The latest story about President Trump's malfeasance and incompetence in office is of a wholly different character than any previous revelation. If the reports are accurate, the threat to the American system of government is both imminent and highly consequential. And if it is significantly inaccurate, the threat is only somewhat less dire.
President Trump is alleged to have revealed to Russian officials, in the Oval Office, intelligence of a highly sensitive nature related to ISIS plots, intelligence whose revelation could well compromise not only American intelligence assets but those of our allies who provided the information. This information was reportedly revealed casually, by way of substantiating a presidential boast about the extraordinary quality of the intelligence the president receives.
If this is all true, then the president of the United States has been grossly and unconscionably negligent with American national security. It would be bad enough if the president had misunderstood the nature of the information, or if he had revealed it as part of a misguided strategy to obtain some advantage in return. In that case, one might hope that the breach could be repaired and confidence restored, albeit with time and serious effort. But as reported, the evidence suggests a president who is constitutionally cavalier about the most sensitive matters. This is someone who simply cannot be trusted with sensitive intelligence.
Our military and intelligence services surely understand that. From here on, if it was not already the case, at every level of the chain of command, individuals will question whether communicating information up the chain in the normal manner could fatally compromise a mission. Since such intelligence is frequently the basis for military action, the same is true of military communications with the commander in chief.
One should assume that foreign governments are making the same assessment, and taking action to curtail their cooperation with American intelligence so as to protect their own national security. The mutual trust that is necessary for intelligence cooperation will have been compromised very severely.
It could be argued that this is only the latest in a series of events that have compromised this trust. President Trump has been caught acting in a cavalier fashion before, like using unsecured communications devices, including family members in meetings with foreign heads of state, and discussing North Korea's missile tests in an open dining room. And America's intelligence officers reportedly warned allied countries prior to the inauguration not to share intelligence as freely as they had for fear of shared intelligence making its way into hostile hands through the Oval Office.
But if this new report is accurate, then a rubicon has been crossed that cannot be retraced. And in the absence of "tapes" revealing that no conversation took place, why should anyone believe even the most strenuous denials?
America's military and intelligence services are therefore faced with a difficult dilemma. The only way to preserve America's assets will be to routinize the violation of the chain of command by cordoning off the president from information that he properly needs to make informed decisions. Moreover, in order to reassure foreign allies, military and intelligence services will need to show their willingness to violate the chain of command in this fashion. It will need to become an open secret that the president of the United States is, in effect, no longer the president.
The threat this poses to America's democratic and constitutional system should not be minimized. Of course the military and intelligence services have shaded and distorted information the president receives, in the service of either policy goals or, most often, avoidance of embarrassment. But competition between services limits the scope of such behavior, and presidents or senior officials who act to counter it can find ready allies, for better or (as in the case of the Bush administration's approach to intelligence in the run up to the Iraq War) for worse. But in this case, with senior military officers as secretary of defense, secretary of homeland security, and national security adviser, collusion will be all the easier. Efforts by the president or his surrogates to combat such behavior will be properly seen as efforts to cultivate personal loyalty to the president rather than patriotic devotion to civilian control, and thereby contribute to the corruption of our organs of national security.
Even if they act with the best of intent in protecting the United States from its own erratic commander in chief, the damage this kind of collusion could cause to civilian control over the military and intelligence services could be quite serious. That tradition of civilian control was already coming under substantial strain, with the president grandly granting the uniformed services "total authorization" to conduct a variety of operations at will. A habit of routine insubordination is a bridge considerably further, and such a habit, once cultivated, is not so easily kicked. The process of restoring a culture properly deferential to the elected leadership under a subsequent president could prove distinctly difficult.
Republican representatives and senators should bear this firmly in mind as they consider what steps might be necessary for them to take before less-constitutionally-sanctioned individuals take whatever steps they deem necessary in defense of their country.