Think of the intelligence community and its fragile array of secret relationships as a china shop. Think of President Trump as a bull, restless and undisciplined. For months, we’ve been watching the disastrous collision of the two.
Trump’s latest self-inflicted spy scandal was the disclosure this week that he had boastfully revealed to Russian visitors his knowledge of highly classified reports about threats by the Islamic State to attack planes with undetectable bombs hidden in laptops. This is the kind of secret intelligence that saves lives; bragging about it to foreign visitors was unwise, perhaps even reckless.
Then came the stunning reports Tuesday night that in February, Trump had asked FBI Director James Comey to drop his investigation into the Russia connections of Michael Flynn, whom Trump had just fired as national security adviser for lying about those same contacts. Trump’s alleged request may become a signature phrase: “I hope you can let this go.”
Observing this White House in action is sometimes like watching a horror movie. The “good guys” (and yes, there are a few) keep falling through trap doors. National security adviser H.R. McMaster, whose credibility is precious, struggled Tuesday to defend Trump’s actions in disclosing terrorism information as “wholly appropriate.” He said the president hadn’t even been aware of what country had provided the terrorism information. Israel, reportedly the source country, issued a statement endorsing its “intelligence-sharing relationship” with Trump.
If there’s no problem here, why did Tom Bossert, assistant to the president for homeland security, call the directors of the CIA and NSA to warn them what the president had told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak? The White House line is that Bossert was “freelancing.” Maybe so, but that’s not a bad word for Trump’s own behavior.
A crowning embarrassment: A Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman on Tuesday called The Post’s reporting on the intelligence leak “yet another fake.” This from the government that US intelligence agencies unanimously say meddled in the 2016 US presidential election? If this was a spy novel, it would be pulped as preposterous.
Trump is a daily reminder of why presidents need protocols and talking points. When someone as inexperienced and impulsive as Trump tries to wing it, the result is chaos or worse. The “Lawfare” blog, one of the most fair-minded chroniclers of national-security issues, reviewed the string of Trump’s recent actions involving intelligence and asked whether he was violating his oath to “faithfully execute the Office of President.” That’s a polite way of asking whether he should be impeached.
The threat to Trump’s presidency is deepening. His credibility is unraveling, with prominent Republicans now voicing concern about his erratic, impulsive decisions. Each new revelation builds the narrative of a man who has been trying to bully or cajole intelligence and law enforcement officials since his election. As one GOP veteran told me: “There are no guard rails for this president.”
Intelligence issues have been at the center of Trump’s troubles since before the election, animated by a strange mix of anxiety, insecurity and vanity. Last fall, he began calling reports of Russian election meddling a hoax; he later likened intelligence officers to Nazis; after his inauguration, he delivered a smug, self-congratulatory speech at the CIA’s hall of heroes; he reportedly pressed the FBI director who was leading the Russia investigation for a declaration of loyalty and then fired him after he didn’t deliver -- and allowed the White House to issue a misleading explanation.
And then Tuesday’s night’s allegation that Trump wanted the FBI to halt the investigation of Flynn, and concentrate instead on leaks.
Against this litany, Trump’s garrulous discussion of terrorism with the Russians strikes me as a secondary issue. Presidents get to decide what they want to tell foreign officials. But this incident is another warning light. Nations around the world are trying to decide how to deal with Trump -- whether to trust him with shared intelligence, military commitments and economic deals.
Every president encounters damaging leaks and other intelligence issues. During the Carter administration, The Washington Post revealed that Jordan’s King Hussein was on the CIA payroll. The station chief in Amman can’t have enjoyed that revelation, but the relationship continued.
The George W. Bush administration suffered catastrophic intelligence failures in the 9/11 attacks and in assessing Iraqi WMD, yet its intelligence relationships abroad were, if anything, deepened. The Obama administration inadvertently bolstered an Associated Press story revealing a British/Saudi penetration of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula -- a breech that infuriated foreign partners, but didn’t end cooperation.
The difference in Trump’s case is that he doesn’t seem sure whether the intelligence community is his friend or enemy. He attacks the CIA and FBI directors when he thinks they’re challenging his legitimacy. Then he boasts to Lavrov and Kislyak about what great intelligence he gets.
This presidential love-hate relationship with intelligence needs to change. It demeans the government and, just as important, it’s self-destructive. Intelligence relationships are built on trust. So are successful presidencies. The bull needs to get out of the china shop.
By David Ignatius
David Ignatius’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Ed.
(Washington Post Writers Group)