In the scant yet infinite hours since the president revealed his positive coronavirus test, the subject of whether or not his opaque condition is a national security crisis has garnered much debate.
But the truth is: we’ve been in a state of crisis since the day Trump took office. Not the pretend, daily-reality-show crisis that President Trump wields like a machete through American media and society — but actual, serious, foundation-cracking crisis that has tested and endangered us far more than we are typically allowed the time to consider.
Trump is a disruptor. He has proven incapable of pivoting to a different skillset that would allow him to be anything else. Disruption is not governance. His main accomplishment as president has been to keep the nation in such a state of blind, polarized foment that he is rarely criticized for his true, lasting, cascading failures instead of merely his outrageous, yucky, drunk-uncle behavior, and very occasionally his overt corruption and self-dealing.
Trump has weakened our vital institutions, leaving them gutted, politicized, and directionless. Generations of expertise are now missing. His loyalists have deleted data, edited archives, and used sharpies to remake maps to align with whatever the presidential whim-of-the-day requires. Formerly grand and global institutions — VOA, the CDC, the Department of Energy — have been politicized, humiliated, and diminished from the inside in ways our adversaries couldn’t have dreamed of achieving via direct infiltration.
Trump has also immeasurably weakened the perceptions of American power. He has been erratic and inconsistent, failing to build either trust or loyalty with needed partners and allies, or fear and deterrence with adversaries. He has bullied American allies, attacked American companies, experimented in meddling in the markets with words and deeds to make his friends money. By now, our allies of decades and common trenches have started to move away and imagine a future without us, their chairs taken by transactional players who are willing to offer up payments to a Trump hotel property or the naming of “Lake Trump” via a sad plastic banner slung across a decaying dam in exchange for attention from the Oval Office. Between Trump, Kushner, and Pompeo, it’s hard not to believe that the institutions meant to negotiate the interests of the nation have been instrumentalized to the personal dealmaking and ambitions of the team in the White House for direct and immediate gain. Does anyone really believe those transactional relationships will be durable beyond this presidency — that they are of any real value to our security or prosperity?
Trump has embraced isolationism, turning all eyes inward by force if not willingness, and shown no understanding of what American interests are or how to secure them. He has announced troop withdrawals and significant force posture realignments with no prior planning or consideration, forcing American security and commitments abroad to take a backseat to made-up numbers in a tweet. He has abandoned territory to the control of the Kremlin and aligned interests like Iran and the Taliban, and then used their growing power and influence to justify further withdrawals from places like Baghdad and Afghanistan.
We as Americans trapped in the deluge have forgotten events like the bizarre, ill-thought-out, unresourced attempt to take down the president of Venezuela — but our adversaries haven’t. We can’t remember on an hour-by-hour basis that Trump handed classified intelligence to the Russian foreign minister in the Oval Office, or frequently uses kooky Kremlin talking points about history, or that his son-in-law is whatsapping with boy-kings and god knows who else about how dismembering journalists doesn’t have to be bad news.
But anyone paying attention knows this White House is a counterintelligence nightmare. They view our national secrets as currency for their personal deal-making. Their psychology is obvious — and obviously exploited by our most significant competitors and adversaries.
Power is partially about perception. Here in America, we live inside a perpetual media circus where Trump is a strongman who can’t be contained by any political force — but the perception from abroad is that Trump is a semi-unhinged, pompous conman surrounded by cowed yes-men who have managed to convince half this mighty nation that the sky is orange and down is up and weakness is strength. That he has managed to subvert America, and convince Americans that a willingness to create chaos — in public health, public safety, elections — is a necessary loyalty test to his presidency.
So no, the national security crisis isn’t that Donald Trump is lying in a hospital bed and may not be in full control, still surrounded by people willing to lie for him to keep their place in his narcissistic sunshine for just a minute longer. The national security crisis is that he is president at all.
Trump has so thoroughly eroded the institution and significance of the presidency that it scarcely matters if he is president or not. Said another way: Trump isn’t the one who has been keeping us safe, or signaling to allies when to stand firm at our side, or signaling to adversaries and competitors where the redlines are, or calming unrest and discord in our society, or navigating our way through the parallel crises born from his mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic.
Whether Trump is fighting fit or only kept upright by steroids, the Kremlin is going to do what it wants — their weird kabuki-dance with Turkey fueling conflict in Syria and Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, their “proxies” shooting at Ukrainians, their economic seduction of European powers continuing apace. Iran will still have significantly expanded its reach and influence in the region. China will still be a pressing and unchallenged fear for our pacific allies, who can’t quite figure out whether Trump’s bombast about China or his willingness to turn a blind eye to the mass detention of Uighurs is more representative of what he believes — but they haven’t gotten over how his administration shook down South Korea and Japan like a protection racket.
Trump is the embodiment of the red-brown, horseshoe-thinking, Rand Paul-Tulsi Gabbard, Breitbart-Intercept fantasy of American isolationism — the bastard son of a one-night stand between the idea that America has no duty to stand up for our values in the world and the idea that it has no right to.
He has done more to make himself — and America — irrelevant than any other president: a man of press releases and smoke and mirrors, his only show of strength requiring others to believe his fiction. He is a danger to the nation.
But this irrelevance is also important: he may have eroded the perception of American power, but he has not actually changed the reality of its potential, or its ability to be used as deterrence. Not yet, anyway.
Trump may not understand how the Kremlin and Beijing are watching and analyzing the upheaval he has caused and the potential for unrest around the upcoming elections (a narrative that the Kremlin, at least, is invested in amplifying) — but our military commanders do. Trump passed more decision-making responsibilities down to them to avoid being associated with “loser wars” and conflicts — and in many cases they have used this responsibility to fill the gaps where signals need to be sent.
It’s no accident that a half-dozen B-52H Stratofortress strategic bombers (stratofortress 4 eva!) recently winged across the Atlantic from Minot, flying around Northern Europe and the Arctic and over the Black Sea before participating in a flyover of every NATO nation — a huge and unusual single deployment of such resources.
It’s no accident that a week-long joint exercise involving US special operations forces and their Ukrainian counterparts — which the US helps train — just wrapped up in Ukraine, alongside coordinated naval, air, and conventional exercises that also involved British forces. It’s no accident that there was a similarly-timed exercise in Georgia involving 2700+ NATO troops.
It’s no accident that a lot of US Navy assets seem to be popping up in the Baltic and Black Seas, and in other strategic locations.
The president’s rhetoric and actions have created uncertainty about the period following the US elections, even as the Kremlin presses interests in Belarus and in the Caucasus, even as China looks for opportunity. The machinery of our national security has learned to operate around and below the radar of the White House, assessing the fractures and looking to provide reassurance where it is necessary. And this does have real impact with our allies and partners, who are looking to believe this period of uncertainty has an endpoint.
But this duct-tape-and-string deterrence strategy won’t resonate forever. And how we vote in November will determine our potential vulnerability to new national security threats.
I know it’s hard to see it from here, inside the American Thunderdome — but if we re-elect Trump, we take a fork in the road from which we can’t turn back.
Three years ago about this time, in late autumn 2017, it was an early-dark night of Northern Europe, and I was a couple of bottles in with one of my closest Estonian friends. He was transfixed by the seemingly unbelievable special Senate election in Alabama, in which Roy Moore still had a chance of winning against Doug Jones despite countless allegations that he had serially targeted underage girls for “dates.” At the time of this champagne-and-whiskey-soaked evening, Trump was still supporting Moore. Through any international lens, this was an embarrassing episode to explain to foreign friends — especially those not inclined to pull their punches. The conversation quickly shifted to whether or not President Trump would have any chance of a second term in office. I said I didn’t know, but was dismayed as I watched conservatives I had known my whole Washington life succumb one by one to defending beliefs they had never previously held because they wanted to benefit from Trump’s popularity, or believed that even though he was loathsome he could be a vehicle for their agenda, or a bunch of other reasons that never sounded very convincing to me.
I don’t know, I said. I hope not. But I don’t know.
But you can’t! he said, absolutely shocked. Ok, right now, everyone makes mistakes — but now you know what he is. If you re-elect him, then that’s what you are.
He knew me, and knew what I believed — but he still felt the need to impress upon me how important this point was. He told he this story about how since he was a young man, years before he had a son, he had had a recurring dream about running through the forest with his infant son on his back, fleeing a returning Russian invasion. It was vivid and visceral for him — especially now that he had a son to protect. Most Estonians of that generation have a similar dream or memory. Without America, he reminded me, without the America that was the beacon of freedom in the darkest Estonian days, then what was there to run toward?
As the past years unfolded, and Trump repeatedly told our allies that we might not show up, so make your own deals with Russia and China, and it became evident that the nature of what the free world is changes immeasurably if we aren’t there to defend it, there as an integral member — I’ve asked myself this same question on countless, more sober nights. What is there to run toward if we are what Trump wants us to be?
I’d rather not have to find the answer.
The cost to the nation of Donald Trump being president won’t be evident until there is some distance. He has convinced us that we are powerless, unable to change the course of events at home or abroad — his greatest con of all.
His presidency, not his illness, is the true crisis we must overcome.
Photo credit: Ukraine Special Operations Forces conduct fast rope insertion and extraction system training with the U.S. Army 10th Special Forces Group near Berdychiv, Ukraine, Sept. 20, 2020. Ukraine SOF and the U.S. Army 10th SFG conducted FRIES with a U.S. Air Force CV-22 Osprey assigned to the 352d Special Operations Wing, Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, as a part of exercise Fiction Urchin. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Mackenzie Mendez)