President Trump on Friday walked back his order earlier this week to declassify information in the ongoing probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, saying Justice Department officials and others had convinced him not to declassify it for the time being.
The retreat from his declassification decree issued just four days ago underscores the ongoing tensions between the White House and the Justice Department over the probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is examining whether any Trump associates may have conspired with the Kremlin to interfere in the election.
One’s first reaction must be relief. Trump’s order, according to his own national security appointees, would have done real damage to national security. His revelation that he took the advice of three zany Fox New hosts to release the documents shows the utter lack of care with which he operates as commander in chief.
After breathing a sigh of relief, one cannot help wondering who got Trump to reverse and how he or she did it. Did, for example, FBI Director Christopher Wray threaten to quit? Did Trump’s lawyers warn him that this cavalier treatment of documents relating to the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election might be evidence of “corrupt intent,” a key element in criminal obstruction of justice?
As with Trump’s earlier release of documents intended to smear the intelligence community, the documents might have turned out to be a batch of nothing-burgers, or worse, from his perspective, demonstrated the professionalism of the FBI.
We’ll have to wait for the next Bob Woodward book, it seems, to get the blow-by-blow.
Three things are clear, however.
First, Trump’s mercurial conduct is dangerous. This time he was able to call back the order (or national security officials were able to slow-walk their response). It’s hard to call back a nuclear strike order, or as Trump was apparently prepared to do, call back U.S. military forces in South Korea, which Pyongyang would regard as a precursor to war. He couldn’t call back his revelation to Russian officials in the White House highly classified intelligence obtained from the Israelis. And goodness knows what he told and cannot un-tell Russian President Vladimir Putin in a one-on-one meeting in Helsinki. (Note to Democrats if they win the majority in one or both houses of Congress: Subpoena those notes.)
Moreover, Trump’s penchant for about-faces injects a high degree of uncertainty into our national security operations. When do military and intelligence leaders take him seriously, and when should they drag their feet? It’s hard to know and that by itself undermines our security and safety.
Second, this incident sure does corroborate the New York Times anonymous op-ed writer’s assertion that aides stand ready to snatch documents, delay responses and generally put up interference to prevent bad things from happening. That doesn’t justify subverting democracy through a coup of unelected aides, but in this case one or more of those aides did seem to effectively cut Trump off at the pass.
Finally, the notion that Trump is somehow a superior foreign policy strategist compared with his predecessors is laughable. Trump bounces from one photo-op to another, declaring victory (e.g., North Korea is no longer a threat) and contradicting his administration’s stated policy. He has launched a disastrous trade war, roiled alliances, done nothing to change Iran’s non-nuclear conduct, abandoned support for human rights, doubled down on President Barack Obama’s horrifying neglect of the Syrian people, modeled (and thereby encouraged) anti-democratic behavior and rhetoric, and repeatedly tried to discredit our national security community. One might argue that Wray is a better FBI director than James Comey (picked by Obama) or that Jim Mattis is a better defense secretary than Chuck Hagel (Obama’s second replacement for Robert Gates). However, there is more evidence with each passing day that Trump is the worst and most dangerous commander in chief we’ve ever had.