The Burden of Trump's National-Security Staff

Those toiling inside this administration are fooling themselves if they think they can somehow rise above the character and temperament of this president to shepherd this country through to a more normal time.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

What a contrast.

I woke up on Sunday morning and first read the news accounts of National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster’s cogent speech to the Munich Security Conference. I then read the president’s tweets. And some more tweets. And, just when I thought he was done, some more tweets.

As I have written before, you have to give this administration some credit for having assembled some pretty good foreign-policy talent. The Republican Party arguably didn’t have the deepest bench on foreign policy in 2017, having been out of the executive branch for eight years, and some of the best talent available to the administration after Trump was elected was ineligible for having signed one of the infamous Never Trump letters over the course of the 2016 campaign.

Nonetheless, I’ve been struck, in conversations with the men and women serving in the Department of Defense or on the National Security Council, by how good and earnest many of the people working for this president’s administration are. Some of them are true believers, but far more common are retired or active-duty military or intelligence officers (like McMaster) dragooned into political service, or longtime Republican Hill staffers who kept their noses clean in 2016. These folks are, as one friend told me, just keeping their heads down and concentrating on what they can affect rather than the things—like the president’s tweets—that they cannot.

But here’s another thing that struck me, which has been noted by other people who speak often to those in this administration: how rarely people mention Trump’s name. You can have an hour-long conversation with someone serving in a national-security billet in this administration, and they will tell you all about their problems and policies without ever mentioning the name of the president they are serving—unless I bring it up. It’s almost as if they are trying to serve this country in spite of their president rather than through him.

I take two things away from this experience: one, that all of us on the outside are a little delusional, and two, that everyone serving on the inside is also delusional.

On the one hand, those of us on the outside of this administration are subjected to a never-ending torrent of reporting about this president: about his temperament, about his businesses, about his affairs, and about his family. And just in case he disappears for a few days, he tweets something outrageous just to remind us he’s here.

Most of what takes place in the U.S. government on a daily basis, though, doesn’t actually require the president. I served three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan under President Bush and then another three years in the Pentagon under President Obama and never met either man. Why would I need to? I was just a grunt and, later, a fonctionnaire executing the president’s policies, most of which did not require the direct intervention of the president. We should all remember, as our government and our nation becomes more and more inseparable in the public consciousness with the character and temperament of Donald Trump, that the government is bigger than even his outsize personality.

On the other hand, especially after this weekend, those toiling on the inside of this administration are fooling themselves if they think they can somehow rise above the character and temperament of this president to shepherd this country through to a more normal time.

Reading McMaster—either in Munich or in his National Security Strategy—is to read the words of a man laboring under the delusion he works for someone saner and more thoughtful than the current occupant of the White House. That delusion is unsustainable, in large part because the founders created a powerful executive in foreign policy, and successive generations have seen fit to increase the power of that executive. This, I would argue, is appropriate: In a time of war or in international negotiations, one voice needs to speak for the United States.

Today, that voice belongs to Donald Trump. As a result, Germany’s foreign minister sadly noted, “We are no longer sure whether we recognize our America.”

I’m not sure I do either. Growing up in the last decades of the Cold War, when our favorite movie as kids was, naturally enough, Red Dawn, I could not have imagined a day when our president—and his party, which both fears and enables him—would stand in the way of our country formulating a strategy to counter the threat Russia and disinformation campaigns present to our democracy. Since the threat affects every American who consumes content on the internet, and every state that administers elections, the president needs to be the one to formulate our response. His party must insist he does so—or be complicit in his inaction.

The president must lead in order for our country to take the necessary steps to counter Russian interference in our electoral process, but for the president to do that would be for the president to implicitly admit that his own election was affected to some degree by Russian meddling.

And, as this weekend demonstrated, this president’s ego is too fragile for him to admit that.