The president’s advisers, whom he ignores, must guard our national security

The president’s advisers, whom he ignores, must guard our national security
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Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsFBI chief says Russia is trying to interfere in election to undermine Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Trump, Biden renew push for Latino support Former Intel chief had 'deep suspicions' that Putin 'had something on Trump': book MORE was caught flat-footed at the Aspen Security Conference when MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell informed him that President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate MORE had invited his Russian counterpart to Washington.

Although an embarrassed Coats tried to laugh off the matter, the incident revealed the extent to which a tiny cadre of White House officials have kept the executive departments in the dark in matters of national security.

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Leading officials in the government’s national security community have been aware of this fact for some time. After all, as of last week, there had been no meeting of the cabinet-level Principals Committee (PC) — the interagency forum that includes the secretaries of State, Defense and the Treasury, the president’s chief of staff and his national security adviser — since April 9, the day John Bolton began his tenure in the latter role. That is to say, President Trump saw no need to consult his senior security officials as a group in the formal setting of that committee, either for the run-up to his summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un or for his meeting in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin.  

 

At some point, the president no doubt will call a meeting of the PC. But his modus operandi is quite clear: he responds to issues trusting his own judgment and neither requests, nor is interested in, the advice of the very officials he appointed to counsel him on critical matters of national security. Given his erratic nature, and his apparent belief that he is the only genius in his government, the challenge for the people of the United States is how to survive his term of office, however long that might be.

Those who dream of impeachment are fooling themselves. Even if the House flips to the Democrats in November, even if the Senate does as well, it is highly unlikely that there will be sufficient votes to convict the president; two-thirds of the Senate are required for conviction. It is unlikely that sufficient Republicans would join a Democratic majority to remove the president from office. Conviction would be possible only if special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE (should he remain on the Russia investigation) finds a truly smoking gun that even the Republican far right would be unable to ignore.

In the meantime, it is those who serve in the executive agencies who must continue to provide for the nation’s security and salvage America’s dwindling influence on the world stage.

In this regard, little can be expected of a bitterly divided Congress. It is possible that it will legislate a new set of sanctions, particularly against Russian oligarchs and businesses. It might pass resolutions repudiating any or all of Trump’s initiatives toward Moscow. Having proposed a variety of measures to strengthen ties between the Kremlin and Washington, most notably the creation of new business contacts, Trump will do all he can to undermine any such congressional boldness. In an election year, with a base that remains blindly supportive of anything he does, Trump will surely cow Republican legislators into inaction.

It therefore falls to those who serve in the executive branch to slow-roll anything the president seeks to accomplish. This can be done in a number of ways. To begin with, every effort should be made to keep cooperation with allies and friends, especially military cooperation, below the president’s radar. Trump may consider himself a chief executive officer — and indeed that is how presidents are normally described — but he lacks patience to deal with detailed matters. And it is the daily details that sustain the workings of America’s alliances and partnerships.

In addition, cabinet secretaries and military, intelligence and diplomatic officials should insist that they will respond to presidential orders only when they are transmitted in writing, on White House stationery, and signed by the president himself. They should ignore not only his tweets but phone calls from White House officials claiming to speak for the president.

Such behavior by government officials certainly would be out of the ordinary. It would smack of the “deep state” against which the president continues to rail. There is, in fact, no such deep state. But perhaps, for the foreseeable future, that is exactly what America needs.

These are extraordinary times, under an extraordinary leader, and they justify extraordinary measures by those loyal and committed civilians and military personnel who have dedicated their lives to the welfare of their nation.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.