A blizzard of reports over the weekend about borderline panic among career national security officials over the Trump administration’s haphazard approach to dealing with intelligence reports and the President’s seemingly off-the-cuff approach to foreign policy left the impression of a White House practically adrift in the currents of world affairs.
The position of President Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, continues to be in doubt after revelations that he appears to have misled other members of the administration, chief among them vice president Mike Pence, about his discussions with Russian officials prior to the inauguration. Flynn, according to intelligence officials who spoke to the Washington Post, explicitly discussed the possibility of lifting sanctions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration, a grave breach of protocol and possibly a violation of federal law.
Stephen Miller, the senior White House official dispatched to the Sunday talk shows, refused to discuss Flynn at all beyond praising his former service as an Army General. He left the impression that Flynn’s position in the White House is tenuous at best.
Uncertainty at the top has career officials on the National Security Council in a state of constant worry, The New York Times reported on Sunday, and the overtly political behavior of some new Trump-appointed staff has further shaken the traditionally nonpartisan body. Flynn’s deputy, former Fox News pundit K.T. McFarland, who once served as an NSC staffer, has reportedly used Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan in NSC meetings, and appointees are said to be carrying mugs with that logo into meetings with foreign officials.
Trump himself continued to raise concerns about how seriously he takes national security issues over the weekend. On Saturday, North Korea took the provocative step of launching a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan. The president, who was dining with the Japanese Prime Minister at his private club Mar-a-Lago when news of the launch broke, took a phone call from his national security staff in a crowded dining room while club members snapped cellphone pictures.
In an interview with Politico, Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described the new administration as a “wrecking ball” that is “determined to just destroy everything” in its approach to foreign policy.
Corker revealed that when he was being interviewed by Trump and White House Strategist Steve Bannon as a potential Secretary of State nominee, he found himself disagreeing with the incoming administration on virtually everything: “in almost every case but maybe one.”
Moving forward, he said, “The challenge is going to be… so you want to do deals, deals, deals. Or you want to disrupt this and this and this. You’ve got to decide toward what end.”
The most disturbing story to emerge over the weekend was also the least verifiable. In his column at the Observer, John Schindler, a former National Security Agency employee who now works as a consultant, claimed that high-ranking officials in the intelligence community have informed him that they are now withholding intelligence from the Trump administration out of concern that the administration cannot be trusted to safeguard it.
A senior National Security Agency official explained that NSA was systematically holding back some of the “good stuff” from the White House, in an unprecedented move. For decades, NSA has prepared special reports for the president’s eyes only, containing enormously sensitive intelligence. In the last three weeks, however, NSA has ceased doing this, fearing Trump and his staff cannot keep their best SIGINT secrets.
Another official, Schindler said, told him that the Intelligence Community now believes that Russia has penetrated the White House.
What’s going on was explained lucidly by a senior Pentagon intelligence official, who stated that “since January 20, we’ve assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the SITROOM,” meaning the White House Situation Room, the 5,500 square-foot conference room in the West Wing where the president and his top staffers get intelligence briefings. “There’s not much the Russians don’t know at this point,” the official added in wry frustration.
Schindler’s sources are not named, and there is no evidence for the claim that sensitive information is being withheld from the White House beyond their anonymous statements to him.
But given the antagonistic relationship the president has created between himself and the Intelligence Community, Schindler’s reporting is at least plausible, which by itself should be enough to scare anybody.