Executive Branch

Trump as National Security Threat Revisited: A Scorecard

Benjamin Wittes
Wednesday, August 23, 2017, 11:32 AM

In March of last year, before Donald Trump was officially the Republican nominee for president, I raised on this site what I described as “a question I think [Lawfare] readers . . . need to consider seriously . . . : Is the putative GOP standard bearer a national security threat?”

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In March of last year, before Donald Trump was officially the Republican nominee for president, I raised on this site what I described as “a question I think [Lawfare] readers . . . need to consider seriously . . . : Is the putative GOP standard bearer a national security threat?”

I was not, I want to stress, the first person to ask this question. That distinction, I believe, goes to John Bellinger, who in December 2015 wrote a piece titled “Donald Trump is a Danger to Our National Security.” In that brief post, Bellinger argued that, "not only does [Trump] lack the national security and foreign policy qualifications to be President, he is actually endangering our national security right now by his hate-filled and divisive rhetoric. His statements contribute to fear and unrest at home and unsettle our friends and allies abroad. Trump’s tough talk may appeal to some voters but bluntness and bombast alone are not sufficient qualifications for a man who would be President."

My post three months later was the first effort—at least to my knowledge—to analyze in depth the numerous axes along which the Trump candidacy threatened American security interests. I wrote:

Never before in my lifetime has either political party been led by a man with such an unusual combination of—from a national security perspective, anyway—terrifying liabilities. Individually, each would be grounds for concern. In combination with one another and as embodied in a single political figure of extreme charisma and proven attractiveness to a significant swath of the electorate, they are a toxic brew that I have no doubt makes this country less secure. They do this, I suspect, even if Trump is not ultimately elected President but merely becomes the Republican nominee.

In particular, I identified seven distinct though overlapping liabilities.

With the Trump presidency now seven months old, I thought it might be useful to return to this post and ask three simple questions: (1) What did I get right—which is to say, which of my concerns were justified? (2) What did I get wrong—which is to say, which of my concerns were overblown? And (3) what did I miss? I pose these questions not to offer an accounting of my own acuity but because looking back at what was not merely predictable but also predicted offers insight into how surprised we should or should not be by Trump’s performance in office.

The bottom line? It was all quite knowable. My March 2016 post holds up extremely well, and not because I was especially prescient. It reads well because there is nothing especially surprising about Trump’s behavior in office. While the lived reality of the Trump administration would have me write certain things differently today, President Trump has been precisely the threat his candidacy portended.

Here are my concerns from March 2016, along with my evaluations of them today:

Concern No. 1:

Trump displays a near-total ignorance of international policy, military affairs, and intelligence and counterterrorism policy. Ignorance in a politician is often more norm than exception, but Trump’s ignorance is of a particularly proud variety. He’s not just going to mouth off bombastically about what to do in different parts of the world, but he never even pauses to fortify the bombast with facts or rudimentary knowledge. He is an unapologetic yahoo who quite literally has no idea what he’s talking about much of the time. He appears to have no interest in learning anything either about the complex international security environment in which the United States has to operate on a daily basis. And that is a very dangerous thing in a man who would be president.

There’s no surprise here. Whether in his interactions with foreign leaders or in public talk about North Korea, or about his predecessor’s alleged spying on him, or about white supremacist rallies and Confederate statues, ignorant bombast has been one of the hallmarks of the Trump administration. And we are paying for it every day.

Concern No. 2:

Trump has done more than any single person to undo two presidents’ earnest and consistent protestations that the United States is not at war with Islam. I have my doubts about whether Guantanamo has really been a major recruiting tool for the enemy. I have no shred of doubt, by contrast, that a promise to bar Muslims from the United States by this country’s president would be a major recruiting tool for the enemy. It certainly would be if I were running ISIS or Al Qaeda! These groups are premised, after all, on civilizational confrontation between Islam and the West. What better evidence could there be that the West is locked in a battle to the death with the umma than the insistence by the President of the United States—or even the Republican nominee for President of the United States—that no Muslim should be allowed to enter the country? What better way to make it impossible for critical Arab and Muslim allies to work with the United States? Why on earth would any sane Muslim cooperate with the law enforcement, intelligence agencies, or military of a country that would exclude him from its shores on the basis of his religion?

This problem has, in some ways, proven less bad than I expected—or, at least, the consequences of Trump’s anti-Muslim bigotry have so far have been muted. Trump has, indeed, larded his administration with certain people who harbor deep animus for Muslims. His rhetoric has been horrid. And the travel ban executive order sent a terrible signal of irrational anti-Muslim exclusion. These are evils in themselves, and we shouldn’t underplay those evils. That said, not everything that is bad is a national security problem. And at least to date, we have not seen a deep backlash from Islamic countries or Muslims worldwide resulting from the president’s distaste—some recruiting bonanza for ISIS or al-Qaeda, for example, or a refusal of Muslims domestically to work with law enforcement. In other words, this problem has been so far largely a moral one for the United States but not one that has triggered collateral national security issues. Those might well come, but we haven’t seen them yet.

Concern No. 3:

[C]ompounding this problem [of anti-Muslim bigotry] are Trump’s open promises to commit war crimes. I suppose it may be possible to “bomb the shit out of them” in a fashion that entirely comports with the law of armed conflict. It is not possible, however, to use interrogation procedures—as Trump has promised to do—much harsher than waterboarding without committing war crimes. Nor is it possible to target terrorists’ families without committing war crimes. So not only is Trump promising a civilizational struggle against Islam and the barring of Muslims from America’s shores, he is promising to conduct that civilizational struggle in a fashion that violates the most basic norms to which this country has committed itself.

This problem has definitely proven less severe than I worried. The reason is simple: Trump has backed off of these promises and has put in charge of the military a leader, James Mattis, who has no interest in committing war crimes. Put this one in the category of Trump’s bark being worse than his bite.

Concern No. 4:

[E]ven as he endeavors to undo the Bush and Obama administrations’ commitment to separating this country’s engagement with Islam from its struggle with its enemies, Trump openly flirts with America’s actual adversaries. I don’t know what to make of his repeated kind words for Russian President Vladimir Putin, but I think it’s fair to say that Trump has compromised himself with them. He has shown that for all his tough talk, at least where dictators are concerned, he’s actually a bit like a loud barking dog who dissolves in slobbery affection the moment some treat or praise gets thrown his way. Putin is not a fool. He has noticed, I’m sure, that he has gained a would-be client strongman in Trump, and that he has bought him unbelievably cheaply. He has noticed, I am also sure, that with only a modest amount of public ego stroking—a few stray words, really—he bought himself an ally at the top of the GOP field. He has had to pay a lot more, hard cash actually, for his European political allies. Trump likes to boast of the great deals he makes, but he sold himself to Putin for a pittance—and that has national security implications too.

I wrote these words before Russian election interference came to light, before the Trump-Putin bromance flowered into the scandal that today consumes the Trump presidency, before any emails were given by Russian intelligence to cut-outs to make public, and before talk of collusion or untoward meetings became the stuff of daily headlines. Particularly in light of those facts, the words I used are instructive in retrospect: “compromised,” “bought him,” “sold himself to Putin.” Let me reiterate: The Trump-Russia scandal is only secondarily about whatever covert activity may have taken place. It is primarily a scandal of legality that took place in plain view. That Trump had a profound Putin problem was eminently knowable based on the public record of what Trump was saying about Putin in real time.

Concern No. 5:

[T]his [Putin] point has an obvious domestic analogue: Trump's recent unwillingness to repudiate support from David Duke or the Ku Klux Klan. Praise Trump even a little and he is putty in your hands. This is a profoundly dangerous quality in an American president.

Again, many people professed surprise at the president’s reaction to what happened in Charlottesville. They shouldn’t be. He showed this aspect of his character only too clearly during the campaign. And the danger of that feature—that he would prove unable to provide moral or security leadership in the face of white supremacist violence—was naked at the time to anyone willing to see it.

Concern No. 6:

[T]hen there is the small matter of Trump’s—there’s no polite way to say this—evident clinical symptoms. I’m not a psychologist qualified to make a diagnosis, but it simply has to be significant that it’s hard to have a serious conversation about Trump without using words like egomania, grandiosity, or narcissism. I have never heard a politician spend a fifth as much time congratulating himself for being ahead in polls, for winning debates (whether or not he actually won them), for making great deals, or for being popular. His self-regard routinely crosses over into what I can only call the delusional. He promises to win voting groups that can be expected to vote against him by wide margins—as when he promises to build a giant wall to keep out Mexicans (who, please remember, are all rapists) yet simultaneously appears to think he will garner significant Latino support. This point is clearly related to the prior two points: His need for constant validation of his self-regard appears to fuel his inability to think ill of anyone—from a foreign dictator to a domestic white supremacist—who obliges him with praise. It is not in the national security interests of the United States to have such a man negotiating with people who can be expected to know at least as I do how much a little flattery will buy.

I understated this one considerably. Trump’s clinical portait turns out to be the defining national security threat he poses—indeed, the defining feature of his presidency. He is unable to restrain himself from tweeting. He is impulsive with sensitive, even classified, information. He focuses obsessively on enemies to the point of gravely warping his judgment. While I’m still not a clinician, I’m entirely comfortable saying that this is not a psychologically normal person. And the national security consequences of Trump’s psychology have been immense and pervasive. Countries have even tailored their interactions with the United States to appeal to Trump’s ego; remember that 10-story-tall picture of him projected onto a building in Saudi Arabia? Indeed, scratch any major national-security-related event that has happened since his inauguration, and Trump’s psyche plays some non-trivial role in the explanation for it. Remember the highly sensitive intelligence program of a U.S. ally that the president blew in an Oval Office meeting with the Russians? Remember the paranoid tweets about how President Obama was wiretapping Trump Tower? Remember the hostile calls with allied foreign leaders? Remember the “fire and fury” nuclear about North Korea?

Psychology matters in a president. Abnormal psychology matters a lot.

Concern No. 7:

Trump’s entire candidacy is predicated on a weird kind of magical thinking that has no place in serious policy discussion generally but is particularly dangerous in the national security sphere. Trump does not propose policy ideas. He identifies and promises outcomes. We’re going to do a lot of winning. We’re going to smash ISIS. We’re going to have great trade deals. We’re going to be tough. We’re going to bring back jobs. We’re going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it. We’re going to make America great again. He never proposes a modality for achieving any of these things. They're going to happen by force of personality and force of will.

I confess that I drew the wrong conclusion from this analysis. The paragraphs that follow it warn about the tyrannical dangers of letting this sort of magical thinking anywhere near the tools associated with the national security community. So far, tyranny has not resulted from Trump’s magical thinking. Instead, its consequences have been that Trump has been almost entirely ineffective in the national security space. One problem with magic, after all, is that it doesn’t work. As it turns out, the national security threat associated with Trump’s belief in magic, and in the magic of his own will in particular, has been that he’s been unable to run a competent executive branch capable of responding effectively to security issues foreign and domestic. This is a huge problem, but it’s not the problem I had imagined in 2016.

In retrospect, I missed a few big things. In particular, I missed the role that Twitter would play—as an ongoing window into the president’s mind for every foreign intelligence service in the world to scrutinize and as a mechanism for ill-advised and unfiltered impulsive public communications. I also got certain aspects of the balance wrong, overweighting the threats of tyranny relative to the dangers of incompetent blundering and incapacity. Looking forward, in other words, I am more concerned about the damage Trump will bring about as a result of the latter than the former.

In the main, however, the piece stands up very well. And there’s a reason for that. Trump’s candidacy promised to threaten U.S. national security across a number of different axes—and that is one promise on which he has emphatically delivered.

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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