Discerning a hierarchy of depravity among Trump’s provocations is not easy. His increasingly strident racism is complicating America’s reckoning with current injustices and grave historical crimes. His politically motivated sabotage of essential public health measures has likely cost thousands of lives. But there is something uniquely debased about a commander in chief who receives the salutes of soldiers while his administration does nothing about credible information on a plot to kill them.
And that is what the Trump administration seems to have done. If, as reported by multiple news sources, the White House was informed in March that Russian intelligence units were placing bounties on the heads of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, then the administration’s silence and inaction have been a form of permission.
The president’s claim of ignorance is not credible. This act of aggression would be a major escalation by a strategic rival. If the United States received intelligence about the bounties, and if response options were considered at a high level within the White House, there is simply no way the president and his senior staff would have been kept in the dark. It is information directly pursuant to Trump’s function as commander in chief.
It is possible that Trump disbelieved his briefers, on the theory that the “deep state” was once again trying to undermine his brilliant strategy of preemptive concessions to the Russians on every front. But this explanation requires admitting that the president actually believes in insane conspiracy theories about his own government. And it raises serious questions about his mental capacity.
It is more likely that Trump received this information and dismissed it as part of the rough and tumble of great power rivalry. When confronted in 2017 about allegations that Vladimir Putin had journalists killed, Trump replied: “I think our country does plenty of killing also.” In the toxic fog of Trump’s mind, he may similarly see a moral equivalence between Russian bounties and past American actions against Russian forces.
But this implies a diminished moral capacity. The president rages in public against allies such as South Korea and Germany for their insufficient contributions to our common defense. He is silent, it now seems, when Russia pays for the murder of Americans defending the peace. Trump has a long history of making excuses for despots. And this ethical failure makes him incapable of the most elementary skill of statecraft: distinguishing enemies from friends.
Trump’s apparent failure of nerve in confronting Russian aggression reveals a man unworthy of being commander in chief. There is normally a bond between a president and the men and women who serve under his command. Those in the armed forces may be called upon for great sacrifice. But they need and deserve to be confident that their contributions will not be devalued or squandered by their commander in chief. If Trump can ignore or explain away the needless murder of men and women in uniform — if he can cynically dismiss this as a normal, acceptable cost of geopolitics — he makes a mockery of solemn obligations and sells the lives of Americans cheap.
For Trump, this is part of a pattern of dishonor. He is the man who said of John McCain’s five years in POW hell: “I like people who weren’t captured.” He is the man who attacked the Gold Star families of Army Capt. Humayun Khan and Army Sgt. La David Johnson. He is the man who has tried to misuse the armed forces in immigration enforcement and crowd control, which would dangerously politicize the military’s role.
I have been generally sympathetic to people who took defense and foreign policy jobs in the Trump White House. It is usually better to have responsible people in the room where the president makes strategic choices. But if the worst proves true — that the commander in chief knew of the Russian bounties in Afghanistan and refused to confront them — then resignation would be an act of honor. It might even be a requirement of conscience.