The Foreign Policy Implications of Trump’s Big Mouth
On Monday afternoon, the Washington Post released a blockbuster story reporting that President Trump revealed highly classified information during a meeting with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador to the United States. The story, which has been backed up by other news sources, painted a credible picture of a president out of his depth and either unaware of or uninterested in the transgressions he was committing. According to an official quoted by the Post, the president “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.”
To discuss the Post story and what it means for American foreign policy—the president does, after all, go on his first foreign trip this week—I spoke by phone with Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, and the author of The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats Are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Trump’s habit of blurting things out, his first trip abroad, and what James Mattis and H.R. McMaster can do to stop the “beclowning” of the White House.
Isaac Chotiner: What do you think is most important about the Post story?
Daniel W. Drezner: I would say the most important part is the complete lack of preparation it sounds like Donald Trump went into this meeting with, which by the way seems to reflect how he goes about most of his foreign policy interactions. In some ways, Trump’s greatest strength is also his greatest weakness: He improvises, he thinks on his feet.
If you watch the presidential debates, the one thing you have to give Trump some kind of credit for is that he actually didn’t seem to be constantly going to a rote answer. It didn’t mean he had the right answer, but he clearly knew how to interact in a live, real-time way. The problem is that as president there are certain things he should and should not say, and he doesn’t realize that. [Laughs.] And if the Post story is accurate, it sounds like he basically blurted out national security secrets because he was bragging.
Is there any president we have had who conducted foreign policy in such an ad hoc way? I know he is sui generis, but did anyone even approach his style?
I’d have to think, because part of this is that American foreign policy at this level really only goes back to 1945. Before that, even if there was foreign policy by improvisation—and to some extent Teddy Roosevelt did that—you can argue that the stakes were far lower because the United States wasn’t the principal power. I am trying to think if in the Cold War era or after it you can point to anyone, and I am drawing a blank. I am trying to think if there is anyone like this, and … no. Maybe someone lower down, an ambassador that went rogue or something.
That was a joke. More seriously, if you are an adviser to Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron, what advice are you giving your boss at the national security meeting tomorrow?
I think the key thing you have to decide is what kind of relationship you have with Trump as opposed to what kind of relationship you have with foreign-policy principals. And it might be the case now that we are in a situation where someone like Defense Secretary Mattis actually gets better quality information from the allies than the White House does, because allies hope that if they tell Mattis something, he will have the good sense not to necessarily give the providence of the information.
On the other hand, if I am reading this correctly, Trump got what he shared from an intelligence report. And so it is probably going to affect the way the U.S. intelligence community does things like putting together briefing memos and so forth. You can see why they would be incentivized to say as little about sources and methods as possible.
But in some ways it is worse than that. The one thing the White House is saying now that sounds rather vehement is that Trump didn’t discuss sources and methods. But if the Post story is accurate, those were revealed incidentally because Trump gave information where it would be easy to divine where the source came from. So even if he didn’t directly provide it, he indirectly did. So if you are an intelligence agency, and you want to provide information to the president, you have to be worried that if you got information from a sole source, he then might just blurt something out and burn that source. So you might be more reluctant to provide it unless you got it from multiple sources.
I was a bit surprised he was aware enough to have heard this information in a briefing and remember it and pass it on.
It’s hard to know exactly what happened; it says something that the Washington Post appears to be handling classified information better than the president at this point, which is a terrifying prospect if you think about it. But I suspect that he probably has information on the details because he thinks it is cool. He is president and has access and I am sure he gets on a power trip by talking to other people about it.
What was your take on the ethics of going to work for this administration in a foreign policy capacity on January 20, and has it changed at all since?
My feeling at the time was that it mattered greatly which foreign policy principal you were working for. So I could certainly see that if you were going to work for Mattis, you could potentially do so with your head held high. Whereas with everything Michael Flynn had demonstrated, you were probably not going to distinguish yourself by working for him.
In terms of where we are now: I am not sure the situation has gotten any better. There is no denying McMaster has a much better reputation and is a much more capable person than Flynn when it comes to the national security process. The problem is that I have never seen a beclowning of a White House in the way we are currently witnessing.
I didn’t know that was a word.
I am not sure it is a word, but I have used it in a headline.
What is your feeling about Mattis and McMaster going to work for Trump?
I am sure that Mattis thinks that he actually has significant pull. He appeared to be the one who talked Trump out of legalizing torture, which you could argue in itself was a significant ethical contribution. As far as McMaster, he was in a more awkward situation since he was an active-duty general. The reports I have read suggest that he thought he didn’t really have the capacity to say no.
If you were one of those guys, what would you suggest to Trump about what he should be trying to accomplish on his upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Rome? I realize even asking this is silly.
Do you know who Loren Schulman is?
She is on Twitter and is a former Obama administration official. She had a great tweetstorm about the rigors of an overseas trip, about the fact that you are cut off from your traditional information sources, and your sleep is interrupted and so on. If I am Mattis or McMaster, this entire trip is just devoted to mitigating whatever damage Trump can cause. You are already taking him out of his element and restricting him in terms of what information he can get. And furthermore, he is going to be in meetings he can’t get out of. You want to make sure he doesn’t pop off at some particularly ill-timed moment. That’s the base level.
Beyond that, what you are hoping for is greater cooperation from both Saudi Arabia and Israel in terms of the fight against ISIS.
Has anything surprised you about foreign policy in the Trump era?
What I have been genuinely surprised by—and I am not sure quite how to phrase this—is that the world hasn’t ended. Trump has committed a series of gaffes and own goals, and in the end his defenders can plausibly argue that nothing has been fundamentally transformed yet. If you actually take a look, and strip away the rhetoric, there hasn’t been that much deviation from previous administrations’ foreign policy.
Famous last words, Dan.
Yeah, I know. I know. There have been obvious differences on trade, and we still have three years and many months left. So there is plenty of time to screw this up. But what has been striking to me is the degree to which allies have been willing to deal with this White House, and countries like China have also been willing to deal with this White House. Although in the latter case, I think they know they can hoodwink him.