President Trump’s slash-and-burn actions in his first week have been dramatic, but dangerously lacking in a consensus of support, even within his own administration. The risks were evident in the collapse of a planned meeting with Mexico’s president and in Trump’s embrace of torture tactics rejected by his secretary of defense and CIA director.
Trump’s “tweet from the hip” style produced its first real foreign rupture Thursday, when Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto canceled a planned visit to Washington. That followed Trump’s tweet that he should stay away if he wasn’t ready to pay for the often-proclaimed border wall.
The Twitter grenade blew up what had been an attempt to finesse the issue with a delayed Mexican financial contribution for the wall, an approach that Trump himself had only hours before supported in an interview with ABC’s David Muir. Now, Trump has an avoidable Mexico crisis to deal with.
The torture issue was another self-inflicted wound. The CIA doesn’t want to go back into the secret detention and waterboarding business. There’s a law banning torture, for the simple reason that it “shocks the conscience” of many Americans. And some foreign intelligence services would refuse to share information with a United States that used such techniques.
The weird disconnect between Trump’s wrecking-ball comments and the more delicate process of governing was illustrated by the flap over a draft executive order to revive the CIA’s “black sites” for detention and interrogation. After the memo surfaced Wednesday in the New York Times, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer insisted that it was “not a White House document.”
But then a few hours later, Trump was raging in his interview with Muir that torture “works . . . absolutely” and “we have to fight fire with fire.” Like so many of Trump’s tweets, these comments are disruptive and destabilizing — but mainly to his own administration. They make the job of new CIA Director Mike Pompeo harder.
If the first week of the Trump presidency showed us anything, it’s that he is more determined to overturn the established trade, economic and national-security order than even his critics feared. So far, there’s more Stephen K. Bannon and less Reince Priebus in this White House. The costs of Trump’s impulsive, thin-skinned behavior have also become clearer. He keeps proclaiming how well he’s doing, but his aides have seemingly worked nonstop to put out fires ignited by their boss.
Whether Trump’s tweeting and his alt-right tilt can be tempered by James Mattis at Defense and Rex Tillerson at State looks more dubious. This will worry foreign leaders who had found the Mattis and Tillerson nominations reassuring, and were prepared to believe that Trump’s bark might be worse than his bite on issues that matter to global allies.
Trump’s bombastic nature undermines his ability to address the problems he cares most about. Take Mexico: It doesn’t want a trade war with the United States, and Peña Nieto has been working to resolve border-security and NAFTA-renegotiation issues. But Trump’s humiliating tweet (prompted, presumably, by his fear of being challenged for willingness to compromise) backed Peña Nieto into a political corner. The outcome is contrary to both countries’ interests.
Similarly, Trump’s public endorsement of torture undermines his deeper effort to combat terrorism. Because of public revulsion over waterboarding, and the CIA’s refusal to resume interrogation activities without clear, sustainable legal authority, it’s now easier for the United States to kill terrorists with drones than to capture and interrogate them. The rise in such “targeted killing” may take terrorists off the battlefield, but it doesn’t yield intelligence.
“The U.S. has abandoned any effort to capture, detain and interrogate terrorists,” argues Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA officer who now teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Killing terrorists with drones does not produce information on terrorist plans and intentions. It makes eminent sense to emphasize recruitment and capture operations in addition to lethal drones and bombings. As the crude saying goes, ‘you can’t kill them all.’ ”
John McLaughlin, a former acting CIA director, speaks for a consensus in the agency when he says “it would be a mistake to go back in that direction,” with case officers tasked with running secret interrogation sites. But the larger point is that “the issue is so politicized that you cannot have the sober policy discussion” that’s needed on how to collect better intelligence through interrogation.
During his first week in office, Trump has been his own loudest cheerleader. He has also been his own worst enemy. As with any other form of self-destructive behavior, it’s time for an intervention by those closest to him.