For more than four months, Republicans and Democrats anxious about President Trump’s inexperience, rotten judgment and defective temperament could tell themselves, “Well there are people around him to prevent disasters.” What the latest — and most jaw-dropping — of all the mini-scandals within the larger scandal involving Trump’s team and Russia has told us is that the supposed steady hands on the tiller are either part of the problem or utterly useless when the chips are down.
News that the princeling with a massive portfolio, Jared Kushner, while President Barack Obama was still in office, allegedly sought a “back channel” to Russia, using Russian communication systems, confirmed what Trump critics have long suspected: Kushner is a 30-something billionaire with zero government experience who is either laughably naive, mixed up in Russian shenanigans or both. He’s a focus of the special investigator’s inquiry and was, we have learned, one of those rooting to fire FBI Director James B. Comey. In short, if he were anyone but the president’s son-in-law, he’d be thrown under the bus, and rightly so. He defied common sense and every protocol in trying to run his own secret Russia channel — secret from the U.S. government. As former CIA and NSA director Michael V. Hayden said, “This is off the map. I know of no other experience like this in our history, certainly within my life experience. . . . What manner of ignorance, chaos, hubris, suspicion, contempt would you have to have to think that doing this with the Russian ambassador was a good or an appropriate idea?”
In other words, Kushner may prove to be a serious liability for the president, not a helpful sounding board in a White House under siege. Even if cleared of any wrongdoing, Kushner has shown himself to be witless, if not corrupt. We therefore can take no solace in knowing he is there to talk sense to the president. He’s among Trump’s weakest links (even when one considers how totally unprepared he is to carry out a list of tasks so enormous they’d sink the most esteemed White House veteran.)
But the generals, we still have the generals! Right? Eh, not so much. Once again we have seen generals debase themselves by lending their considerable credibility to the president.
Just as he did in vouching for the president on conveying code-word classified information to the Russians — first denying it, and then insisting it was no big deal (“wholly appropriate”) — national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster once again came out to defend ludicrously inappropriate conduct. On one hand he said Kushner’s Russia outreach was not anything he was involved in (because Kushner was seeking to cut out the Defense Department!), and then he sought to dampen the outrage. “We have back-channel communications with a number of countries. So, generally speaking, about back-channel communications, what that allows you to do is to communicate in a discreet manner,” said McMaster. This is weak bit of misdirection given that the sort of back-channel communication he had in mind is conducted by the U.S. government (not a president-elect) and is not conducted using Russian communication channels (thereby giving Russia, but not the United States, a record of a call that can be leaked, distorted or manipulated). McMaster continued, “No, I would not be concerned about it.” Without ever really blessing this conduct, McMaster once again used his own considerable prestige to defend something, the contours of which he may not even know. Inexplicably, he puts in the role of two-bit political flack.
Then there is also Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, who has already demonstrated his tone-deafness and unfamiliarity with civilian politics. Kelly went out on the Sunday shows to spin for Kushner, also insisting this was not anything to worry our heads about. “I don’t see the big deal,” he said vaguely. Like McMaster, he praised the concept of a back channel without addressing how abnormal it would be for the transition team to be hiding one from the current government and proposing to use Russians facilities. He ambiguously insisted, “There’s a lot of different ways to communicate, back channel publicly with other countries. I don’t see any issue here relative to Jared.” (He does not “see” it because he does not know exactly what occurred or he sees nothing wrong with using Russian facilities to cut out the national security team of the current administration?)
In sum, two respected generals took it upon themselves to issue non-denial denials. “They batted the questions away with a half truth: that back channels are usual,” noted Trump critic and former State Department official Eliot Cohen. “I wish someone had asked them something a bit more precise: ‘Do you mean to say that you think its okay for a transition team official to ask a hostile state for their secure communications to service that back channel — presumably to avoid the U.S. government monitoring those communications?'”
These two generals were supposed to keep the president on the straight and narrow, using their own prestige to prevent disasters and jealously guarding their own credibility. Without the latter, when the chips are down, they will not have the stature to tell the president “no” — or threaten to resign, which is their ultimate leverage. They are feeding his and his team’s worst instincts, emboldening them with the knowledge the generals will make things seem “wholly appropriate.”
When Trump was elected, many #NeverTrump Republicans (Cohen, most dramatically) warned about going into the Trump administration. It is far too easy to be cajoled into enabling bad behavior, they warned. It’s nearly impossible with a president this dishonest and this destructive to defend the administration without becoming an apologist for lies and bad behavior, they cautioned. The warnings were eerily prescient. “They took their jobs with the sincere belief that they could make a difference when it came to policy,” says Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute. “But what they didn’t think through as thoroughly is the chance that the president and his entourage would put their well-earned personal credibility at such risk that, at some point, their abilities to actually carry out policies will be gradually eroded as well.”
By now we know that just about anyone — civilian aides, military men, congressional allies — who aligns with Trump becomes tainted, if not intellectually and morally corrupted. Politicians have sold out principles for as long as there have been politicians; it’s regrettable when pols who should know better do so. It’s not, however, surprising. When courageous warriors with decades of service to the country do it, it’s not just surprising; it is tragic.
Moreover, the notion that calm, principled voices surround Trump (Kushner, Kelly, McMaster) on disaster-prevention duty has been belied by recent events. As frightful as this might seem, there really is no one to save Trump — and more importantly, the country — from Trump. The Republic remains in great peril as partisan hacks and respected generals alike fall under Trump’s spell.