Those worried about the trajectory of the Trump White House — and these days, who isn’t? — could take some comfort from the news last week that two well-respected professionals were joining the National Security Council. Former George W. Bush aide Dina Powell, a fluent Arabic speaker and Goldman Sachs alumna, will become deputy national security advisor, and Nadia Schadlow, an expert on military affairs, will leave the Smith Richardson Foundation to take charge of strategic planning. They are welcome additions to the Axis of Adults that must compete for influence in this administration with the Cabal of Crazies, whose ranks include Stephen Bannon, Stephen Miller, Peter Navarro, and Sebastian Gorka.
The problem is that the cabal counts among its members someone whose influence trumps, so to speak, that of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, or any other appointee. We refer, of course, to the conspirator in chief himself. The series of vintage performances delivered by President Donald Trump last week — and the vehement response they elicited from national security officials testifying Monday before the House Intelligence Committee — reminds us of why the Axis of Adults has a nearly impossible job in keeping this administration from veering into cloud cuckoo-land.
On March 15, Trump journeyed to Nashville, Tennessee, for a campaign-style rally where supporters repeated the old cry of “Lock her up” in reference to Hillary Clinton — a demand that was merely deranged when made during the campaign but that now seems positively sinister when it is associated with the man charged with enforcing the nation’s laws. At the rally, Trump reacted to the “terrible” court rulings blocking his revised executive order on immigration. “The order blocked was a watered-down version of the first order…,” he thundered. “Let me tell you something. I think we ought to go back to the first one and go all the way.”
It is precisely such presidential pronouncements that provide ammunition to litigants who claim that the executive order is an unconstitutional attempt to ban Muslims. Administration lawyers insist otherwise in court, but their arguments are undermined by their boss, who simply cannot hide his true intent.
Two days later, Trump hosted German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House for what looked to be the first date from hell. With cameras rolling, Merkel asked Trump if he wanted to shake hands; he pointedly ignored her. Trump then used their joint news conference to demand not only that Germany and other NATO partners increase their defense spending — a standard trope of past administrations — but that they pay back the United States “vast sums of money from past years” that “they owe” us for defending them from Russian aggression. To make sure that no one missed the message, he followed up with tweets reiterating: “Germany owes…vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!”
While he’s at it, why not ask France to pay back the cost of D-Day? Or is he afraid that France will retaliate by demanding repayment for its contribution to America’s War of Independence? That would certainly take Trump’s view of international relations as a protection racket to its logical, if absurd, conclusion.
Trump also could not hide his anti-German animus when it came to trade, saying: “Right now, I would say that the negotiators for Germany have done a far better job than the negotiators for the United States. But hopefully we can even it out.” Trump seems oblivious to the fact that over 750,000 Americans are employed by German-owned companies such as Daimler, T-Mobile, Siemens, Adidas, and even Trader Joe’s. He makes it sound as if Germany is committing some heinous offense by selling us lots of stuff we want to buy. Naturally, he had all too little to say about the continuing importance of the German-American alliance that has underpinned prosperity and security on both sides of the Atlantic since 1945.
An anonymous German Foreign Ministry official was subsequently quoted as saying that Trump “uses rudeness to compensate for his weakness, like Putin.” An astute observation, that. And when it came to alienating allies, Trump was just getting started.
In desperately trying to support Trump’s discredited allegation that President Barack Obama had been spying on him, which has been denied not only by the U.S. intelligence community and the Justice Department but by the bipartisan leadership of the House and Senate intelligence committees, White House spokesman Sean Spicer cited a statement by a Fox News commentator. Former Judge Andrew Napolitano asserted that, rather than spying on Trump directly, Obama had outsourced the dirty work to Britain’s communications agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). His source? A discredited former CIA officer who has become notorious for peddling false stories that former first lady Michelle Obama gave a speech “railing against whitey” and that former Secretary of State John Kerry “raped some poor Vietnamese women” while in the Navy.
The allegation of British wiretapping was immediately denounced by the normally secretive GCHQ and National Security Agency (NSA), with the British said to be “livid” and “angry” over this “utterly ridiculous” charge. Even Fox News, in the person of anchor Shepard Smith, could not “confirm” this claim. Definitive refutation was provided Monday by FBI Director James Comey, who testified that while there is credible evidence worth investigating of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, there is no evidence of any wiretapping of Trump. The FBI director all but called the sitting president a liar, creating yet another undesirable first for the Trump administration. Perhaps Trump will now be reduced to claiming that Obama dressed like a cat burglar and personally broke into Trump Tower to plant listening devices without Comey’s knowledge.
Despite the absence of factual support for his position, Trump would not back down. Asked about the allegations by a German reporter on Friday, he said with his typical insouciance: “We said nothing. All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it.”
Trump even tried to make light of the affair, joking that he and Merkel have “something in common, perhaps,” because both had allegedly been wiretapped by Obama. This was a reference to revelations from Edward Snowden — not normally a source cited with approbation by American officials — that the chancellor’s cell phone number was on a list monitored by the NSA. Merkel grimaced and did a double take but wisely said nothing about Trump’s insulting insinuations that stir up uncomfortable memories in Germany of state surveillance and make it harder for Merkel to maintain a close alliance with the United States.
Trump’s allegations against the United Kingdom also wiped out any goodwill remaining from January’s summit between the president and Prime Minister Theresa May (they actually held hands) and continued Trump’s streak of offending American allies. Among those who have felt Trump’s white-hot wrath have been the president of Mexico, who refuses to pay for any border wall, and the prime minister of Australia, who wants the United States to honor an agreement to take in 1,250 refugees detained by Australia. Oh, and Trump did a drive-by shooting on Sweden to justify his complaint that Muslim immigrants are a bane to society.
It is all the more striking, by comparison, that Trump never says anything remotely critical regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is engaged in flouting international norms and threatening his neighbors. Indeed, Trump’s utterly unnecessary spats with key allies play right into Putin’s hands, because the Russian despot is intent on dividing the Western alliance. Comey noted Monday that Putin wants to break up the European Union, and Trump seems eager to help. Little wonder that allies’ faith in America is plummeting as rapidly as the White House’s credibility. The number of Germans who believe the United States is a trustworthy ally has fallen from 59 percent in November to just 22 percent in February and, based on the present trajectory, may soon go into negative numbers.
The pattern is clear. Trump is constitutionally incapable of admitting wrongdoing or apologizing for giving offense. His invariable pattern is to double down and dig in, compounding the original damage. He doesn’t care whom he offends. All that matters to the president and his courtiers is to soothe his fragile ego and maintain his illusory air of infallibility. That’s not easy to do given how little he knows and how many “alternative facts” are lodged in his noggin. You would think the commander in chief would rely on the information gathered at great trouble and expense by the U.S. intelligence community, but no. Instead, he relies on Fox News, Infowars, and Breitbart, and he doesn’t bother with any fact-checking before repeating their crackpot claims. Thus, he almost always blunders when speaking (or tweeting) without a script; it is telling that one of the few highlights of his first two months in office was his ability to read a teleprompter in front of a joint session of Congress.
Here, in sum, is the problem confronting Trump optimists. He can hire well-qualified aides and even defer to them in some areas. He can refrain from adopting some of his crazy campaign brainstorms. (No, he hasn’t imposed 45 percent tariffs on China or ordered the murder of terrorists’ relatives.) But ultimately he can’t stop being himself. And who Trump is — boastful, vain, stubborn, crude, boorish, ignorant, conspiratorial, mean-spirited — is deeply problematic for anyone, whether on his staff or outside of it, hoping that his administration will become more normal.