The look on Dan Coats’s face said it all. President Trump’s director of national intelligence had just been told on live television that the White House had invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to come to Washington this fall – clearly news to Mr. Coats.
“Say that again?” Coats replied, being interviewed on stage Thursday by NBC-TV’s Andrea Mitchell at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. “Okaaay,” he continued, chuckling, after she repeated the news. “That’s gonna be special.”
Once again, Mr. Trump had kept a top adviser out of the loop, announcing another major move in his controversially warm approach to Mr. Putin. Coats’s comments might not be good for his job security, especially given that he was speaking to the type of elite audience that Trump typically disdains. What’s more, the intelligence chief is not alone among the corps of key administration officials whose advice has been ignored or not solicited in the first place.
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Before the Helsinki summit this week, Trump advisers had reportedly given him 100 pages of briefing materials proposing a tough approach to Putin, which he then mostly disregarded in their press conference. Most shocking was Trump’s apparent siding with Putin against the US intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia had meddled in the 2016 US election.
So why do senior Trump advisers stay, even when the president clearly flouts their advice?
The short answer is that senior White House aides, Cabinet members, and agency heads typically see themselves as serving their country, as well as the president. That would be especially true for the heads of national security and law enforcement agencies, say former government officials.
History shows that presidents and advisers disagree on policy all the time; aides present their best advice, and presidents call the shots. But under Trump, conflict with and among advisers has risen to an art form. In fact, it’s a management style he relishes. “I like conflict,” Trump said last March. “I like having two people with different points of view.”
Now, the stakes are especially high, as Russian cyberattacks on the US continue, ahead of the November midterm elections. “The warning lights are blinking red again,” Coats warned last week.
“The biggest problem I see with this president is that these are major differences on major issues,” says former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta in an interview.
Some advisers stay out of a sense of duty to country, even when the president doesn’t listen to them, he says. But at what point does staying enable potentially unwise behavior and damage the personal reputation of those who serve the president? Mr. Panetta pauses.
“That really is an issue that is up to each individual to decide,” says Panetta, who served in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2013, and later criticized the president in his memoir. “Where is that line that should not be crossed regarding your service to the president?”
‘WHO WOULD REPLACE ME?’
The Trump administration has broken records for turnover among senior advisers, according to the Brookings Institution. Then there are the top officials still in place but generating headlines that they may leave or be fired. FBI Director Christopher Wray, speaking Wednesday at the Aspen forum, didn’t deny that he had threatened to resign over Trump’s comments in Helsinki casting doubt on Russian meddling.
Chief of Staff John Kelly is regularly rumored to have one foot out the door, and has been caught on camera showing apparent exasperation with the president. In May, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen reportedly threatened to quit after being upbraided by Trump in a cabinet meeting; she later denied the reports.
Staff turnover, of course, is natural. The burnout factor is high. Today is the 18-month mark of the Trump presidency, and for those in place from the start, it’s a natural time to think about leaving.
But many will press on. Among the considerations, beyond a sense of duty, could be concern over who might take succeed them.
“Some have a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience, and perhaps there’s concern that if they do stand down, someone with a belief system unlike their own could take their place,” says retired Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack, senior Russia-Eurasia Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington.
“I believe they’re all patriotic, loyal Americans, in a very, very difficult position,” he adds.
TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT BLINDSIDES AIDES
Trump’s handling of his meeting with Putin may be the biggest controversy of his presidency since last August, when he blamed both sides for the violence at a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va. That reportedly prompted Trump’s then-top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, to draft a resignation letter, though he stayed on until April.
So far, no one has resigned over Trump’s controversial press conference with Putin. But “I wouldn’t be surprised” if someone did, says Michael Kimmage, a historian on the cold war at Catholic University in Washington and a former State Department official.
By calling for the summit with Putin in March, seemingly out of the blue, Trump didn’t leave staff much time for aides to prepare. “That already undervalued the role that staff could play,” says Mr. Kimmage. “Then to have the president override the staff in such a dramatic fashion – not good news for American diplomacy.”
At least the White House has belatedly rejected Putin’s request to allow questioning former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, an idea the State Department had rejected immediately.
But American officials say they still don’t know exactly what Trump and Putin said in their more than two-hour private meeting, where the only others present were interpreters, a set-up Coats says he would have advised against. So it’s impossible to assess whether Trump did in fact heed other aspects of staff guidance, such as sticking to the US position of not recognizing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
In the words of a former US government official, speaking privately, “You may fault me for what I didn’t get done, but you’ll never know all the terrible things I prevented from happening!”
The biggest mystery of all may be how Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – both Russia hawks – proceed. In 2016, Mr. Bolton publicly expressed alarm over Trump’s resistance to aiding NATO allies in the event of Russian aggression, calling it an “open invitation to Putin to attack.”
There has been no public hint that any of the key advisers associated with the Helsinki summit, including also US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman and the National Security Council’s top Russia expert, Fiona Hill, are considering resigning. As history has shown, presidential advisers learn to swallow hard and live with the boss’s decisions – except when they don’t.
“Exit strategies are tricky things,” says historian David Pietrusza. “A bit like dismounting a tiger.”
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