Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Be clear on the threat to the country

A lot of people are talking past each other about Donald Trump and the problems the country is facing. Look at this sampling of reader opinion in USA Today. Among the denunciations of the Republican Party for not turning on Trump are dissenting remarks like this:
How did the news media know about details of Trump’s conversation? Trump can legally discuss classified information with a foreign dignitary. Whoever leaked the details of the talk to the press should be charged or at the very least fired. The information, and by extension the conversation, was not for public eyes.
This kind of highly legalistic reading of the incident entirely misses the big picture.

Trump's threat to the nation arises not from violating the law (that we know of, anyway), but from his gross misuse of the power he has.

Consider: you have the legal right to spend your money on booze instead of food. That doesn't make it a good idea. And if your legal activities have bad consequences for others, you are responsible for those bad consequences. If your kids go hungry because you spend all your money on booze, you have misused your legal right.

Trump didn't break the letter of the law by disclosing classified information: he has that legal right. However, the far more important question is, Was disclosing the information a good idea?

The answer, according to everyone but Trump, is a resounding NO!

The disclosure

  • violated an intelligence-sharing agreement with a friendly nation
  • potentially compromised an intelligence asset or assets of that friendly nation — and "compromised" in the best case means somebody has to haul ass out of his or her undercover role and get to safety; in the worst case, that person is tortured and/or killed
  • royally pissed off that otherwise friendly nation
  • almost certainly makes other otherwise friendly nations reluctant to share intelligence because they can't trust the big mouth in the White House. That, in turn, screws us.
Those consequences of Trump's exercise of his legal authority seem more than bad enough to me.

Those of you hung up on the legality of his disclosure need to understand that the rest of us are worried as hell by his, and his staff's, terrible judgment.

Though he has no idea how the legislative process works (honestly, somebody should make him watch Schoolhouse Rock), he has been eager to dive in head-first to prove he can get stuff done — and he has the metaphorical fractured skull that mutely testifies he can't get stuff done.

  • Congress was caught off guard by Trump's insistence that a health care bill be passed with lightning speed. The result: an embarrassing failure in round 1, and a skin-of-the-teeth passage in the House after furious whip-work by the Republican leadership. Almost no one thinks TrumpCare 2.0 will pass the Senate in its current form, yet Trump celebrated in the Rose Garden as if he had signed the House bill into law. It makes the rest of us wonder: does he think he did? That's how low our opinion of his judgment (and grasp of reality) is.
  • Trump's staff, including the Treasury Secretary, was caught off guard by Trump's public pronouncement that his administration would have a tax plan ready within days. The response was a one-pager that serves more as a set of talking points than anything else; it certainly doesn't come within smelling distance of anything resembling a bill. Nobody thinks Steve Mnuchin or the Treasury Department fell down on the job: everyone knows this one-pager is what passes for a plan in Trump's mind. I'm sure he's still puzzled why the rest of us aren't praising him to the skies for it. Again, this bespeaks terrible judgment (and an inability to understand how others think) on Trump's part.

    Major legislation takes time to craft properly, but try telling that to him.

  • His first botched effort to enact a version of his promised "Muslim ban" was flatly shut down by the courts. Multiple judges acting independently of one another looked at the language of the executive order and decided that it almost certainly did not pass Constitutional muster, especially when they took candidate Trump's intemperate public remarks into account. Creating the order was his right as President — but he did it badly because he didn't have the good judgment to get competent and thorough legal help.
These incidents — and of course there are dozens more, not all of them relating to legislation or executive action — fit a pattern of ludicrous simplemindedness and indifference to detail. He thinks he can tell people, "Get this done!" and magically, it will get done. If it doesn't, he blames them, never taking any of the responsibility himself.

Of conscientiousness and good judgment, I see no sign.

What I do see is a man who would rather be a dictator than President. He lusts for power but loathes responsibility and is shameless about ducking it. If he were cunning about more than his self-interest, he would be Machiavellian and we'd be facing different problems. However, he's an abject simpleton when it comes to everything except his self-interest.

A couple of days ago I praised a recent column by David Brooks, the thesis of which is, Donald Trump "is an infantalist [sic]" (as far as I can tell, the spelling should be "infantilist"). This falls into a category of speculation that some pundits have been engaging in for the last year, that Trump might be mentally deficient in a clinically diagnosable sense.

Whether Trump can be clinically diagnosed as mentally diminished, I don't know, though I doubt it. He doesn't have to be clinically handicapped to be dangerous, though. We all know somebody who is physically an adult and is able to live an adult life, but who shows such poor judgment that you would not trust this person with any serious responsibility. That sounds like Trump to me.

We just found out that the administration knew Michael Flynn was under federal investigation when he was merely the nominee for national security advisor. In spite of that knowledge, the nomination went forward and he actually was made the national security advisor. That indifference to a major warning sign bespeaks terrible judgment on Trump's part.

So, again: to argue that Trump has acted within the letter of the law grievously misses the point. He has showed terrible judgment just since he took office. That is why I'm concerned. That, not the (so far) illusory spectre of illegal acts, is why we all should be concerned.

The President wields vast powers. We need the President to be a person who makes good decisions, whose judgment is sound.

In that light, consider the leaks from this administration. The leaks are profoundly distressing to the administration and its supporters, of course. I understand and (distantly) sympathize: I'd feel the same way if I supported this administration.

But put yourself in the position of a mid-level staffer in the White House. Suppose you're an aide to national security advisor H.R. McMaster. You're in the room when Trump brags to the Russian ambassador about how great the U.S.'s intelligence on ISIS is, and proves his point by mentioning a detail that even you, who have clearance to see a lot of secret information, didn't know. After the meeting, you make cautious inquiries; your boss can't come right out and confirm the detail's accuracy but the look in his eyes is all you need to know.

You're horrified. The President just shared highly classified information with representatives of one of the least friendly nations on the planet!

You've seen this before. You've seen him make horrible, horrible blunders that endanger the nation and its allies. You've always stayed silent because you respect the Presidency. You know the blunders you've seen, if made public, would cripple his reputation.

But now you realize that the biggest threat to the country is the President. Now you realize that the only thing that can stop the President is public opinion.

So you reach out to a reporter you trust — because you know this is the most patriotic thing you can do. You know that the country needs to know the danger it faces.

I don't expect everyone to buy into this entirely speculative scenario. But if you don't, consider that the White House itself almost certainly no longer includes any political appointees held over from the Obama administration. The political appointees in the White House are supportive of the current President. So why would these loyal appointees sabotage the President they support? Why would they leak information when it obviously hurts the administration?

The only way leaks make sense is if these staffers feel they have a responsibility that supersedes their duty to support the President. And they do. They are public servants. They work for the President, but their final loyalty must be to the American public.

So don't get caught up in the lesser (still important, but lesser) questions of whether what he did was illegal or whether leaks should be taken more seriously. His actions do not need to have been illegal to be damaging to the country. Leaks are bad, but it would be infinitely worse if we didn't know about his appalling blunders.

The biggest threat to the country isn't from leaks or illegal actions that may or may not have happened. The biggest threat to the country is the vast power of the Presidency being in the hands of an erratic and infantile man.

The biggest threat to the country is Donald Trump and his manifest unfitness to hold office.

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