A few days old but worth your time, especially given the parallels it has with Trump’s tariff decision last week. The author of the LA Times piece doesn’t make that connection in the story but it’s the same process being played out domestically as in foreign affairs. On trade too, certain Trump advisors — namely, Rob Porter — were steering Trump towards outcomes they preferred by limiting his access to contrary information. (Specifically, limiting his access to hyper-protectionist advisor Peter Navarro.) Once Porter was nuked by scandal, Navarro began enjoying more time with the president. Sure enough, last week Trump suddenly decided to keep his campaign promise about tariffs. He’s an impetuous guy (see, e.g., Twitter) and famously prone to being influenced by the advisors he’s spoken to most recently. Go figure that more time with Navarro would push him towards a trade war.
The same logic potentially applies to an actual war too. That’s where Mattis and Tillerson come in.
Officials say the two senior Cabinet officers have slow-rolled requests for options on a wide range of policy goals, including exiting the Iran nuclear disarmament deal, reacting to missile strikes into Saudi Arabia by Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, pressuring longtime ally Pakistan by cutting U.S. military aid, and possible limited airstrikes on North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure…
“They are going to hide the ball from the president to keep him from doing stupid [stuff], there’s no doubt about it,” said another former official, a national security expert who served in the Trump administration transition and asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations…
Trump’s advisors fear he will say something rash or take an unplanned action, and are likely calculating that by slow-walking a potentially explosive action, his attention will turn to something else, Zelizer said.
This has allegedly made life hell for H.R. McMaster, who’s frequently accused of being on the outs with Trump but who, if you believe this story, is actually more loyal to the president than Mattis and Tillerson are. McMaster famously wrote “Dereliction of Duty,” a book about the Vietnam War indicting LBJ’s military leadership for hiding information from the White House so that the president would follow their own preferred course of action. McMaster has evidently resolved not to repeat that mistake and has insisted on presenting Trump with the full menu of natsec options he’s requested, up to and including a “bloody nose” strike on North Korea and escalation with Iran by tearing up the nuclear deal. Mattis and Tillerson have allegedly tried to outmaneuver him by delaying their own presentations on those options because they worry that the loose-cannon president will, uh, act on them once they’re available to him.
That is, apparently from Mattis’s point of view, it would be a greater dereliction of duty in this case to give POTUS the information he’s requesting because he can’t be trusted to use it responsibly. “It’s not that unrealistic to be concerned that if the president is in a petulant mood, he will start an actual war,” said Obama’s NSC spokesman to the paper. Which sounds snide and partisan until you remember that, by all accounts, that’s how the trade war started last week. Trump was irritated by the scandal headlines surrounding Kushner, irritated by John Kelly, irritated by Hope Hicks’s resignation, and suddenly, f*** it — global tariffs on steel and aluminum. As you digest that, bear in mind that Mattis’s partner in restraining Trump, Rex Tillerson, has himself been rumored for months to be on his way out the door, just as McMaster is. Trump reportedly likes the very hawkish John Bolton to replace one of them when a vacancy opens (probably McMaster since his position doesn’t require Senate confirmation). What happens to U.S. foreign policy once the president’s less hawkish advisors are replaced by more hawkish ones? See, again, the example of Porter and Navarro.
Imagine working in a White House where you so distrust the boss’s judgment that you won’t tell him things he has a right to know for fear that he’ll do something nutty and self-destructive in response. Yuval Levin wrote about that a few days ago, wondering what happens when the country faces a real foreign crisis:
Basically any senior White House official you might talk to has a story about how he or she kept the president from making some terrible mistake by some act of manipulation. Many Republican members of Congress do too. And to hear them tell it is often to be left grateful they acted as they did (though of course people are always heroes in their own stories). But those stories also describe profound dysfunction around the American presidency, and at times highly inappropriate behavior by unelected appointees in the employ of an elected president…
There are serious professionals on this White House team, at the NSC and elsewhere. But a White House dealing with an intense crisis needs to rely on established patterns of mutual trust and respect and familiar procedures for handling and channeling information, putting options before the president, and keeping things calm and organized. More than a year in, this White House lacks almost all of that. Confronted with a serious crisis, their system could easily crumple.
The tariff episode is a “bright, blaring warning,” notes Levin. But a warning for what? What’s to be done? Seemingly the best one can hope for is that Trump continues to appoint advisors in the Mattis mold, people who come highly recommended to him or whom he admires for their personal/military credentials whether or not they’re of the same mind he is on his major policy matters. The day he decides to start ignoring advice on personnel and go with his gut with yes-men and/or strong hawks — think Corey Lewandowski as chief of staff, Bolton as NSA, etc — all the restraints will be gone. What then?
Here’s Steve Mnuchin testifying this morning that Treasury is about to impose those sanctions on Russia that Congress passed last year for their interference in the 2016 campaign. Has anyone told the president yet?
JUST IN: Treasury Secretary Mnuchin announces Trump admin. will sanction Russia over election meddling.
“I expect in the next several weeks we will be moving forward with sanctions on Russia as a result of the act.” pic.twitter.com/Y2uEualSC7
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) March 6, 2018