The Dangers of President Trump's Incompetence
His recklessness doesn't necessarily weaken the executive branch. In fact the opposite may be true.
Let us not engage in overwrought responses to the likelihood that President Donald Trump abruptly revealed classified information from an ally to a couple of Russian officials who were in the Oval Office last week. There is a lot to chew over, and there are a lot of people with a lot of competing agendas who either want to scream that Trump is going to bring about a literal apocalypse or alternatively want to insist that everything is just fine and Trump didn't do anything wrong. This morning National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster held a press briefing and repeated several times that everything Trump said was "wholly appropriate" in the context of his meeting.
Rather than turning to the now established drum circles that accompany every outrageous Trump story (and the beating is particularly loud with this one), let's instead apply a healthy dose of Occam's razor both in analyzing what happened with Trump's disclosures and what likely consequences may come. Let's dispense with conspiracy theories and Nth-dimensional chess games and keep things simple.
The president likely said things he should not have.
While President Trump has the authority to declassify and release all sorts of information (including, by the way, any evidence that he was actually wiretapped or surveilled by the feds), some connected to the intelligence community are particularly concerned that Trump revealed extremely secretive operational activity provided by an ally that has the potential to reveal to the Islamic State where we're getting information and potentially jeopardize the identities of people involved.
It's also worth noting the history of freak-outs from the intelligence community and its advocates that every piece of leaked information—even from whistleblowers—is a threat to somebody's life, even when that turns out to be untrue or unprovable. That's what we were told about both Edward Snowden (who is still stuck in Russia to avoid federal charges) and Pvt. Chelsea Manning (who gets out of prison tomorrow). We are really not in a position to determine that Trump's disclosures actually threaten anybody's lives or that the Russians have any interest in jeopardizing anti-ISIS efforts.
The president is dumb, is boastful, and lacks any sort of discipline.
There really is no point in trying to pretend that what's obviously true about Trump is otherwise. He brags constantly, claims utterly bizarre things (like that he invented the economic metaphor "priming the pump"), has little attention span to speak of, and understands little of how government actually functions. There is no point in pretending he's not a severe narcissist even if you agree with some of his policy proposals (like deregulation). There are still consequences for these personality flaws that have to be analyzed.
The alarm bell being rung here is therefore a warning that, yes, Trump is very capable of causing a heck of a lot of damage without even being aware of what he's doing. The follow-up story on Trump's babbling is not so much on "OMG, more evidence of Russian collusion!" And thank God for that. Rather the concerns here are that Trump's loose lips will sink intelligence relationships with other countries and intelligence sources. They may be reluctant to share information with the United States and this could potentially make it harder to fight terrorism.
But that itself still falls within the area of speculation, and honestly many American allies in these political hotspots are dependent on the United States as the 500-pound gorilla in the room with the capability of magnifying force. Are countries like Egypt and Jordan really going to share less with the United States because of Trump's mouth? It's really hard to imagine that happening. But there's a much simpler, and perhaps more dangerous, potential consequence.
Trump will be cut out of intel and decision-making, and that's dangerous.
There were news reports already that the intelligence community is deliberately withholding information from Trump for fear he will leak it. The relationship between Trump and the intelligence community is, well, extremely strained. At the press conference this morning, McMaster said that America's national security was being put at risk not by the president, but by those who leaked the information to the Washington Post. But he also acknowledged that Trump decided on the spot during the discussion to reveal whatever information he chose to reveal without any sort of advanced vetting. He also said Trump was unaware of who the source even was of the information he was revealing. (UPDATE: According to The New York Times, the source of the information was Israel.)
At the same time, Trump is backing off on playing the kind of active role in military decisions played by his predecessor, Barack Obama, and leaving such calls to the generals and to the Pentagon.
It would be a major mistake to think that Trump's flailing about might result in the weakening in the power of the executive branch or even the presidency. Cutting Trump out of the loop and potentially out of decision-making puts us all in the position where a huge chunk of our own government is separated from the fundamental elements of a democratic republic. Like him or not, Trump was elected president (and no, the Russians didn't install him). He's the part of the executive branch responsible directly to the public.
If Trump's incompetence leads to an inability to actually oversee the parts of government he's responsible for, this does not make those parts of government weaker. It instead makes it less accountable. We will still have military strikes. We will still have surveillance. While it's useful to be rid of the technocratic worship of Obama as the "right man in charge," the massive expansion of executive power under Obama and previous administrations has remained, now being distributed downward through the chain of command.
Ultimately, that should be a deeply disturbing outcome from looking at this conflict logically. Trump lacks discipline and doesn't understand the complex issues involved and makes very poor decisions about what to say in sensitive environments. As a result, there are parts of the executive branch that may well be operating independently of him, and it's not the leaks that are the problem. It's the lack of responsibility. Trump's attempt to crack down on leakers will likely fail (thank God) because he's not terribly competent, and frankly it looks like he wouldn't have a staff afterward if they got them all.
There's nothing about the electoral process that guarantees that we'll get anywhere near some mythical concept of the "right person" in charge. We have a president who is wealthy, nasty, powerful, and not terribly smart. It may well have been inevitable at some point. And yet, there's still very little discussion or interest in scaling back the power of the executive branch in any way, even after Trump's administration weighs attacks on the free press. So far the best thing Trump has done, according to many pundits and newspapers (and to be very clear, not Reason), was a pointless, violent military strike on Syria.
Trump may be a particularly bad man and somehow both very stubborn yet also prone to manipulation, but his behavior and the consequences of it highlight the flaws of the power of the executive branch of the government. Do not make the mistake of ignoring the threats that come from this expansive level of power with any unique threats that come from Trump.