Has there ever been a more indiscreet world leader than Donald Trump? We knew in the campaign that he had a big mouth when he was caught on tape bragging about assaulting women and getting away with it, but very few people would have predicted that this propensity to discuss private matters in wildly inappropriate contexts would extend to classified intelligence.
After all, month after month he excoriated Hillary Clinton for allowing some confidential emails to be inadvertently sent over her personal email server when she was secretary of state. He said it disqualified her, in fact, and "she should not have been allowed" to run for president because of it.
Trump told Clinton to her face that if he were president she would be in jail:
Well, Donald Trump is the president now and several different government entities are investigating his campaign and administration. And he's been shamelessly blurting out highly sensitive intelligence to foreign adversaries, unstable tyrants and even the press without a second thought.
Trump felt the need to meet with the Russian ambassador and the foreign minister at the behest of Vladimir Putin and in the course of their conversation he bragged that he had "great intel" and proceeded to expose a foreign ally's asset by giving them highly sensitive "code-word" intelligence without the ally's permission. As former CIA chief John Brennan explained in testimony before Congress this week, while it's true that a president has the authority to declassify information, he is supposed to follow protocols:
The first [protocol] is that this kind of intelligence is not shared with visiting foreign ministers or local ambassadors. It's shared through intelligence channels. The second is that, before sharing any classified intelligence with foreign partners, it has to go back to the originating agency to ensure that revealing it won't compromise sources, methods and future collection capabilities.
There has never been a need for a protocol to guide a proudly ignorant, inexperienced president with a pathological need to brag to everyone he meets, since nobody anticipated such a thing before. Now we know.
And nobody anticipated that this same president would visit the foreign ally he exposed and confirm to reporters from all over the world that it had been the source of that intelligence. But Trump did that too.
And while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put on a good face for the cameras, the effect on the relationship has been profound. After the breach was reported, BuzzFeed spoke to two Israeli intelligence officials who said that this was their worst fear confirmed. One explained, "There has to be trust for this sort of arrangement. I cannot speak for Israel's entire security apparatus, but I would not trust a partner who shared intelligence without coordinating it with us first."
Foreign Policy reported that the Israeli defense minister admitted that the two countries have since revised their "protocols" and when asked what they were he tartly replied, “Not everything needs to be discussed in the media; some things need to be talked about in closed rooms.” A certain president shouldn't talk about such things in closed rooms either, since he is incapable of understanding protocols for anything.
But that wasn't the only report we had this week of Donald Trump's loose lips putting national security in danger. The Intercept released a transcript of the Trump's recent phone call with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. (I wrote about it here.) The actual words were worse than we knew. Not only did the president effusively compliment Duterte on his murderous drug war, he also insulted former President Barack Obama for failing to be equally impressed.
The two leaders discussed the threat from North Korea, mused about the mental state of Kim Jong-un and batted around the idea that nuclear war might end up being necessary. Trump said he hoped the Chinese would take care of it but promised that if they didn't the U.S. would. Then he shared some military secrets with a foreign leader widely seen as unbalanced and untrustworthy:
We have two submarines – the best in the world – we have two nuclear submarines – not that we want to use them at all. I’ve never seen anything like they are but we don’t have to use this but [Kim] could be crazy so we will see what happens.
According to BuzzFeed, the Pentagon was in shock:
“We never talk about subs!” three officials told BuzzFeed News, referring to the military's belief that keeping submarines' movements secret is key to their mission.
While the US military will frequently announce the deployment of aircraft carriers, it is far more careful when discussing the movement of nuclear submarines. Carriers are hard to miss, and that, in part, is a reason the US military deploys them. They are a physical show of force. Submarines are, at times, a furtive complement to the carriers, a hard-to-detect means of strategic deterrence.
Trump, Duterte, Kim Jong-un and nuclear weapons. What could go wrong?
There are dozens of reasons why America's allies and adversaries alike are starting to panic a little bit about Donald Trump serving as the supposed leader of the free world. Until now, despite major misgivings, it was not entirely clear whether Trump might grow into the job or whether American institutions and expertise would be able to guide his behavior. After four months it seems clear that's not as easy as everyone hoped.
In this context, the fact that U.S. officials apparently leaked the identity of the accused Manchester bomber to the press before U.K. authorities were ready to do so was received with sharp irritation by the British government. If this had happened under any other administration, the misunderstanding between two close allies would likely have been handled quietly. But it's obvious that the gusher of leaks throughout the government and at high levels of the White House has other countries spooked.
Along with the president's ongoing inability to understand and respect the seriousness of classified intelligence, this lack of trust in the United States government's basic competence and predictability is making the world order as we've known it for the last 60 years suddenly feel very unstable. It will be interesting to see whether the NATO meeting being held over the next few days can provide any sense of reassurance.