TSG IntelBrief: U.S. Self-Inflicted National Security Challenges
May 17, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• The ability of the U.S. to address the serious challenges and global threats facing the country has been routinely undercut by the Trump administration’s near-daily episodes of crises and distractions.
• For the moment, the crises consuming Washington are almost entirely self-inflicted, while real foreign crises await.
• The current level of congressional partisan paralysis over issues with serious national security implications is unprecedented.
• When issues with serious repercussions for national security are increasingly viewed as ‘real’ or ‘fake’ based on partisan outlooks, there is little common ground with which to forge collective responses and approaches.
The reactions to May 16 reports that President Trump asked former FBI Director James Comey to drop the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn show the extent of the damage by a new and growing form of national security and foreign policy partisanship. The report was the latest in a national security ‘crisis of the day’ environment coming from the White House concerning its connections to Russian interference during the 2016 election. The last week alone has seen a string of quasi-connected mini-crises, from the firing of the FBI director, careless disclosure of highly classified intelligence to Russian officials, and now potential evidence of obstruction of justice in asking the FBI director to drop a case looking into the White House. From a strictly national security point of view, these self-inflicted crises represent a hybrid threat that provides worrisome indications of how the government and the citizens they represent will respond—or simply not respond—to foreign threats.
The reactions to the latest revelations—now corroborated by almost a dozen media outlets—are only slightly less partisan and dismissive than the reactions just a day before to reports that President Trump might have revealed too much in a meeting with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador that was closed to the U.S. press but documented by a Russian press photographer. The reaction cycle to each new report about problems in the Trump administration is now a fully contained and fact-resistant feedback loop in which the White House and its bloc of congressional allies flatly deny a report, then deny specifics, then say the underlying facts might have happened but for different reasons, then try to divert attention by focusing on whoever leaked information about White House wrongdoing to the press; and then finally that it does not matter since the issue is essentially ‘fake news’. This process has accelerated so that it completes a cycle in a day or so, and now includes the element of the president undercutting all previous denials with an admission that focuses on the leaker and his executive power, boundaries notwithstanding.
The U.S. is now divided in a way not seen in generations, with serious consequences for national security. The division is so deep that it has altered the equation from how the U.S. should react to an event to arguments over whether that event even happened. The legitimate question of what relationship the U.S. should have with Russia is not the one being debated; rather, the situation has devolved to the point that the question has become one of whether it is even appropriate to investigate Russia’s unprecedented and open interference in a U.S. presidential election. When any controversial issue is viewed either as ‘real’ or ‘fake’ based on an individual’s partisan viewpoint, there is little common ground with which to forge collective responses and approaches. Both the White House and Congress have so far demonstrated that they are not capable of addressing and responding to any of these issues in a non-partisan, objective manner. Such paralysis over challenges that are for the most part entirely self-inflicted does not bode well for how the Trump administration or Congress will handle a true national security emergency. Further, the seemingly never-ending cycle of missteps and drama from the White House has interfered with the government’s ability to even think about—let alone meaningfully address—the plethora of serious global challenges facing the U.S. Thus, the consequences of the Trump administration’s continued dysfunction for broader U.S. national security in a time of gathering global threats could very well be significant.
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