Leaking national security advice meant for Trump is indefensible

Leaking national security advice meant for Trump is indefensible
© Getty Images

Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dead at 77 Biden, Democrats losing ground with independent and suburban voters: poll Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE’s detractors and critics — and I am usually one of them — are gleefully noting that yet another story has emerged that shows the president to be an uneducable loose cannon. This time, however, Trump’s opponents should think about the damage that has been done not only to our national security but to the ability of future presidents to receive confidential advice.

Apparently, during a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump was shown a page from his briefing book that said, in capital letters, “Do not congratulate,” meaning “Do not congratulate Putin for winning a sham election.” This was sound advice. Putin won nothing but a farce, in which his best possible opponent was jailed and the numbers were likely fraudulent.

Of course, American presidents often “congratulate” odious people on assuming the leadership of a state, as a matter of diplomatic courtesy, a kind of nicety that means nothing but also costs nothing to say. Ronald Reagan “congratulated” Soviet dictator Yuri Andropov in 1983, and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaA needed warning for Yemen's rebels — and for our allies and enemies alike What Joe Biden can learn from Harry Truman's failed steel seizure Biden: A good coach knows when to change up the team MORE congratulated Putin in 2012.

This was different. “Do not congratulate” was not just a symbolic issue but, instead, reflected what Trump’s advisers believed was a previously agreed-upon policy that this White House did not consider Putin’s election a real event, and that it was important to signal a worsening of relations with a state that is engaged in open political warfare against the United States.

Trump threw all of that out the window and freelanced the conversation, including his congratulations. An aide then leaked the page to the press. The president is reportedly furious and, for once, Trump is right and his advisers are wrong. Make no mistake: What Trump did was reckless. His advisers gave him good counsel, and he should have taken it. I am a Russia expert who thinks Trump’s policies toward the Kremlin are utterly dangerous, and I would have given him the same advice.

Yet, those defending this leak are taking multiple positions, all of them wrong. Some, like former CIA official Ned Price, are arguing that staff have a constitutional duty to inform us of Trump’s policy shifts, as though the president has committed a crime. Others note that Trump shows no loyalty to his staff and therefore deserves none in return. Trump’s fiercest critics on social media simply invoke his generic awfulness and claim he has no right to anything and isn’t really the president anyway.

First things first. Trump is, in fact, the president and, like every political leader, he has a right to confidential advice — and a right to reject it. Despite the schadenfreude that always floods us whenever Trump steps on a rake, we are losing sight of an important reality of the American system of government: Policy is not what a group of advisers decides ahead of time. Policy is what the president says it is.

I was an adviser many years ago to a senior U.S. senator during the first Gulf War. Sometimes he didn’t take my advice and, in a few cases, he rejected my counsel with a healthy dose of well-known Anglo-Saxon verbs. It would never have occurred to me to call a journalist and explain how the boss’s vote was completely against my best advice. This, as every Washington staffer knows, violates the First Rule of Staff Club: “You are not the story.” (The Second Rule of Staff Club: “You must never become the story.”) A principal and an aide are not peers, and any staffer, no matter how senior, who thinks so is in the wrong job.

More important, secrecy is crucial. Briefing books are classified documents. Even one page, however anodyne its contents, is sensitive material. Price disagrees on this but, as an analyst of Russian affairs, I can only say that I would consider just one page of Putin’s briefing book to be solid gold. I would frame it (if it were ever declassified) and hang it in my office, like a hunting trophy, if I had it. That’s because a good intelligence analyst can make sense even of very small things. To know what a leader was advised to say, as opposed to what he or she actually said, is deeply revealing of the internal dynamics of any government.

Finally, there is an important issue here for the future: If we decide that staffers are the ultimate arbiters of policy, why stop with Trump? Do Democrats really want to establish a precedent in which a future liberal chief executive runs afoul of the policy preferences of a staff member who then feels free to explain how the boss didn’t do what he was told, and thus destroy any expectation that an aide’s advice is confidential?

Leaks are a fact of life in Washington. No White House can avoid them. Many times, administrations actually encourage them. While leaking is a dirty game, sometimes it may, in fact, be necessary. But if a member of the president’s staff feels that the Constitution is in danger or that the commander in chief is about to embark on an action so dangerous that the public should know immediately, there are always options. Capitol Hill is walking distance. Washington is laden with good law firms to protect whistleblowers.

If all else fails and the country is in peril, resign, tell your story, and let the chips fall. But a bruised ego over rejected advice — even if it was great advice the boss should have taken — does not clear the bar for violating the pact between an aide and his or her principal. And it is never a reason to endanger national security.

Tom Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor at the Harvard Extension School. His latest book is “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.” You can follow him on Twitter @RadioFreeTom. The views expressed in this column are his own.