What Happens When Intelligence Agencies Lose Faith in the President?

If bureaucrats restrict the information they share with political leaders, the damage could prove deep and lasting.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

American military and intelligence agencies must assume from now on that the president of the United States is a security risk. He cannot be trusted to protect state secrets.

In a parliamentary system, a head of government who did what Donald Trump has done would already have resigned. There is no sign of that from the 45th president. Instead, the remainder of the U.S. government must cope with a president who has proven himself unable to understand the significance of the secrets shown him—proven himself a compulsive blurter and blabber—and added new urgency to the fear that he is somehow under the thrall of Russia.

Would the president have so abjectly tried to impress representatives of any other country? He blabbed because he bragged, and he bragged because he values Russia’s and Putin’s goodwill so bizarrely much. As the economist Justin Wolfers noted, if officials had not revealed the truth to the media, the Russians would now genuinely have damaging kompromat on Trump: the secret of a dereliction of duty that would have gotten anybody else in government fired, if not indicted.

So what happens now?

When officials at one agency of government become convinced that another cannot be trusted to preserve secrets, they slow the flow of information to that agency. Can they do that when the distrusted agency is the White House; the distrusted person, the president of the United States?

The president can never be cut out of the information loop altogether. But consider how little information Trump wants in the first place. He is satisfied with single pagers dotted by colorful bullet points. If that is all he uses, maybe it’s better for everybody to hold back information he could possibly misuse?

Or maybe the sterilization will happen inside the White House itself. The National Security Council staff, formerly tasked to integrate the presidency and the government, could find a new rule: quarantining the president from the government.

If so, they’ll be averting one immediate danger by creating another for the longer term: They will be rerouting the government of the United States around its constitutional head. Unelected staff will decide what the elected president can safely be allowed to know.

It’s understandable why conscientious professionals would take such measures. Yet consider the troubling consequence of that decision. The security aspects of government would slip away from political control—for reasons that might seem necessary in the short run, but could be hard to reverse in the longer term. Donald Trump promised to shake up Washington. And what is being shaken is the trust of those who must carry out his orders. Someone has to be ultimately in charge of the national-security portions of the U.S. government. After this week, it may become a lot harder to identify precisely who that someone is.