Democracy & Elections

The Burden on Donald Trump

Benjamin Wittes
Wednesday, November 9, 2016, 5:40 PM

Donald Trump, whether he understands it or not, has won the presidency with a unique burden: Most serious national security experts regard him not merely as weak and unprepared for the roles of Commander in Chief and the country’s leader in foreign policy, but as an affiirmative national security threat.

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Donald Trump, whether he understands it or not, has won the presidency with a unique burden: Most serious national security experts regard him not merely as weak and unprepared for the roles of Commander in Chief and the country’s leader in foreign policy, but as an affiirmative national security threat.

When we founded this site more than six years ago, I never in my wildest dreams imagined myself writing these words about a man who will take the oath of office as President of the United States. We began Lawfare on the assumption that the U.S. federal executive branch was a tool with which to confront national security threats. While I accepted that its manner of doing so might threaten other values—like civil liberties—or prove counterproductive in protecting national security goods, I never imagined I would confront the day when I ranked the President himself among the major threats to the security of the country.

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Today, we have to confront that possibility. We have to confront it because of several distinct baskets of concerns about Trump:

  • his often bizarre, erratic, and egomaniacal behavior that raises serious questions about his management of foreign and military affairs, particularly in a crisis or a situation in which he is insulted;
  • his oft-expressed illiberal attitudes about religious and ethnic minorities and foreigners;
  • his promised abuses of power with respect to free speech and the press and in the context of overseas conflict;
  • the strange affinity he has shown for Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, combined with his campaign’s numerous and unexplained entanglements with Russia and Russia’s intervention in the presidential campaign to his apparent benefit; and
  • his rejection of mainstream foreign and defense policy thinking on matters as basic as the American commitment to traditional allies.

I have spelled out my concerns on these points at great length (see also here and here), as have many others of both political parties. They are, in fact, not really my concerns so much as a broadly shared set of anxieties about the man whom the American people have chosen to the lead them. The Washington Post reports today that “A palpable sense of dread [has] settled on the intelligence community.” The Post is understating the matter.

My point here is not to reiterate the concerns about Trump. It is too late for that; the time for persuading our countrymen not to elect the man has passed. My point now is to emphasize that because of these concerns, this is no normal presidential transition, and to acknowledge that Trump’s victory fundamentally changes how I understand what I do as a national security legal writer and analyst.

Today’s concession speech today by Hillary Clinton (“We owe [Trump] an open mind and a chance to lead”) combined with the statement later by President Obama on the transition (“Everybody is sad when their side loses an election, but the day after we have to remember that we're actually all on one team … We all want what’s best for this country”) create a veneer of normalcy about the Trump transition. But the veneer is a thin one.

At one level, I agree with Clinton: a patriot always hopes for a successful presidency.

And I agree with Obama too: We all want what’s best for the country, and a successful president is certainly best for the country.

But there’s a risk, in saying these things, of normalizing Trump’s ascendancy. His victory triggers certain path dependencies associated with the peaceful transition of power, and those path dependencies have a soothing feel to them. We will talk about presidential appointments and policy priorities. And with respect to many domestic and economic matters, I suppose that all makes sense.

The problem is that it also has a way of whitewashing the multiple reasons to fear a Trump presidency on national security grounds. And that’s dangerous. Because winning an election doesn’t make normal or okay the things Trump has promised to do: killing terrorists’ families, torture, banning Muslims from the country. It doesn’t make normal or okay the erratic personal behavior, late-night tweet-storms, or inability to restrain himself from taking the bait when taunted. It doesn’t make okay or less scary his rejection of the conventional American defense posture.

So while I of course hope for a successful Trump presidency, I know of only one way Trump can succeed in the national security arena. And that is by radically changing the reckless persona he embodied during a long campaign—changing how he behaves, changing what he believes, changing what he aspires to do, acquiring a sense of restraint, and changing the way he talks about people and groups. And while I agree with Clinton that we owe Trump a chance to lead, the burden is on him to make these changes, not on us to suspend disbelief and pretend we live in the world he has described.

I will be candid and confess that, Clinton’s admonition notwithstanding, my mind is not entirely open about Trump’s capacity to do this, or even his interest in doing it. I have, in fact, deep doubts. And that leaves me, and I think most of America’s national security community, in a very strange position.

Lawfare has always been committed to straight-shooting commentary on the intersection of national security, law, and policy. That will never change. We are not a political site. We have a politically diverse collection of writers, all chosen without regard for their political views but for their expertise in our subject matter. Each of our senior contributors is entitled to write on matters on which he or she sees fit. We don’t tell anyone what to say. The following is, therefore, not Lawfare policy or a statement of editorial position. It is a statement of my own intentions only.

Trump’s election will fundamentally change my work on this site over the next few years, and probably off the site too. Because at least for me, Trump does not enter office with a presumption of regularity in his work. He does not enter office with a presumption that as President he will pursue a vision of what national security means that is remotely related to my own or that he will do so in a rational fashion—or even that he and I share a common idea of what aspects of this nation we are trying to secure. I take what he has said, over a long period of time now, too seriously for that.

So in a way I never did with George W. Bush or Barack Obama or Bill Clinton—the other presidents I have covered as a journalist or analyst—I will write about the actions of the Trump presidency with the working assumption that our nation must be protected both by and from the president. I will support him and dispassionately analyze policy and law related to his functioning as the lawful executive responsible for the nation’s security. But I will always also keep the sharpest of eyes out for the areas where he himself is the threat and dispassionately analyze policy and law related to the threat he poses.

I am honestly not sure at this stage whether the threats posed by the president or against which the president will protect us will be the higher priority.

It’s the peculiar burden of our president elect, a burden entirely of his own making, that this sentiment is not at all eccentric. I have heard from numerous officials over the last few months, and the last few hours, articulating variations of the same theme.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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