On Thursday morning, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released the declassified whistle-blower complaint against the president of the United States, and millions of national-security experts suddenly tweeted out in terror. The substance of the memorandum is deeply troubling. At the same time, a vocal segment of social media reacted just as viscerally to the violations of processes it detailed.
I spent 10 years at the Pentagon and the National Security Council. Foreign-policy veterans are particular about the execution of our craft, believing there is a way things are done and all else is simply wrong. Trump has offended our sense of propriety, betraying little evidence that our professional rulebook confines him, or that he’s even aware of it. We cling to the processes we execute because they have worked for us, because they seem derivative of the rule of law, and because it’s easier than questioning them. But examine them closely, and they look different: a practical manifestation of norms and values.
Even without its suggestion of election interference, the whistle-blower’s nine-page memo represents an uncanny valley of the execution of presidential foreign-policy powers, a familiar face that still produces an unsettling tenor. At a glance, the topics he highlights are a fair representation of a regional foreign-policy professional’s tool kit.
Head-of-state phone calls are a big-ticket item, scheduled rarely, and meant to open the way for a significant new agenda, to close a tough deal, or to manage a crisis that affects America’s national security. Preparation for such calls is carefully managed, drawing on experts across the government’s national-security community to winnow down the agenda to issues that only the president can litigate, coordinate talking points and positions among colleagues, and ensure that there will be no surprises from foreign counterparts.
The transcript of President Donald Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president, too, looks eerily familiar. Note takers in the White House Situation Room collaborate with NSC directors and use speech-to-text software to pull together a working transcript that chronicles the call, a great resource when listening to translations. NSC and press experts quickly draft a public read-out of the discussion, attempting to shaping the message for a range of audiences. Summaries and records of presidential calls are in high demand among government officials, who use them as a map to plan their next steps. They are usually shared briefly and informally among colleagues and then more formally at senior-leader levels, when memos for the record are complete. Distribution of such memos may be constrained by the sensitivity of negotiations or if they make reference to high-risk security activities, but it is generally accepted that sharing as much as possible about such discussions is beneficial and desirable.
The other elements of the discussion are, taken on their own, also not unusual. Career ambassadors can play a stabilizing role in delivering policy messages, bridging the gap between foreign governments and American administrations. Special envoys—including private citizens—occupy a trickier place in the execution of foreign-policy portfolios, sometimes offering an outlet for tough negotiations and other times awkwardly making waves without bureaucratic resources or sway. Foreign assistance can be usefully conditioned on progress in governance, human rights, security, and cooperation. And high-profile travel and bilateral meetings can be a carrot—or a stick—for a rewarding partnership.
The whistle-blower’s complaint is shocking because it offers all of these elements reflected in a warped fun-house mirror. Regardless of the machinations of his staff, Trump sought and conducted this phone call with the intent of executing personal and political business. He ignored careful government preparation intended to help him advance policy objectives—expertise available only to presidents—instead pursuing conspiracy and confused gossip of unknown origin.
Records of the call were “locked down”: apparently removed from the accessible servers and computers of those who had previously read the transcript, and stored, at the direction of counsel, on a stand-alone compartmentalized system used solely for the purpose of storing code-word material. In effect, this means that the transcript was put in the most secure staff office in the White House complex, as protected as the most sensitive covert matters, because the transcript was embarrassing.
When these records were declassified, Trump’s poor relationship with the truth bred a thousand conspiracies about the veracity of these official government records and the deep meaning of ellipses. Trump not only abruptly removed a career ambassador but also disparaged her without cause to a foreign leader, weakening the potential standing and credibility of all career ambassadors. As an unofficial envoy, Rudy Giuliani abused the president’s most flexible instrument in the conduct of foreign relations not only by acting in Trump’s personal interest but also by leaving U.S. policy makers at odds and in the dark. And the president conditioned foreign assistance and administration engagement on actions with no relation to the public interest.
In short, Trump reminded us that the business processes of governance and foreign policy are not, in fact, a standardized rule book, and evolve all the time. These revisions are generally the result of technology upgrades or presidential quirks, but feel familiar to those transiting government roles because their underlying foundation is the same. But the stabilizing effects of the foreign-policy-making process are not an end in themselves. The processes of policy are the daily rituals of a president’s norms and values, and those of his oath of his office.
When I served in government under Presidents Bush and Obama, I believed these values began with their commitment to place the public interest over personal and political gain, a commitment I saw manifested daily in dozens of ways. By embracing transparency and delegation in foreign policy, they showed their faith that sworn public servants could place serving their country ahead of serving themselves.
And the processes and procedures we followed put this into action. Meticulous record keeping empowers the government to learn from its triumphs, and from its mistakes. Free, truthful, and responsive engagement with the American media fosters a free press. Deliberative and thoughtful decision making, particularly in matters of war and peace, allows the commander in chief to avoid putting Americans at risk unless absolutely necessary. Keeping campaign slogans out of military events preserves the vital nonpartisanship of the military. Fair and direct engagement with independent institutions—the press, the courts, the intelligence community—even when they offer stinging critiques supports their legitimacy. Deference to counsel and the maintenance of an independent Department of Justice furthers the rule of law. Compartmentalizing the staff, processes, and activities of politics from the coercive powers of the presidency supports the integrity of democratic elections. None of these commitments was ever executed perfectly, but they embodied our aspirations.
Over the past three years, and particularly the past week, a lot of ink has been spilled over Trump’s lack of protocol in his execution of foreign policy: that he relies on the wrong people; is ill prepared; trusts the wrong interpreters. Much of this commentary, including some of my own, missed the point. The problem is not that Trump does not know our rule book. The problem is he overrode our processes to advance a set of goals we were not equipped to deal with.
The national-security community’s way of doing business assumes that the president is working with (not against) his own government, and that his execution of foreign policy is in the interests of the U.S. alone. What really matters is not the manner in which the call transcripts get distributed, but Trump’s use of his foreign-policy powers to advance his personal interests. Experts on presidential power and the law will dedicate the coming months to assessing whether the president’s conduct broke with his constitutional duties. But the irregular processes he embraced revealed the values he intended to advance.
Most foreign-policy professionals experience a moment where they realize, abruptly, that there is no referee to call a halt to the proceedings when senior decision makers are getting something wrong. Usually, this results from a miscommunication, or from moving too quickly. In this week’s whistle-blower complaint, the problem is magnified. Though federal employees with security clearances spend many hours each year completing mandatory training sessions on ethics, security, harassment, and classification, there is no session dedicated to the possibility that they may witness unacceptable presidential behavior in the conduct of foreign policy, and no help desk for them to call if they do.
Presidents have wide latitude in foreign affairs, and, as Asha Rangappa wrote last week in The Washington Post, American institutions are “woefully inadequate” when it comes to addressing or correcting executive misconduct in matters of national security. This is why Congress extended special protections for whistle-blowing, protecting the American value of speaking up against abuses of power. Unlike the processes of foreign policy, this rule book is written down (although it could use some reforms.) Now it’s up to the public to decide what to do.
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