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Unfit to Command

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Photo by DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0

Photo by DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0

 

During the presidential campaign a significant number of former senior foreign policy and national security officials from both parties spoke in no uncertain terms about Donald Trump’s qualifications to be commander in chief. Let’s recall, for example, an open letter signed by more than 50 people who served in Republican administrations from Nixon to G.W. Bush. Here is part of what they wrote last August:

“From a foreign policy perspective, Donald Trump is not qualified to be President and Commander-in-Chief. Indeed, we are convinced that he would be a dangerous President and would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being. Most fundamentally, Mr. Trump lacks the character, values, and experience to be President. He weakens U.S. moral authority as the leader of the free world. He appears to lack basic knowledge about and belief in the U.S. Constitution, U.S. laws, and U.S. institutions, including religious tolerance, freedom of the press, and an independent judiciary. In addition, Mr. Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that he has little understanding of America’s vital national interests, its complex diplomatic challenges, its indispensable alliances, and the democratic values on which U.S. foreign policy must be based. At the same time, he persistently compliments our adversaries and threatens our allies and friends. Unlike previous Presidents who had limited experience in foreign affairs, Mr. Trump has shown no interest in educating himself. He continues to display an alarming ignorance of basic facts of contemporary international politics. Despite his lack of knowledge, Mr. Trump claims that he understands foreign affairs and “knows more about ISIS than the generals do.”

The letter went on to say that Trump “lacks the temperament to be President,” citing (among many other attributes) his impetuousness, lack of discipline, and inability to “separate truth from falsehood.” It was a devastating attack.

Trump survived. But his critics weren’t wrong then, and they’re not wrong now. His arrogance is unbounded, his ego fills a room. As he said, “I’m somebody that really gets it.” He says “nobody really knows” about climate change; it’s a Chinese hoax. Intelligence briefings aren’t necessary because “I get it when I need it. I’m, like, a smart person.” Despite not using a computer, he knows “a lot about hacking.” “I also know things that other people don’t know” about Russia’s hacking—a claim he promised to explain but, of course, never did.

After months of disputing and criticizing the intel community, and then praising Julian Assange for agreeing with him that Russia did not hack, Trump backed away a day later, as usual trying to turn stupidity into wisdom and a lie into a truth. Said Trump: “The dishonest media likes saying that I am in agreement with Julian Assange—wrong. I simply state what he states, it is for the people to make up their own minds as to the truth. The media likes to make it look like I am against ‘Intelligence’ when in fact I am a big fan!” Surely it is mere coincidence that Trump tweeted that message the day before he was to be briefed by senior intelligence officials who would (once again) decisively identify the Russian government as the source of the hacking. It was also the day (January 5) that former CIA director James Woolsey quit as a senior adviser to Trump’s transition team. No doubt Woolsey found he could no longer tolerate Trump’s dismissive attitude toward the intelligence community.

Prior to his meeting with intelligence agency leaders on January 6, I fully expected that Trump would weasel-word his way around acknowledging Russia’s direct role. He didn’t disappoint, saying he had a “constructive” meeting, has “tremendous respect” for the intelligence people, and understood that “Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people were trying” (my emphasis) to hack US systems. Rather than acknowledge the intelligence community’s correctness in identifying what Putin’s Russia had very specifically done and aimed to do, Trump dodged: “there was absolutely no effect on the election . . .”—which of course was not what the intelligence community had investigated, was not within the scope of its work, and certainly was not what Trump or anyone around him could possibly know.

But of course Donald Trump is incapable of changing his mind in response to better information than he possesses. He’s never wrong, and must never apologize. (Read carefully the comments of Reince Priebus and Kellyanne Conway intended to suggest that Trump now believes the intelligence. They’re loaded with qualifications.) And that has profound implications for his conduct of national security. He has a set image of friends and enemies that is not subject to new intelligence or changed behavior on their part. What that means is that no matter what the Chinese, the Iranians, the Mexicans, or the North Koreans might do, Trump will remain Trump. And once those folks figure this out, if they haven’t already, they will lose all respect for the American C-I-C, decide that negotiating with him is worthless and his actions unpredictable, and take action accordingly.

As for the Russians, Trump may insist, as he tweeted Jan. 7, that “Russia will respect us far more” once he’s president. But in fact he’s been compromised by both Putin’s and his own actions. Trump’s noble aim to reset relations with Russia will inevitably raise the question of the price he will pay, and assuredly Putin’s cooperation will not come cheaply.

Francis Wilkinson has an excellent analysis in the Bloomberg News on the systematic manner in which Trump is attacking US institutions. His motive has far less to do with policy differences than with personal power: He can’t abide institutions that are independent of his absolute authority. Trump’s assault on the media goes back many months: the media lies about him, it must be brought into line, the truth lies elsewhere (like Breitbart and, yes, The Enquirer), demean the media. The pattern is obvious now in the case of the intelligence community: first, you denigrate its work; second, you raise the prospect of its downsizing or restructuring; third, you assail its motives and arouse the troops (as when he called the hearings on Russian hacking a “political witch hunt”). Wilkinson maintains that Congress is next in line; and the Pentagon, Treasury, and the Supreme Court may well come after if Trump feels crossed.

Donald Trump, soon to be commander-in-chief, has become a threat not only to democracy but also to national security.

The report says: “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election. The US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion.”

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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