In the 1837 Danish tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” two weavers provide an emperor with a suit of clothes that are supposedly invisible to those who are unfit, stupid, or too incompetent for their jobs. When the emperor parades in these transparent garments, no one dares say he is naked for fear of being branded a loser. Finally a child yells from the crowd, “But he has nothing on.”
We have reached the “he has nothing on” moment when it comes to President Trump and foreign policy. Yet there is a crucial difference between the Danish tale and the ongoing foreign policy gaffes in the White House, a difference that makes the current tale more frightening than funny.
In the fairy tale, not only do the emperor’s ministers recognize his nakedness (although they remain silent), but the emperor also suspects the truth. In theory, an honest cry from someone unwilling to maintain the farce might yet force some reforms.
In Trump’s White House, however, the president believes – as he keeps reminding us – that he’s a huge success at everything he touches. He’s convinced that any evidence to the contrary is nothing more than a plot to undermine him by Democrats and the “fake media.”
Those on the president’s team, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who were supposed to be the adults in the room, simply can’t control their boss’ bad instincts. Most of his team, however, is happy to reassure him his clothes are perfectly fine.
However, all the strands of Trump’s foreign-policy incompetence, unfitness, and intellectual laziness came together last week in his sharing of top secret classified intelligence at a White House meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
With Russian – but no U.S. – media present, TASS photos show Trump yukking it up with the Russians. Then the president casually revealed enough info about an ISIS plot to bomb airplanes, including the city where the plot was hatched, that it would be possible for the Russians to identify the sources, who were based in ISIS territory. That means Iran and the Syrian regime would also be privy to that information, which was provided by Israeli spy agencies.
In other words, Trump compromised a crucial intelligence source even though the president didn’t overtly out the source.
Trump’s gaffe impelled his homeland security adviser Tom Bossert to call the CIA and the National Security Agency and inform them of the president’s breach of protocol. Yet the president, undaunted, tweeted that he had “the absolute right” to share this info with Russia to help fight ISIS.
True, the president has the legal right to declassify top secret info, but the idea that he would do it so carelessly, to Russia, is mind-boggling. This is a man who still calls for Hillary Clinton to be “locked up” for acts that aren’t in the same universe as what he did last week.
Indeed, the Washington Post, which broke the Lavrov story, reports that the breach occurred because Trump was bragging about what “great intel” he got and used this as an example. McMaster, in a failed effort to tamp down the scandal, said the president “wasn’t even aware” whom this information came from.
Sorry, any president who paid attention to his intelligence briefers would have known this material was at the highest level of secrecy. He would know that Russia has shown little interest in fighting ISIS but great interest in undermining America.
And any president with a normal sense of ethics would know such revelations were shameful when the U.S. government is still investigating Russian espionage during our elections, and when he, Trump, had just fired FBI chief James Comey, who headed that investigation.
But as Trump has repeatedly made clear, he is impatient with briefings and insists on one-page sheets with bullet points. We have seen over and over that he is ethically challenged. And he clearly fails to grasp the gravity of issues he’s dealing with, especially when it comes to national security.
Moreover, the president seems unable to grasp the gravitas of the office he holds.
So far America has been lucky. Trump’s lack of fitness has yet to cause a foreign-policy crisis. But as he embarks on his first big foreign trip, including a NATO summit and a meeting with Vladimir Putin, luck won’t suffice. This president does not know what he is doing.
Trump’s loose lips, his hot temper, his refusal to master foreign issues, his crass carelessness with secret information, will ultimately land our country in big trouble. Some intelligence agencies of allied nations are reportedly reconsidering whether it is safe to share fully with their U.S. counterparts.
Moreover, Putin has already indicated he has Trump’s number. Tongue in cheek, he offered on Wednesday to give Congress a transcript of the president’s meeting with Lavrov.
Many are already shouting “But he has nothing on” at this president. But Trump won’t be moved by media or a handful of responsible Republicans. It will take a far more potent group of GOP leaders to insist, at minimum, on a special counsel for the Russia investigation and to confront Trump en masse in the White House. I see no signs yet that such a group is forming.
If not, the naked emperor, surrounded by his GOP enablers, will keep leading the country toward the edge of the cliff.
Trudy Rubin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.