Alan Zendell, March 21, 2018
Oh no! Someone in the White House leaked another embarrassing bit of news to the media. Apparently, the president’s national security team “instructed” him not to congratulate Vladimir Putin on his election victory, but he did it anyway. Many in Congress reacted immediately, calling Trump’s action wrong and inappropriate. Senator John McCain (R, Arizona) was perhaps the loudest and most pointed, saying: “an American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections.” Senator Ben Cardin (D, Maryland) added his voice in a live interview this morning.
That’s the story on the surface, but there’s a lot more to it. The disregarded warning to the president was included in his classified daily security briefing. Chief of Staff John Kelly was furious, and an aide said that leaking such information is a fireable offense and likely illegal because of the sensitive nature of these briefings. This becomes more interesting because the usual suspects for this leak are a relatively small list; only a few people in the White House have access to the briefings, and no one outside the White House is supposed to.
The story actually gets worse. White House staff are now saying the president probably never read the briefing, that he frequently calls foreign leaders disregarding the advice of his security team, and it would not be unusual if he hadn’t looked at the briefing before calling Putin. I can’t decide whether it’s more disturbing that the president generally ignores advice from his inner circle or that he doesn’t even bother to read it.
I and many others have commented since Trump took office that running his real estate empire on gut feeling is quite different from governing the country that way. In his businesses he only places his family and employees at risk, and he has a long track record of not caring about the latter. But as president, he must care, and the people he puts at risk are all of us.
If leaking the contents of the security briefing could cost the leaker his job and possibly result in a felony charge, why would anyone take that risk? If the people who regularly leak sensitive or scandalous information from the White House were sworn enemies of the president, it would be understandable. But some of the most damaging leaks come from within the president’s inner circle, which is comprised of people he appointed, and we know that the single most important quality Trump seeks in his appointees is personal loyalty.
That tells me the reports of chaos in the White House are accurate. It says that even people whose job is to protect the president politically have such serious concerns about his actions and decisions, they’d risk career-ending consequences to assure that people know. Very few on Capitol Hill doubt that fired Secretary of State Tillerson actually called Trump a moron. And even if we discount half of what Michael Wolff wrote in Fire and Fury, the fact that so many people on Trump’s staff were willing to speak to freely about the horror show they work in ought to concern every American.
This latest mini-scandal is no laughing matter, and everything else aside, Trump’s reactions to Putin’s victory against the backdrop of his inexplicable admiration for the murderous dictator, say more than the words themselves. Equally inexplicable is that virtually in the same breath, Trump continued to attack and attempt to discredit the Mueller investigation into Russian interference and possible collusion with Trump’s people.
Things look bleak enough when Trump acts outrageously with clear motive and intent. But this thing he has for Putin is even more distressing simply because it appears to make no sense. No doubt Mr. Mueller has the same reaction, which is why he keeps expanding his probe and is now looking into Trump’s business dealings. When every other rational explanation for Trump’s behavior falls apart we are left with only one inescapable conclusion.
Fantastic as it seems, Putin and his friends among the Russian oligarchs may have something very damaging on Trump, and the president’s fury over Mueller’s actions admit to only two reasonable explanations. One is that his ego and natural tendency to react violently to personal affronts dominate his actions. The other is that he’s really guilty.
Which would be worse?