I spoke with a documentary filmmaker once who explained that great tragic stories are often a “perfect storm” of bad decisions in a system that seemingly had been in place to prevent disaster but which ultimately made it inevitable. Donald Trump is that perfect storm.
During the campaign, past Republican Presidents, Presidential nominees, and Secretaries of State, Defense and Homeland Security refused to endorse him. Conservative newspapers who had not endorsed a Democrat in generations (if at all), warned that Trump was “the most unstable, proudly uninformed, psychologically unfit” nominee and a “danger to the Republic”. Yet he was narrowly elected.
Trump came into office breaking his pledge to separate his business affairs and, like a monarch, proceeded to combine his business and political operations including using his family members for both despite the Emoluments Clause and government ethics rules.
He also refused to accept the finding of seventeen separate intelligence units that the Russian government waged an extensive campaign to undermine the 2016 election. Instead he has attacked the intelligence community, while seeking to cozy up with Russia and even inadvertently shared classified information. He has stocked his administration with a gaggle of cronies, many of whom have questionable ties to the Russian government, while seeking to undermine any investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election.
He has undermined our long-term alliances through twitter attacks, refusing to embrace the United States’ obligations under NATO and withdrawing from the Paris Accords (despite Pentagon warnings that climate change is a threat to national security). He has weakened our “soft power” by embracing authoritarian rulers in Egypt, Turkey and the Philippines while downplaying human rights. Getting less attention is the fact that his Secretary of State is neutering U.S. diplomatic capability through draconian cuts.
Throughout these first five months, we have witnessed the steady unraveling of the narcissist in chief, culminating in his tweet of a video of him literally beating up CNN. For many Americans, these are alarming events and we fear how he might respond in the event of a crisis.
How might he respond to a crisis in North Korea, when his summit with Chinese Xi Jinping revealed his shocking ignorance of the region’s history?
How might he respond to a crisis involving Russia, when he has been reluctant to challenge our increasingly aggressive rival?
What alarms me most, however, is how the intelligence and defense communities view these events. As they watch tripwire after tripwire, fail to check Trump’s ascendancy and abuse of power. As they see a Republican Congress showing little interest in exercising its authority under the Constitution to constrain the President. As they see the President make national security announcements, such as his recent red line on Syrian use of chemical weapons, without consulting with the Defense or State Departments. Will there come a point where they see themselves as the only force standing between the President and certain catastrophe?
I would like to think that the military and intelligence communities’ long commitment to civilian control and the great likelihood of failure would be a sufficient check to prevent any extra-constitutional measures. Should it happen, regardless of how well intentioned such intervention may be, history is clear that nothing good can come of it. We would fall from the shiny city on a hill to one of many banana republics, because once the genie is out of the bottle it is hard to contain.
I pray this never happens, but I also hope that those who do have the power to check President Trump, are mindful of the risk that their inaction creates. It is a somber reminder that as we celebrate July 4th when a small group of men committed to liberty took on the greatest empire of their time, the future of the Republic depends on a handful of politicians afraid to challenge a man-child with 37 percent approval.