The spokesman for Vladimir Putin gave a funny answer on Monday when asked about Donald Trump’s claims that Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump’s phones during the 2016 presidential campaign. The Russian government “should not be in any way linked to U.S. domestic issues” and “doesn’t have the slightest inclination or intention to be associated with these affairs,” he said.
The answer was funny because the backstory to Trump’s comments is the Russian government’s brazen interference in America’s domestic affairs—specifically the recent U.S. election—and efforts by American officials to investigate the precise nature of that interference. (The Kremlin denies involvement in the hacks and leaks of Democratic Party emails.)
But the answer was also serious, because the story of Trump’s allegations against his predecessor is, in many ways, a domestic one: of spiraling political polarization, plummeting trust in institutions, and the unraveling of the federal government into fiefdoms and feuding tribes. Consider the opening paragraph of a New York Times report on Monday’s news: “President Trump does not accept the contention of the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, that Mr. Trump falsely claimed that President Barack Obama had him wiretapped.” You don’t need to know much about Russia to grasp from that line that something is wrong with American politics.
As Michael Hayden, the CIA director under George W. Bush, noted on Morning Joe on Monday, “We’ve been in continuous crisis now for 45 days, and none of it has been externally stimulated. This is all an intramural game within our own government. No one’s tickled us from abroad. So I can only imagine what this is going to look like when we actually start to get pressure, events start to happen, that do require that sober, methodical response from a government that doesn’t appear as if it’s gotten itself organized yet.”
The United States is in political disarray at a moment of relative quiet in international affairs, but that situation won’t last. Every American president is sooner or later confronted with sudden crises and long-term challenges in foreign policy. In fact, Americans were reminded of that this weekend. While Trump was tweeting that Obama was the second coming of Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy, Iran was test-firing ballistic missiles and Iranian military vessels were brushing up against a U.S. Navy ship in the Strait of Hormuz. North Korea—whose rapidly developing nuclear-weapons program Trump reportedly considers a top threat to America—was firing ballistic missiles into the waters of a close U.S. ally, Japan.
In December, Elizabeth Saunders, a professor at George Washington University who studies decision-making in foreign policy, listed eight questions she had about how President Trump would handle an overseas crisis: Where is Trump physically, since he’s so frequently away from the White House? What is the state of Trump’s relations with U.S. intelligence agencies? Which of Trump’s staffers briefs him on the crisis? Which officials are brought into the deliberations about what to do? How many options are given to Trump and how are they described? Will those who oppose the preferred option express their concerns? Who will execute Trump’s decision? And will a record be kept of how the decision was made?
Saunders might want to add two broader questions: Is the U.S. government currently prepared for a foreign-policy crisis? And even if it is, given the present state of American politics, will the government choose to focus on the crisis in the first place?