This, it turns out, is what happens when U.S. President Donald Trump conducts the prudent business of “making America safe again.”
A scramble to plug leaks detailing shambolic phone calls from the “leakiest” White House in modern presidential history.
Then, an impromptu crisis session over iceberg wedge salads at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago restaurant in Florida, conducted in full view of gawking diners eager to record on smartphones what should be a classified meeting.
And on Tuesday, a news conference in which it was revealed that a top security aide was forced out due to “a trust issue” — one resulting from highly improper discussions with the Russian ambassador.
That former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, became the first casualty of the White House this week, capping the first 26 days of Trump’s tumultuous time in office.
Flynn resigned late Monday after he reportedly lied to Vice-President Mike Pence about discussing the possible softening of Russian sanctions with the Russian ambassador. The talks happened before Trump even took office. (The White House confirmed Trump had known about Flynn’s contact with Sergei Kislyak for “weeks” before the resignation.)
In his first month, the U.S. president’s conduct has raised concerns about how he runs his national security apparatus.
“Heaven help us,” says Robert Jervis, a security analyst and professor of international politics at Columbia University. “It’s amateur hour.”
Jervis suggests an “incredibly disorganized” White House is being managed by “a gang that can’t shoot straight.”
And this despite the fact so much of the Trump presidency was built upon an idea his leadership would bring a much-needed re-evaluation of the country’s national security.
“No more games, folks. No more games,” Trump promised a crowd in December. “A Trump administration will always put the safety and security of the American people first.”
The president, who was still using his consumer-grade and unsecured Android smartphone as of last month, reiterated a promise during his Jan. 20 inaugural address to “make America safe again.”
That may all sound a bit rich now, particularly to supporters of former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who was so often pilloried by Trump for being “careless” with national security matters.
Diplomacy dinner theatre
But this week, Trump’s critics noted the president himself has a curious way of inspiring confidence about his dedication to security.
On Saturday, as news broke that North Korea had conducted a missile test into the Sea of Japan, a club member at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort captured Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe conferring in public with their aides, illuminating their briefing notes with cellphones.
“HOLY MOLY!!!” the patron wrote in a Facebook post, boasting about being in “the center of the action!!!” (His post was deleted as backlash began, with Democratic and Republican senators incredulous over what they characterized as an irresponsible action by the president.)
Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi tweeted that Trump’s team was “letting an international crisis play out in front of a bunch of country club members like dinner theater.”
Such situations are normally conducted in a SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility). Mar-a-Lago does indeed have a dedicated SCIF room that is eavesdrop-proof.
To Jervis, who writes about nuclear arms, it was yet another example of Trump’s “trainwreck” approach to national security.
With Flynn now absent as national security adviser, Jervis says the administration is left with a temporary intelligence vacuum as it searches for a replacement to clean house and install a new team in the National Security Council.
“They’ll have to rebuild the NSC staff because Flynn put in his own directors, his buddies, and they’re likely to leave or be fired.”
The leakiest administration?
Trump took to Twitter to express displeasure with media reporting on Flynn’s ouster. “The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?” he wrote.
The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?
Though that may not offer much comfort to Americans already concerned about security within the White House.
“I think this is by far the leakiest administration,” Jervis says. “If you’re a foreign country, you wonder, can these guys and women keep their mouths shut? That indiscipline will lead any other country to be very cautious in sharing data.”
Media outlets in recent weeks have cited leaks from Trump’s team in reports describing tense conversations between the president and the leaders of Mexico and Australia.
According to reports, Trump abruptly ended a heated conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a U.S. ally, telling him their chat was “the worst call” Trump had participated in so far with world leaders that day. In the Mexico call, Trump reportedly threatened to send troops to deal with “bad hombres” south of the border.
Leaks are “regrettably routine” from any White House, says Stephen Slick, a former CIA and National Security Council official who served under former president George W. Bush and now directs the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
But it “sends a dangerous signal” when it appears the White House “isn’t taking appropriate care with sensitive defence information.”
It’s not just of concern to Trump and the rest of the executive branch, but “even to our allies abroad, who may question our government’s ability to protect information they may share with us,” says Slick, who was one of 50 former White House security officials who signed a joint Republican letter saying they could not support Trump’s presidency.
Slick suspects those leaks will continue “until the president acts to enforce greater discipline and holds a subordinate accountable.”
Flynn’s departure at least gives Trump a fresh chance to clean house with a more establishment-friendly national security adviser. Keith Kellogg, the National Security Council chief of staff, has assumed the role for now.
Three names have been floated as more official possibilities: former deputy commander of U.S. Central Command Bob Harward, former Bush national security aide Tom Bossert, and former CIA director, Gen. David Petraeus.
Slick has worked with all three, saying each would be an “exceptional public servant.”
“Regardless of who is chosen for that important post, the national security adviser cannot succeed without the full confidence of the president and unfettered access to him,” Slick says.
Petraeus was reportedly scheduled to meet with Trump at the White House on Tuesday, and was at one time in the running for the secretary of state position. Harward has served under Trump’s Secretary of Defence James Mattis and is a close friend, which could put him in good standing for the job.