Flinders PhD candidate Jesse Barker Gale offers commentary on the latest political furore to engulf the U.S. President.
Short of engaging in a land war in Asia, it is difficult to imagine how President Donald Trump and his Administration could further undermine American institutions and relationships with intelligence partners. In the past two weeks, we have seen the President fire the Director of the FBI, James Comey, meet with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lagrov with Russian, but not American press present, suggest that he secretly records Oval Office conversations, and caused immeasurable damage to an extremely high-value intelligence relationship by blurting out code word classified information to the two Russian officials.
The Trump Administration is yet to have a scandal-free week in its short life, and more importantly, is yet to competently handle a crisis not entirely of its own devising. To start this latest curve in a seemingly unending downward spiral, the President abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey, ostensibly for his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server.
While Comey’s tenure at the FBI had been the subject of sustained bipartisan criticism from many members of Congress, particularly during the 2016 Presidential campaign, Trump had been seen to be the direct beneficiary of the FBI investigation into Clinton’s emails. This is particularly evident in the closing days of the campaign when Comey announced that he was re-opening the email investigation.
Caught largely by surprise over the timing of the announcement, President Trump’s press staff dutifully went before the press and argued that the FBI Director had been fired on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. This was the official story for all of two days before Trump sat for an interview with reporter Lester Holt from NBC. In the interview, he admitted that he had made up his mind to fire Comey prior to receiving the recommendation from Rosenstein.
In addition, the President cited the FBI’s ongoing investigation into the Russian Government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election as further justification for Comey’s firing. This statement drew immediate, though incorrect, parallels to Richard Nixon’s firing of the Special Prosecutor in the Watergate case, and ran counter to the comments of many of the President’s defenders in the media.
President Trump’s sudden admission that his decision to fire Comey was not based on careful justifications constructed by the Deputy Attorney General effectively threw several high-profile members of his press team and surrogates under the bus. In addition, his Administration’s relationship with the press, already more fractious than any point in recent memory, has further deteriorated given the numerous of contradictions that accompany official White House accounts of events.
Feeling the pressure from the political fallout over Comey’s firing, the President took to Twitter early last Friday morning, ominously noting that “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Predictably, his comments ignited furious discussion and unflattering comparisons to Richard Nixon, many of which noted the parallels between the paranoia of the 37th President and the actions of the incumbent.
Trump’s Oval Office meeting with Ambassador Kislyak and Foreign Minister Lagrov prompted another bout of consternation. The meeting, on the Wednesday after Comey’s firing, was unusual for two reasons. The first, both Kislyak and Lagrov are deeply connected in Russian intelligence circles, and Kislyak is a key figure in the FBI investigation that the President the next day would cite as justification for firing Comey. Second, no American press were allowed to photograph the meeting, yet the Russian state news agency TASS was allowed to take photographs. Indeed, the only photos that were released were tweeted by TASS, further fuelling questions of what occurred in the meeting and why the American press were shut out.
The meeting was strange enough, but early this week, the Washington Post revealed that in the meeting with Russian officials, Trump discussed details of code word classified material relating to the Administration’s ban on laptops in carry-on baggage in flights from several Middle Eastern countries.
Although the President’s disclosure of such material is not illegal, it does confirm the ‘nightmare scenario’ that has concerned US intelligence allies since Trump’s election. The sheer nature of global intelligence gathering means that the United States is unable to gather every relevant piece of information on its own, and so it relies on trusted foreign partners to assist in endeavour. The ‘nightmare scenario’ realised is that foreign intelligence partners lose confidence in the US Government’s ability to appropriately handle and safeguard classified information.
Informing an adversary, particularly one with the Middle East intelligence networks of Russia, of top secret information exposes both the intelligence partner’s methods of information gathering and operation as well as the on-ground source of the intelligence. It is, from every angle, a major breach of convention and one that will almost certainly provoke allies to seek additional measures of confidence from the US concerning future intelligence sharing. To be clear, there is no way to undo this latest damage, nor restore the trust while Trump occupies the Oval Office.
It is difficult to ascribe these latest series of events to anything other than incompetence. Increasingly, there is a yawning gap between the reality of the President and the reality of his officials. Each tortured and torturing defence they are forced to make further diminishes them and the institution they serve.
Nothing good will come of this experience.
Jesse Barker Gale is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Flinders University’s Centre for United States and Asia Policy Studies, an internationally regarded source of analysis and commentary on policy issues between Australia, the U.S. and Asia.
Photos: Gage Skidmore