The current furor over the Trump campaign’s links to Moscow is still generating more heat than light. This morning’s news that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court last fall authorized tapping of his phones suggests there is fire as well as smoke. The FISA court would issue a warrant only if the requester demonstrates
probable cause to believe that the “target of the surveillance is a foreign power or agent of a foreign power,” that “a significant purpose” of the surveillance is to obtain “foreign intelligence information,” and that appropriate “minimization procedures” are in place.
The original report of the wiretap refers explicitly to FISA authorization.
The vital question is whether there was coordination or cooperation with Russia’s concerted efforts to tilt the election in Trump’s direction. I haven’t seen an answer. Attorney General Sessions’ recusal from any investigation of the Moscow connection is no more than a procedural step in the right direction, one he should have taken even before it was revealed that he lied at his Senate confirmation hearing about contacts with the Russians.
The debate now is over a special prosecutor or an independent commission. I don’t really care which, so long as whoever investigates can collect and see all the intelligence available, without undue influence by the administration. That is no small order: it means independent people with courage, high-level clearances and a year, or more likely two, before we know the results.
That’s a long time to leave people in office who may have collaborated with a foreign power in getting elected. But at the same time it virtually ensures that President Trump will not be able to do anything really harmful with Russia. As Steve Walt tweeted this week, he would have to get a very good deal from President Putin in order to convince even the Republicans in Congress to go along. Presidents Bush and Obama tried hard and failed. Short of giving away Crimea, it is unlikely Putin would make a deal. Republican Senators have already made it clear they won’t put up with that.
Frustrated, Trump is likely to turn his venom on Iran. He won’t tear up the nuclear deal, because even the Israelis have come to believe it is better than no deal at this point, since the Europeans would not agree to reimpose sanctions unless the Iranians violate the agreement. But Trump might well push for more sanctions related to Iran’s missile program or more pushback against its forces and proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Bahrain. That however would give Iran good reason to solidify its alliance with Russia, making any attempt at rapprochement with Moscow even more unlikely to succeed.
So Trump’s bromance with Putin is not going to be consummated. Moscow knows and has already toned down its media enthusiasm for its favorite American presidential candidate. Trump is still enamored, but with H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser and James Mattis as Secretary of Defense it will be hard to move the machinery of government into support for a bad deal with Moscow. Rex Tillerson, who might feel differently, is proving a non-entity at the State Department, where he is fighting a rearguard action against giant budget cuts rather than contributing to foreign policy.
The Trump Administration has anyway done little to clarify its distinct foreign policy views other than intensifying drone strikes in Yemen, canning the Trans Pacific Partnership intended to counter increasing Chinese influence in the Asia Pacific, and claiming to have started on design of the wall with Mexico. Mostly Trump has abandoned his previous radical views. He is not moving the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, nor is he abandoning the NATO Alliance. Even renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement is looking dicey, because Mexico and Canada have made it clear they will come to the table with their own demands. Trump has now reaffirmed the One China policy.
The Administration has not however changed its radical view on the European Union, which Trump regards as disadvantageous to the US. He should consult his friends in Moscow on that subject: they are determined to block expansion of EU membership and influence, which Putin views as an instrument that benefits the US. Trump could learn a lot from Putin, if only he would stop liking the guy (and doing his bidding) and start understanding that an autocratic Moscow is not democratic America’s best friend. That would require Trump to identify as a democratic leader, which he doesn’t. That’s the real Moscow connection.
President Trump of course said nothing like what I had suggested yesterday in his speech to Congress last night. The tone was marginally less objectionable than his “grab pussy” speech, but as SAIS colleague Eliot Cohen put it:
POTUS clunky speech seemingly judged a success because he did not sound like an unhinged, belligerent maniac.
Trump repeated virtually all of his worst domestic campaign promises: repeal Obamacare without specifying what should replace it, counter supposedly rising crime by blocking immigrants who don’t commit more crimes than natural born Americans, build an unneeded wall on parts of the border already difficult to cross, drop government regulations that protect Americans from ineffective or unsafe pharmaceuticals, build pipelines that don’t increase American energy security even though the economics no longer justify it….
The only domestic proposition I agreed with is his $1 trillion for infrastructure, but that’s pretty much what Obama wanted to do too. The Republicans in Congress wouldn’t let him.
The only real adjustments were a pledge of support to NATO (but not the European Union, which is arguably just as important to US interests) and a denunciation of hate crimes, which he should have made weeks ago. China went almost unmentioned, he skipped North Korea’s nuclear weapons and Russian interference in the American election, and forgot about climate change entirely. He offered no indication of how he is going to defeat ISIS.
The moment that struck me as most inappropriate was the exploitation of Ryan Owens’ widow (her husband was killed in a botched raid in Yemen that Trump personally approved), who was present in the gallery. I gather veterans shared my reaction:
But the Congress provided the desired long and loud applause.
The public display of a tearful grieving widow for political purposes grates the wrong way with me, but obviously I’m not with the program. Trump thought McCain wasn’t a hero because he was captured. By what logic does Trump think Owens is a hero because he is dead? Wouldn’t logic suggest that Trump prefers fighting men not only uncaptured but also alive?
The press is celebrating the more moderate tone of the speech, exemplified best in Trump’s refraining from criticizing the media. Some people are easy to please.
Throughout the speech, Trump was glued to his Teleprompter. No doubt within 48 hours he’ll be back to saying the things he really means in the acerbic tones that come naturally to his pouting mouth and short fingers.
The appointment of H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser is one more step in trying to hem in President Trump on national security policy. He remains in charge of immigration, health care, trade and many other subjects, but the Washington establishment (aka “the blob”) is trying to reassert control of some important foreign policy issues:
- Vice President Pence has been in Europe reassuring the NATO allies of the Administration’s wholehearted commitment to the Alliance and openness to partnership with the European Union, despite the President’s often expressed skepticism of both.
- Defense Secretary Mattis has done likewise with NATO and also visited Baghdad, in part to reassure the Iraqis that we are not, as the President has suggested we would, going to “keep” their oil (whatever that means).
- H.R. is well-known for his book criticizing the generals for not objecting to escalation of the Vietnam War–he isn’t likely to stand by idly if Trump pursues courses of action that can’t be justified or sustained. Nor is he likely to ignore or denigrate the intelligence community.
- Secretary of State Tillerson has been reassuring Ukraine of America’s support, including on Crimea, and calling out the Russians for failure to implement the Minsk 2 agreement.
- Republican Senator McCain has trashed Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin, with Senator Lindsey Graham and other Republicans cheering him on amidst growing pressure for serious investigations of the White House’s Russian connections.
With those holes plugged, the main thrust of White House thinking about foreign and national security policy still has two major outlets: Iran and North Korea.
The nuclear deal with Iran is safe because the Europeans have made it clear they will not reimpose sanctions if Trump undermines it and the Israelis have told Trump they prefer the current restraints to none at all. But Tehran’s support for Bashar al Assad in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shiite militias in Iraq gives people in Washington heartburn. Despite the nuclear deal, Tehran has few friends in DC because it has been far so aggressive in pursuing its regional interests.
The May 19 Iranian presidential election is already raising the political temperature in Tehran. The Revolutionary Guard is doing military exercises and shooting off missiles, though it is not clear whether any of them since General Flynn’s “notice” violate UN Security Council resolution 1929:
Iran is prohibited from undertaking any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons and States…
President Rouhani is feeling the heat, both from the Iranian right wing and from the Americans. Reformists have no one else to vote for, so he will likely to tilt towards the hawks in an effort to improve his prospects, which are good but by no means unassailable. He is also trying to improve relations with the Gulf Arabs, which would solidify his claim to restoring Iran’s influence and prestige in the region.
North Korea is the far easier and more worthy target. Let’s not even consider North Korea’s assassinations, human rights abuses against its own population, and oppression. Kim Jong-un is well on his way to getting missiles that can reach US bases in the Pacific and eventually the US West coast. The Chinese appear to be at their wits’ end with him. The problem is this: no one knows what, if anything, will bring the North Koreans to heel. If we were to try and fail, Pyongyang can retaliate with massive artillery barrages against Seoul. He could even use a few of his nuclear weapons.
If the establishment professionals succeed in their effort to hem Trump in with respect to Russia, Ukraine, NATO, and Iraq’s oil, he still has the opportunity to make a giant hash of things. The President is in charge. Getting Iran and North Korea right will not be easy, especially if the President decides he is better off listening to Steve Bannon than H.R. McMaster. Bad judgment is Trump’s consistent vice. He can get the United States into a lot of trouble.
The foreign policy establishment is beginning to bite back. While President Trump was outperforming even by his own low standards in a press conference Thursday, Senator McCain, Secretary of Defense Mattis, Vice President Pence, and Secretary of State Tillerson were busy in Europe declaring their unqualified commitment to the NATO Alliance, urging the allies to meet their 2014 commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense by 2024, opposing any softening with Russia on Ukraine, denouncing those who doubt Western values, and lauding the post-World War II liberal international framework. Trump likely wasn’t listening–he doesn’t even listen to the questions asked at his own news conference–but no doubt his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, heard what amounts to a cabinet and Congressional rebellion against his boss.
The courage to talk this way comes in part from Trump’s truly miserable ratings with the American public. At 40%, his job approval rating one month into the presidency is the lowest on record:
|Trump||2017 Feb 13-15||40|
|Obama||2009 Feb 12-15||64|
|G.W. Bush||2001 Feb 19-21||62|
|Clinton||1993 Feb 12-14||51|
|G.H.W. Bush||1989 Feb 28-Mar 2||63|
|Reagan||1981 Feb 13-16||55|
|Carter||1977 Feb 18-21||71|
|Nixon||1969 Feb 20-25||60|
|Kennedy||1961 Feb 10-15||72|
|Eisenhower||1953 Feb 22-27||67|
He started lower than everyone else and has dropped more than all but Clinton:
|Initial approval||Mid-February approval||Change|
The American public views Trump as less trustworthy and well informed than his predecessors, as well as less able to get things done and to communicate:
Americans generally respect NATO:
They also think Trump has damaged America’s image abroad:
This is unprecedented: a president with radical foreign policy intentions whose appointees are speaking out in ways that amount to rejection of those intentions. They are trying to hem in the President and prevent him from pursuing the worst of his ideas.
Trump still is the president however. He may be hemmed in by his own minions on NATO and Ukraine, but he is still free to act elsewhere. Iran and Syria are the likely arenas. He won’t renounce the Iran nuclear deal, because the Israelis don’t want him to. But he may seek heightened confrontation with them in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, or Syria. He may also try for a partnership with Russia in Syria by abandoning support for the Syrian opposition and trying to ween Moscow from what I suspect is an unbreakable tie to Assad. No successor regime will be as friendly to Russian (and Iranian) interests as Assad has been.
Trump is also rumored to be considering deployment of more US troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State (ISIS). He wouldn’t be the first American president to seek to bolster his popularity at home by waging war abroad. But Americans seem to me tired of foreign interventions. ISIS, while dreadful, is a threat to individual American citizens–even to substantial numbers of them–but it is not an existential threat that can destroy the United States. Apart from North Korea’s eventual capability to deliver nuclear weapons to California, the only threat of that sort I see on the horizon is President Trump’s attack on America’s courts, its free and independent media, its Muslim citizens, and its domestic tranquility.
Donald Trump yesterday called his team a “fine-tuned machine” in a press conference that prompted one Republican senator to say “He should do this with a therapist, not on live television.” The President was unable to keep his cool even in response to a question about well-documented recent anti-Semitic incidents, instead berating the journalist for his hostility. My first question to would-be foreign government speakers in Washington is whether they can respond to a provocative question without attacking the questioner. After almost a month in office, Trump is still not ready for prime time.
Instead he is spewing falsehoods, making exaggerated claims for his own prowess and experience, denying well-established facts, and conducting a vituperative campaign against the establishment press. He is also promising to catch leakers who are filling the headlines with news about his campaign’s links to Russia and the related ongoing investigations, which could lead to criminal charges against his now resigned National Security Adviser. The chosen replacement is reported to have turned down the job, unable to get a commitment that he would be able to choose his own staff. Trump’s immigration ban, blocked in court, will be withdrawn and replaced with something the President says will be even better.
There is a fine-tuned machine in Washington, but it is not Trump’s White House staff or even his cabinet appointees, most of whom are making it through Senate’s confirmation. The US government’s permanent civil and foreign services are beginning to gain traction. That is apparent in Defense Secretary Mattis’ meeting with NATO allies, where he sought both to get them to spend more on defense (a well-worn talking point that pre-dates Trump) and to reassure them that the Administration is committed to the Alliance. It is also apparent in UN Ambassador Haley’s tough remarks about Russian aggression in Ukraine and Secretary of State Tillerson’s “listening” participation in a G20 meeting, even if he had trouble explaining the President’s remarks on Israel and Palestine to the French foreign minister.
Trump, who is more radical than conservative, will no doubt want to upend more of America’s traditional positions on international issues, as he did when he ditched the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership (delighting China) and suggested that the US was no longer committed to a two-state solution in the Middle East. He is said to be thinking about putting substantial numbers of US troops on the ground in Syria, to accelerate the liberation of Raqqa. But the bureaucracy is trying to hem him in and prevent thoughtless departures from established policy by Twitplomacy. Call it the “blob” or the “deep state,” but the professionals know there are good reasons for why we do what we do (and not what we don’t do). They want to ensure that policy changes are well crafted to avoid the kinds of chaos that the immigration ban generated.
The professionals are of course also protecting their own vested bureaucratic interests, from whence the leaks. Trump has all but declared war on the intelligence community and frozen out the State Department, preferring to rely on a National Security Council staff studded with military and former military officers. The nerds want their revenge. They got some with Flynn’s departure. They may target chief strategist Bannon and his side kicks as well, as they are all too clearly the guardians of Trump’s white nationalist radicalism.
Trump is driving a jalopy of his own making, not the Tesla he is entitled to as President. I dread the day he gets into the right driver’s seat and begins to make effective use of the deep state he is now fighting.
It’s hard not to celebrate the departure of General Flynn from the position of National Security Adviser. He was both pro-Russian and anti-Muslim beyond reason. A sworn enemy of the American intelligence establishment, he got caught by them talking sanctions relief with the Russian ambassador even before Donald Trump was sworn in. Then he allegedly lied to the Vice President about what was said. His comeuppance is well-merited.
Congressional Republicans are now pledging not to investigate him. Why would they do that? They are trying to contain the damage. Their reluctance suggests it is more than likely that Trump knew what Flynn was discussing with the Russians. Flynn’s testimony, or that of others cognizant of the contents of the phone calls, would call into question the President’s own behavior: did he authorize Flynn to discuss sanctions? Was he pleased that Flynn did so? Was this part of a broader scheme of accommodating Moscow’s interests?
The Congressional cover raises other questions: was it part of a deal to obtain Flynn’s resignation? Why wasn’t Flynn just fired? What are his non-disclosure arrangements with the Administration?
Whatever the answers, it is clear that Flynn’s resignation does not solve the basic problem, which is Trump’s unrestrained and so far unconditional desire for an improved relationship with Vladimir Putin. The President has never made it clear what he expects from this improved relationship, only that it would somehow magically make things better in the world. He also hasn’t specified what he would be prepared to give up in return: recognition of Russian annexation of Crimea? Southeastern Ukraine? Independence of Transnistria? Annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are already nominally independent? NATO accession of Montenegro, now on the Senate’s agenda for ratification? Further NATO expansion in the Balkans? NATO expansion further into Scandinavia? An end to American support for rebels in Syria?
These questions persist even without Flynn. Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson may restrain the White House from some particularly bad impulses, especially Trump’s inclination to ditch NATO altogether, but their leverage will be limited. If the President is prepared to pursue a rapprochement with Russia despite the failures recorded by his two immediate predecessors, he will no doubt pick a new National Security Adviser prepared to pursue his policy direction. I doubt that can be David Petraeus, who in any event is already tarred with the brush of security violations. But I trust there are lots of other people who will do the work if given the opportunity.
In the meanwhile, the resignation of the National Security Adviser (and according to the press his deputy) will throw a National Security Council already roiled by leaks into further turmoil. President Trump has already failed to respond with anything but a few thin words of support to Japan when North Korea tested a missile in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. He is looking unprepared for a crisis, which of course means that someone somewhere on earth is likely to think this is a good time to precipitate one. An already messy transition has unsettled America’s relationships across the globe and now seems likely to open the door to a serious security challenge.
It is easy enough to say good riddance to Flynn. But there are real risks involved in a presidency committed to cooperation with Putin’s aggressive Russia and unprepared to meet even the challenge of a North Korean missile test.