Trump's Credibility Crisis Arrives

Warnings that the president’s cavalier disregard for truth would have real-world consequences were vindicated on Tuesday.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Donald Trump’s first two months in office have obviously been rocky. But the disruptions have mainly been internally generated—Trump’s tweets, the tensions and shakeups in his staff, his battles with the press, the investigations—rather than responses to genuine external emergencies. By historic standards, not much has really “happened” in the outside world since January 20.

Sooner or later, something will happen, and Trump and his administration will have to respond.

In mid-April of his first year in office, the new president John Kennedy had to deal with Bay of Pigs fiasco that he had authorized. In early April of his first year, the new president George W. Bush had to manage the repercussions of Chinese and U.S. military planes colliding midair off Chinese territory, and the U.S. plane being forced to a landing at a Chinese base. (Not to mention what happened in September of his first year.)

In early October of his first year, the new president Bill Clinton oversaw the “Black Hawk Down” debacle, when two U.S. helicopters were shot down over Mogadishu. The political consequences of that moment are with us to this day. (How? Until that weekend, Clinton’s ambitious “HillaryCare” health-plan proposal was controversial but still on track for likely passage. For reasons I discussed long ago in an Atlantic article and in my book Breaking the News, the Black Hawk Down episode was a major turning point in public support for Clinton and his ability to concentrate on this plan. It never passed; thus 16 years later the next Democratic president labored to enact Obamacare; and thus we have the politics of Congress this week.)

Something has happened to every new president, and something will happen to Donald Trump. It is inevitable. And when that something occurs, it is also inevitable that his administration will need to say, Trust us on this. That’s in the nature of foreign emergencies. It can take a long time to figure out the truth. Even when the truth is known, some of it remains too sensitive to reveal. (Who exactly were the Bay of Pigs invaders hoping to find as allies inside Castro’s Cuba? What exactly was aboard the U.S. surveillance plane that was forced down onto Chinese territory?) So without having all the facts on the table and in public view, an administration inevitably relies on a cushion of domestic and international trust that it is telling some version of the truth, that it is doing its best to weigh evidence and be straight about the results.

The inevitability of this moment, when a new president says Trust me, is why so many veteran officials have warned about Donald Trump’s habit of incessantly telling instantly disprovable lies. Some of the lies don’t really matter: “biggest inaugural crowd ever,” when photos showed it was comparatively small. Some of them obviously would matter, if they were true: millions of illegal voters, wiretapped by Obama. But of course they’re not true, and everyone except Trump and his coterie can look at the evidence and know that. Thus the problem: If an administration will lie about facts where the contradictory evidence is in plain sight, how can we possibly believe them on anything else?

It’s a point countless politicians have made—for instance, Representative Adam Schiff of California, the most effective questioner in yesterday’s testimony by James Comey of the FBI and Admiral Mike Rogers of the NSA. As Schiff put it last week:

If six months from now the president should say that Iran is cheating on the nuclear agreement, if he's making that up, it’s a real problem. If he’s not making [it] up and it’s true, it’s an even bigger problem because the question is: Would people believe him? Would the American people believe him? Would people around the world believe him? And that has real-world consequences.

Across the aisle, New York’s Representative Peter King echoed his concerns:

That’s what he has to worry about, yeah, that when a real crisis does come along. And we could well have a crisis with North Korea, we could have a crisis with China, we could have a crisis with Russia for that matter. Or just some terrorist group out there: where the president gets real intelligence, saying that a real attack could be occurring, and people may think it’s the same as his tweet about Obama.

* * *

Adam Schiff’s “six months from now” is now. Via a tweet from Royal Jordanian airlines yesterday, travelers heard about the latest “anti-terror” security restriction: the prohibition on computers and other large electronic devices in the cabins of certain flights from the Middle East.

Even by the standards of the “security theater” era, do these rules make sense? At the moment none of us on the outside can know.

There’s some evidence in their favor. The Brits have followed up with their own version of the limitation, which counts for something. The limitation is crafted more or less the way a restriction would be if it were based on real intelligence, with specific locations and flights. Perhaps most reassuringly of all, the policy was announced not in a pre-dawn tweet from Trump or in a rally ad-lib but in the understated way a bona-fide security change would go into effect.

On Tuesday evening, The Daily Beast reported that the ban was based on information seized in the January raid on al-Qaeda in Yemen, citing three intelligence officials. That reportedly included evidence of the group’s successful development of battery bombs that could fit inside a laptop, but which would need to be manually triggered.

But there’s also plenty of reason for skepticism, as security-minded writers like Zeynep Tufekci were quick to point out. If laptops are that big a threat, why only on these routes? If the worry is about bombs, wouldn’t they do just as much damage in checked baggage in the hold? (That is where the bomb that brought down Pan Am flight 103, over Lockerbie, Scotland, was placed by Libyan agents in 1988.) Won’t this be a gigantic hit to business travel on the affected airlines, since travelers won’t be able to use computers and would worry about theft from or data interference in equipment they had to check? Since the affected routes involve Muslim countries, is this just the perfection of Rudy Giuliani’s vision of disguising a “Muslim ban” to look like something else?

You can read additional skeptical interpretations from Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman in The Washington Post (Trump, they say, is “weaponizing interdependence” and, purposefully or not, favoring U.S. carriers over their competitors) and Daniel Gross in Slate (who says this is “misguided and xenophobic,” as well as being “a giant middle finger” to the world’s business travelers.)

But here’s the real point: if this change had come from the Obama administration, whose policies I generally supported, I would have assumed there was some real-world evidence behind it. If it had come from the George W. Bush administration, whose foreign policy I generally opposed, I would still have thought, They’re probably not making this up. Indeed, one of the most intrusive security changes during the Bush years—the  ban on all but tiny quantities of liquids aboard planes—may  have been excessive, but it had an argument behind it (and eventually a famed “underwear bomber” case as illustration, as Bruce Schneier explains here).

That is: I didn’t “trust” the GW Bush administration in the largest sense, and I specifically disagreed with its Just trust us! claims about classified intelligence behind its most disastrous strategic choice, to invade Iraq. But looking back I realize that on breaking-news security matters like TSA rules, even I assumed it was dealing in the real world of knowable facts.

After what he has said about crowd size, about wiretapping, about birtherism, about what James Comey was testifying (even as the rest of the world could watch it on TV), no sane person can assume that Donald Trump is operating in that same realm of knowable fact. The instant skepticism about the laptop ban is the first case showing why that matters: He needs us to trust him, and we can’t.

There will be another case. And it will matter more.