Winning week for Trump sparks worries ahead of Putin summit

Winning week for Trump sparks worries ahead of Putin summit
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Well, Wednesday certainly turned out to be pretty full newsday around Washington. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy excited an already overly excited capital by announcing his retirement. Commercial imagery showed the North Koreans upgrading facilities at a nuclear research site. And President TrumpDonald John TrumpHarris bashes Kavanaugh's 'sham' nomination process, calls for his impeachment after sexual misconduct allegation Celebrating 'Hispanic Heritage Month' in the Age of Trump Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy MORE’s national security adviser, John Bolton, showed up in Moscow to lock down the details of a Trump-Putin summit. Here’s a quick take on the national security implications of each.

We don’t usually handicap Supreme Court vacancies through a national security lens, but the court has played an unusually active role since 9/11 as presidents and Congress have tried to adapt to changing threats and exploding technologies. Kennedy joined the majority in pushing back hard during the George W. Bush years against traditional executive prerogatives when it came to prosecuting accused terrorists in front of military commissions, designating enemy combatants, and denying detainees the right to challenge their detention.

As befitting the court’s swing vote, though, Kennedy has recently supported fairly robust executive authority, joining the majority to approve the president’s “Muslim ban” and dissenting on the decision in United States v. Carpenter that now requires a warrant to get extensive locational data on an individual’s cellphone. It’s hard to imagine any Supreme Court justice nominated by President Trump that would not be a defender of robust executive prerogative.

At the same time as the Kennedy announcement, we were treated to pictures and a report from 38 North, a North Korean monitoring group, that showed improvements continuing apace at Pyongyang’s nuclear research facility at Yongbyon, evidence not quite consistent with President Trump’s triumphal announcement that “we will immediately begin total denuclearization of North Korea.” Beyond highlighting the obvious gap between rhetoric and reality, the 38 North report also points to the lack of detail in what was actually agreed in Singapore, which was “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Even assuming (which I do not) that North Korea actually means that, there are multiple layers still to unpack: Timetables? Sequence? Inclusion of civilian and scientific efforts? Inclusion of missiles as well as warheads? Inspections? Status of ongoing programs? Reassignment of personnel such as scientists or researchers? The fate of the nuclear industrial base? Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump needs a national security adviser who 'speaks softly' US could deploy 150 troops to Syria: report Trump blasts 'Mr. Tough Guy' Bolton: 'He made some very big mistakes' MORE had it about right on Wednesday when he quietly observed, “Obviously, we are at the very front end of the process, the detailed negotiations have not begun.” Indeed.

It’s precisely this kind of presidential post-truth triumphalism that has America’s NATO allies concerned about the Trump-Putin summit. They are aware of the president’s habit of measuring success by the optics of a meeting, the staged camaraderie, the obsession to enhance the Trump brand even at the expense of demanding meaningful concessions, and willingly paying for the favorable images by granting ruthless dictators absolution, respect and equivalence. Trump agreeing to cancel joint American-South Korean exercises, without telling the Koreans or his own military, and adopting Kim Jong Un’s “provocative war games” rhetoric to describe them, adds additional concerns about the fate of American deployments in the Baltics and elsewhere.

Then there is the president’s recent language of seeming to sponsor Russia to rejoin the Group of Seven, identifying Crimea as “really Russian,” accepting Vladimir Putin’s denial of meddling in the 2016 American election, damning NATO as being “as bad as NAFTA,” and condemning the European Union as “set up to take advantage of the United States.” That’s the kind of schtick that might play pretty well on the “Howard Stern Show.” Not so much in Brussels, where the president will meet with his NATO counterpart before he huddles with Putin.

Wednesday’s image was of the U.S. national security adviser with Putin in Moscow, hammering out the details for the summit meeting, now set for July 16 in Helsinki. I couldn’t help but think: Who’s that mustachioed American in the Kremlin? And what have you done with the real John Bolton? For more than a decade, the staple of Bolton’s public commentary has been that such meetings were beyond useless and doomed to failure. He even called Russia’s election meddling an act of war.

But in Moscow he appropriately said that none of that mattered, and that he was there to carry out the president’s will. That’s what scares the Europeans as they witness what David Ignatius has called the “iron whim” of the Oval Office, which is the president’s apparent indifference to history and consequence, and his seeming comfort with autocrats and discomfort with (and bordering on contempt for) democratically elected leaders, such as regularly referring to Canada’s prime minister as “Justin” or taunting the German chancellor even as her coalition teeters.

The Europeans know that the president thinks he’s on a roll. Justice Kennedy’s vote helped validate his “Muslim ban,” and Kennedy’s retirement gave him a history-shaping choice to make. Validation and opportunity in the same week. He has rarely been this confident in his presidency. All eyes will be nervously on Helsinki.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and of the National Security Agency. He is now a visiting professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies.”