Jim Hoagland is a contributing editor for The Post.
The most disturbing habit that President Trump and his aides have shown in their disastrous break from the gate is the pure recklessness of their behavior and words. When their bluffs are called, they have left themselves no room to maneuver or correct course without having to abandon their original heading.
Michael Flynn’s brief career as Trump’s national security adviser lies in ruins after he discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador to Washington before Trump was in office and then apparently lied about that conversation to his bosses and the public.
Flynn should have paid more attention to the wily ways of the Russian diplomat, Sergey Kislyak, with whom he was reportedly dealing during and after the campaign. And other Trump campaign officials who are alleged to have been in touch with Russian intelligence officials don’t seem to have been very aware of Washington rules on how to identify and deal with spies.
Finally, those who speak for Trump seem to ignore the Watergate adage that the coverup is frequently worse than the crime — that their heated, all-encompassing denials about the president and the Russians keep the story boiling and bring new scrutiny.
A case in point is press secretary Sean Spicer’s continuing refusal to confirm that Trump campaign officials were in touch with Russian diplomats and other Russians before the election, despite persuasive reports based on law enforcement and intelligence agency intercepts — and the Russians’ own confirmation.
When I heard Kislyak publicly acknowledge two days after Trump’s election victory that he and his staff had had contacts with Trump campaign, I pressed him for some details. Speaking to a group of students and scholars at Stanford University, he brushed me off with a worldly wise disclaimer that the contacts had been “routine” and he would not elaborate.
He reiterated that position to The Post this week after Flynn’s resignation, even as Spicer persisted.
Lack of experience and lack of appointed staff throughout the administration are crippling flaws for Team Trump. But even more destructive, especially in foreign affairs, is the hubris that Trump displays and demands from his subordinates. They proudly ignore the Washington folkways that apply to dealing with Russians or other adversaries, as well as with allies.
In the Cold War days, an out-of-the-blue telephone call to a reporter or columnist from a Soviet embassy official or journalist that might include an invitation to lunch was a sure sign that the caller was an intelligence officer. No one else would have been authorized to reach out in that manner.
When I engaged in such contacts, I sought to limit myself to repeating what I had already written about an administration’s policies or personnel. That was especially true for one KGB station chief who, it turned out, was known to the FBI as a specialist in “wet affairs,” or assassinations.
But there was some gain from these encounters as well. Some of the best analysis I received in the late 1980s on the impending collapse of the Soviet empire came from a KGB agent and from an East German intelligence officer, both of whom could see the internal rot spreading rapidly.
So contact in and of itself is not an evil to be avoided at all costs. But even in Putin’s Russia, that contact has to be controlled, open to scrutiny from others and free of conflicts of interest. Flynn’s 2015 trip to Moscow to sit beside Putin at a banquet and his post-election exchange with Kislyak fell short.
So does most of the rest of the Trump administration’s dealings with Moscow. They have incubated suspicion that Trump’s business interests depend on foreign financing that has given the Russians leverage over this president.
But if Trump’s dealings with Moscow inspire distrust, so do his administration’s dealings with the American public. Spicer has now been caught in so many bare-faced falsehoods that a Nixon-era saying has become current again: He lies not just because it is in his interests but because it is in his nature. Washington is familiar with credibility gaps. It now deals with a credibility canyon that cannot be easily bridged.
Most of what I have referred to as Washington folkways can be boiled down to common sense. Do not lie to people on Monday and expect them to trust you anew on Tuesday. Do not try to shout your way out of a crisis with falsehoods and insults, which can only boomerang on your own credibility.
I tend toward historical optimism, so I am not ready yet to write off this administration. Is it possible that the Flynn affair will serve as a mild heart attack for this White House and get it to give up its bad habits? I hope so. But the country could use some proof of that, and fast.
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