The Problem With 'Containing' Donald Trump

When Bob Corker says officials are trying to “contain” the president, he’s pointing to a long-term threat to democratic stability.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

The United States is gripped by two interlocking constitutional crises: one spectacularly visible and noisy; the other unfolding more quietly. Senator Bob Corker’s Sunday remarks to The New York Times brought the quiet crisis into full public view.

The noisy crisis is, of course, the presidency of Donald Trump. The quiet crisis is the response of the national-security system to the noisy crisis.

Mr. Trump poses such an acute risk, the senator said, that a coterie of senior administration officials must protect him from his own instincts. “I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him,” Mr. Corker said in a telephone interview.

This observation by the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has been seconded by other insiders. “There are people inside the administration that think it is their job to save America from this president,” then-White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci told CNN’s New Day in July. In April, an unnamed senior administration official praised the work of Rex Tillerson, Jim Mattis, and John Kelly, then still secretary of homeland security: “They realize this is a tumultuous White House, and they are serving as a leveling influence over fractious personalities … responsibly protecting the country from enemies both foreign and domestic.” The “domestic enemies” in this formula apparently included much of President Trump’s own senior staff.

Good news: The people containing the commander-in-chief have to a considerable extent succeeded. The United States has not launched a preemptive attack on North Korea, abandoned Estonia to the Russians, canceled NAFTA, or started a trade war with China—each and every one of those outcomes a seemingly live possibility if you heeded Trump’s own words.

Bad news: The national-security services are apparently coping with Donald Trump in ways that circumvent the president’s constitutional role as commander-in-chief. One example spotlights the ways Trump’s orders are shirked by his nominal subordinates. Trump tweeted in July that the “United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” The actual policy set forth in executive orders in August will be very different: It leaves discretion to the secretary of defense to determine whether “military readiness” will be assisted or impaired by allowing transgender soldiers to continue their service.

We’ve seen the president issue threats of imminent military action—only to be contradicted by cabinet officers and military staff assuring potential adversaries that the United States will not initiate the use of force that the president had threatened to initiate.

The military and intelligence agencies are learning new habits of disregard for presidential statements and even orders that those agencies deem ignorant or reckless. By and large, those agencies’ judgments are vastly to be preferred to the president’s—but that does not make these habits any less dangerous.

Among other insights, Corker’s Sunday interview forces Americans to confront some tough questions: By what methods is the president being contained? Is he, for example, being denied sensitive information by agencies that remember how he blurted a closely guarded secret to the Russian foreign minister and the location of U.S. nuclear submarines to the president of the Philippines? Are allies and potential adversaries being signaled that presidential statements do not actually represent the policy of the United States government? That was how National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster dealt with Trump’s refusal to read aloud the endorsement of NATO’s Article 5 in the speech written for Trump to deliver at NATO headquarters in May. “He did not make a decision not to say it."

To what extent does the president remain in the military chain of command? It seems incredible that the military would outright defy a presidential order. But not hearing it? Not understanding it? Not acting on it promptly? Holding back information that might provoke an unwanted presidential reaction? White House insiders told a reporter Monday that Vice President Pence had made a mistake in telling Trump he planned to attend a game featuring a tribute to Indiana football great Peyton Manning on Sunday: It was that casual remark that goaded Trump into ordering Pence to stage his walk-out stunt.* Whether the story is true or not, it reveals the preferred method of managing a distrusted president: Deny him information that could have unwanted effects.

Thank you and congratulations to those officials struggling to protect American security, the Western alliance, and world peace against Donald Trump. But the constitutional order is becoming the casualty of these struggles. The Constitution provides a way to remedy an unfit presidency: the removal process under the 25th amendment. Regencies and palace coups are not constitutional. I dare say many readers would prefer a Mattis presidency to a Trump presidency. But to stealthily endow Secretary Mattis with the powers of the presidency as a work-around of Trump’s abuse of them? That’s a crisis, too, and one sinister for the future. What if Trump is succeeded by a Bernie Sanders-type whom the military and intelligence agencies distrust as much as they distrust Trump: Will they continue the habits they acquired in the Trump years?

Bob Corker’s “containment” remark both reassures and warns: The “lesser evil” response to Trump’s challenge to the constitutional order—isolate and ignore him—remains a significant hazard in itself.

* This article originally stated that the game Vice President Pence attended was Peyton Manning's last. We regret the error.