaders prefer the status quo of a nuclear-armed North Korea over working with the United States to further destabilize, or even topple, the Kim regime.

When China inevitably refuses to coerce North Korea as strongly, or on the timeline, that the Trump administration demands, then what? If the White House believes that North Korea has even a 10 or 20 percent probability of being able to successfully launch an intercontinental ballistic missile mated with a nuclear warhead onto the United States, I believe that Trump would authorize a preemptive attack against the missile-launch site (assuming it is an easily observable, liquid-fueled missile) and perhaps against known nuclear weapons-related facilities.

Military officials, including Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. forces in the Pacific, have acknowledged that Kim would not simply absorb such an attack but would immediately retaliate against South Korea. This would trigger America’s mutual defense treaty commitments to defend South Korea and spark a series of classified, pre-planned U.S.-South Korean military operations. When the Pentagon reviewed some version of this scenario in 1994 (before North Korea had a nuclear arsenal of at least a dozen bombs), it was estimated that such a retaliation could “cause hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of casualties.”

But a President Trump facing ever-expanding scandals, continually low polling numbers, and even potential impeachment proceedings may decide that a preemptive attack on North Korea is worth the costs and consequences. The academic findings are mixed on whether heads of government facing domestic vulnerability engage in such diversionary wars — uses of force to divert public attention and rally support for their leadership. Some analysts and scholars have examined whether George H.W. Bush’s 1989 invasion of Panama or Bill Clinton’s attacks on al Qaeda targets and Iraq in 1998 were examples of such diversionary tactics. What seems clear, however, is that presidents are more likely to engage in such diversions when they are inherently distrustful and perceive the world in simplistic black-and-white terms — a perfect characterization of Trump.

The other potential outcome to consider for the Trump administration’s conduct of foreign policy is for an embattled president to become further and further detached while remaining in office. Toward the end of his presidency, Nixon spent an increasing amount of time in his “Western White House” in San Clemente, California, while Henry Kissinger served as both secretary of state and national security advisor and effectively ran U.S. foreign policy. Before and during the Turkish intervention in Cyprus in July 1974, Kissinger would simply call Nixon to inform him of what Kissinger had decided. Since Trump has already bestowed “total authorization” to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, it is not unimaginable that the Pentagon chief could be notifying a president who has retreated to one of his properties of meaningful military decisions already underway.

People hoping Trump will go away will be disappointed if comparable investigations of presidents are any criterion. The open-ended Lawrence Walsh independent counsel investigation into Iran-Contra took six years and seven months; the Robert Fiske/Kenneth Starr independent counsel investigation into the Whitewater land deal lasted four years and four months; even the Archibald Cox-Leon Jaworski-Henry Ruth investigation of Watergate lasted two years and two months, wrapping up 14 months after Nixon resigned.

Robert Mueller’s team has reportedly gotten a quick start on setting up his office and forming a budget. However, it is improbable that this special counsel will deliver a final report much faster than his predecessors, and certainly not before the Nov. 6, 2018, midterm elections. Further leaks and scandals could increase the political pressure on Trump to such a degree that he resigns. But, while hoping or assuming this happens, it would be a grave mistake to ignore U.S. foreign-policy commitments and activities, and any shifts they might undergo under the influence of scandal.

Photo credit: ANDREW HARER/Pool/Getty Images

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.