Trump Finally Has the Dangerous Foreign-Policy Process He Always Wanted
The U.S. president's new national security advisor has replaced the White House’s previous chaos with a new type of dysfunction.
In the days after the drone strike that killed Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, President Donald Trump took to working the club rooms at his Mar-a-Lago resort. More than new year holiday greetings, reports suggest the commander-in-chief was looking for approbation about the decisiveness behind the drone strike. It’s safe to assume Trump’s will continue to fish for compliments in tonight’s State of the Union address.
Grading on a curve weighted by the president’s mismanagement of U.S.-Ukraine relations, which resulted in a pressure scheme for political dirt on a rival and the impeachment trial that’s scheduled to end tomorrow in the U.S. Senate, the revelations to date about the Soleimani decision suggest a policy process that is improved in at least one respect. For one thing, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien appears to have been in the loop while Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, does not.
But as Trump’s seeks credit and his fractious and frustrating relationship with those serving in government enters its fourth, and potentially final, year, it’s worth seriously exploring what the Soleimani strike reveals about the president’s decision-making. A review of what’s been reported so far suggests some of the same pathologies that led to so much trouble in Ukraine are not a bug but a feature of Trump’s statesmanship. Unfortunately, as the president escapes punishment in the Senate, that flawed process risks becoming more dangerous.
The Trump team struggled from the start with so-called “interagency relations,” the traditional give-and-take with the state, defense and other departments. As leery officials waited in government conference rooms in 2016, the president-elect’s transition teams arrived late and unprepared when they showed up at all. Trump’s first attempts to put his stamp on government, like the ill-fated plan to put controversial political advisor Steve Bannon on the vaunted interagency Principals Committee, or PC, that’s typically the domain of cabinet-level appointees, deeply concerned those used to the way Washington had worked for decades.
Trump and the government struggled to overcome their differences in part because of one of their few agreements about process. At the administration’s start, he and many in the bureaucracy shared a belief that a heavy-handed President Barack Obama had micromanaged national security in interagency meeting after meeting. Reducing the schedule of sessions fit Trump’s attention span and preference for delegating even as it offered some freedom to the bureaucracy; but no one could really formulate a process to fill the void.
Upon the quick resignation National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, H.R. McMaster tried valiantly to put the interagency relations on a firmer foundation, including the removal of Bannon from the PC. Before his first day, McMaster asked every living former national security advisor for advice on how the regular order might serve an irregular president. Unfortunately, their recommendation—“honest brokering,” ensuring Trump heard everyone’s views—put McMaster in the middle of the fight between a resistant government and a recalcitrant Trump and in the position of advocating for unwelcome convenings and compromises.
After tiring of McMaster’s attempts to broker, Trump named former UN Ambassador John Bolton national security adviser in April 2018. Though it’s an open question what advice Bolton sought before his first day, he went about finally breaking the president loose from the government. The national security advisor became the only tenuous connection between a shrinking, informal circle of aides who met with Trump and the rest of permanent government. The result was a “zombie” interagency that went through the motions and some of the meetings but without the animating pulse of presidential intent.
But when Bolton fell out of favor for pushing hawkish views (and, if one believes hints from his leaked book manuscript, resisting the early hints of the Ukraine scheme), that already tenuous connection was lost. The government shattered: the president and a few aides pursued one scheme, the career bureaucracy implemented another policy all together, and the national security advisor was powerless to improve either effort. Leaving aside questions of legality and impeachment, this is no way to run government—or confront the vast challenges posed by Iran, China, North Korea and more.
That may be one of the few agreements that came out of the House’s impeachment hearings and Senate’s trial, which exposed the fundamental governing challenge of the Trump era. After three years in office, Trump continues to see the presidency as a guarantee of personal fealty from the federal bureaucracy rather than an invitation to the grinding work of getting the government in line with his preferred policies. Meanwhile, with few opportunities to have a say or influence the commander in chief, some of the permanent government appears as resistant as ever, willing to try to wait until Trump’s fate is decided on Election Day.
Even as some of Bolton’s charges testified on the Hill, his replacement Robert O’Brien, a California attorney who had served in the Trump State Department, was trying to pick up the pieces of government. In a Washington Post op-ed, the new national security advisor made clear the goal was not interagency business as usual. In order to pursue Trump’s “vision for a lean, efficient government,” O’Brien sought to cut the NSC staff, the president’s representatives to the interagency, by a third or 60-70 staffers—a target he’ll reportedly meet this month.
That staff design reflects the sort of process the Soleimani reporting reveals. In addition to the president and O’Brien, the decision-making circle on Iran earlier this year was small, including in secure calls and discrete meetings Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley. Although it includes many statutory members of the National Security council, it resembles an informal, ad-hoc gang in which members share views and keep secrets—including from their own agencies.
That sort of gang appears to be a good fit for Trump, who has spent all of his adult life in a family business driven by his whims and staffed by obedient children. It also allows for the president to organize little coalitions of the willing, advisers keen to pursue relatively discreet, one-off objectives like shaking down Ukraine or striking Iran. And a smaller, like-minded, agreeable circle gives the president an inflated perception of his own power and flexibility, in part by limiting input from the government’s bureaucrats, lawyers, and more.
For that reason, despite the messy days after the strike, the whole experience appears to have inspired some confidence about the president’s new team and its approach. One senior official told the Post the hit on Soleimani was “tremendously bold.” O’Brien has been out front, doing rounds of press interviews and presumably cooperating with reporters seeking to write up the tick-tocks of the process. An ally of the president said the new team “understand the president. They have chemistry among themselves.” The result, according to one former official is “less introspection, less debate and faster action.”
The whole thing, at least to O’Brien, feels (John) Kennedy-esque. The 35th president was also sure his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower had been too deliberative and government too sclerotic. Kennedy wanted to make bold, imaginative, flexible decisions for a dynamic new decade in give-and-take sessions with a small club of educated, ambitious advisers. What was Camelot, after all, if not a glamorous gang? Some of its members even called themselves the “Irish Mafia.”
Although some warned the young president about such an approach, it has some fans. Turns out, they include O’Brien, who points to Kennedy’s approach as a model for the new Trump team. Even though many blamed the Kennedy gang for the Bay of Pigs fiasco that almost mortally injured the presidency in its early days, O’Brien sees their later handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis as proof of a concept for a smaller foreign-policy team.
Kennedy of course did find a way down from the brink in October 1962, but it is more appropriate to judge his process on an episode less than a year later. On Saturday, August 24, 1963, Michael Forrestal, a NSC staffer, encouraged the president on vacation at Hyannis Port via telegram to signal support for a coup being planned against Ngo Dinh Diem, the beleaguered South Vietnamese president. After the assent was cabled to Saigon and everyone returned to work on Monday, it was clear neither the National Security Advisor or chairman of the joint chiefs of staff had signed off on the idea.
Though Forrestal offered to resign and Kennedy admitted, “We fucked that up,” little effort was made to repeal the approval or avoid repeating the process foul. Within three months, Diem was shot in the back of an armored personnel carrier and Kennedy himself assassinated in the back of a convertible in Dallas, Texas. But his successor Lyndon Johnson made his most fateful, disastrous decisions about Vietnam in the casual, clubby process Kennedy had established and alongside many of the same gang members.
That history is important to remember today. The problem is not that Trump is doing things differently than Washington has done them in recent decades—the problem is that he’s doing things the way we know leads to disaster. “Group think,” the tendency for like-minded advisors to conform that drove so many Kennedy and Johnson decisions on Vietnam, explains both the decision Trump made on Soleimani and why it was so hard to explain to anyone outside the gang. Government by gang is better than no government at all but risky just the same.