He gave the Russians sensitive info. Next stop on presidential improv tour, Middle East.
A trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican and a NATO conference would present challenges for even the most disciplined and diplomatic president, words not normally associated with Donald Trump. Is there reason for concern? The short answer is “yes” — unless the president stops his freelancing and sticks to a script.
Trump either had no script or went way off it in his meeting last week with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in the Oval Office. There he revealed details of a terrorism-related threat uncovered by an extraordinarily sensitive intelligence operation. The disclosure could jeopardize American security by tipping off enemies and leaving American allies less willing to share sensitive material. And, according to National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, “He made the decision in the context of the conversation.”
A recent story on the front page of The New York Times described aides to Trump as stunned and “slack-jawed” upon learning he had not just telephoned Rodrigo Duterte, the highly controversial president of the Philippines, but invited him to the White House. This announcement triggered considerable criticism given Duterte’s record of human rights abuses and anti-American statements.
What had transpired was plain and simple: the president was, once again, freelancing. He simply decided to issue an invite to his Philippines counterpart. Defenders of freelancing will say there is nothing wrong with it, that anyone elected president by definition has good political instincts. And presidents obviously have the authority to freelance. But there are risks associated with any president going off on his own without the involvement of his advisers. This is especially true in the case of someone such as Trump, who entered the Oval Office with no government experience and little familiarity with the issues.
In the Philippines case, the invitation was premature at best. A chance to come to the White House and meet with the American president is a big deal. A meeting with the likes of Duterte could lead to changes in his policy, but such a meeting should only be offered when such changes are all but guaranteed. Here the offer of a meeting signaled something very different: That you can criticize the United States and move closer to China and not only pay no price, you can reap a benefit.
Social media pose an additional problem. As Trump recently said, “Social media is the way to go. I have got over 100 million people watching.” Clearly, Twitter allows this president to reach people in the United States and around the world without the often critical filter of the mainstream media. But the “send” button can be all too easy to press; Trump is paying a price for his tweets, including a series undercutting his advisers’ assertions that he hadn’t disclosed sensitive intelligence to the Russians.
By definition freelancing avoids formal procedures for making policy. But process has its purposes. Meetings and memoranda can make sure relevant history and analysis are brought to bear, trade-offs identified and weighed, and the consequences for resources (from dollars to hours) considered. Such deliberation decreases chances that actions or statements will be ill-advised or lead to unwelcome results. Indeed, this was a principal reason the National Security Council process was established in 1947.
Most meetings are known and planned for well in advance. One hopes that will be the case on the president’s upcoming overseas trip, his first since moving into the Oval Office. It is one filled with pitfalls.
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Trump is giving a major speech on Islam in Saudi Arabia, whose leaders are looking for American backing against arch-enemy Iran. The president needs to reassure them without either getting the U.S. more involved in a potential quagmire in Yemen or walking away from a controversial agreement that for now constrains Iran’s nuclear program.
Israel, too, is looking for reassurance. Israeli leaders will pressure the president to make good on his promise to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — although doing so could trigger violence and set back what little chance exists for Israel-Palestinian reconciliation.
Avoiding a clash with a pope who is revered but with whom this president often disagrees will not be easy. Even more difficult could be talks with NATO allies on edge about a president who has questioned the value of NATO and revealed secrets to a Russian government that has used armed force to alter the map of Europe. There is already talk of reducing information sharing.
Sometimes what is done spontaneously and regretted can be walked back, and Trump has had considerable experience with that. But often there is a price to be paid for freelancing. Security once compromised cannot be fully restored. The same holds for a reputation, be it of an individual or a country. The temptation to freelance, like most temptations, ought to be resisted.
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