So, what if there’s a real crisis?
A real war — not a war with the media, or James Comey. A real showdown — not a political showdown. A real surprise that’s out of the White House’s control — not a situation of President Donald Trump’s own making that spins out of control because the president and his inner circle sprung a decision on an unprepared staff. But what if there’s a real crisis?
Something, and likely more than one thing, is inevitable, because he’s the leader of the country and the free world, and something always does. And Trump’s behavior, chaotic management style and carefree careening through too many versions of what happened this week for any of them to have credibility has people throughout politics and national security terrified.
For all that’s happened in the 114 days of the Trump administration, nothing major has gone wrong, foreign or domestic. The president and his staff have scrapped through explosions of their own making, Twitter meltdowns included. But they don’t stack up to the BP oil spill, or the Sept. 11 attacks, or Katrina, or the Branch Davidians, or an Ebola outbreak, or an embassy bombing, or a hostage situation, or a combative nuclear test.
“This is another taste of reality in the White House — you have to walk, chew gum, juggle, sit down and stand up all at the same time. And right now, there is a lot going on in the world and there’s a lot going on in the White House,” said Andy Card, who was George W. Bush’s chief of staff on Sept. 11 and for years afterward. “I’m a little frustrated that people tend to be putting more balls in the air than people can catch.”
Though there are those in the West Wing focused on their jobs, Card said, the issue for everyone becomes: “Is it more important to focus on the center ring of a three-ring circus than to pay attention to a ring slightly to the left or right?”
“Discipline starts at the top,” Card added. “You hope it goes all the way down, but it has to start at the top.”
Kori Schake, a fellow at the Hoover Institute who served on the National Security Council and State Department under Bush, said she worries what might happen if, for example, Trump declared the need for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea.
“It’s going to be very hard for this president to line the country up in a crisis, because he himself is not reliably steady in how he is talking to the country,” Schake said. “This is the opportunity cost of the president’s reckless tweeting and creating a non-stop sense of melodrama about our domestic politics.”
Anxiety has been pulsing through Congress, too.
"This was a crisis of their own making, yet they were unprepared to even inform the public and respond to basic questions. It’s scary to think about how they might react to a serious domestic or international crisis,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).
“I’m already scared,” said Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.), looking ahead.
“I actually think we’re spinning toward a crisis very fast,” Heck added. “I’m a pretty imaginative guy, I’ve written three books, I’ve won an Emmy for a documentary—I wake up every day in stunned disbelief to the length to which he goes.”
No one knows whether Trump’s statements or those of his aides can be trusted. The president himself reinforced the uncertainty during his Friday morning Twitter flurry, writing, “it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy.”
Imagine, critics wonder, if there’s another shooting like the one in San Bernadino, when the information about connections to ISIS was hazy and for days incomplete. Imagine if there’s more than needling missile tests from North Korea, and a sudden threat that requires the president to call on America and its allies to join with him.
“By having so many false, misleading statements, what it does is it now makes it hard for members of Congress, and even the judiciary, to trust what this administration says,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee. “That is a massive problem when you don’t then have time to react, as in a crisis. If a crisis deals with people outside the United States, you have foreign leaders who now don’t trust the president either.”
Add to that the lack of structure. Four months in, Trump hasn’t named a director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Top positions throughout the Pentagon and State Department are empty, as is the case across the government.
After recalling all the Obama-era ambassadors, Trump has only one ambassador confirmed, and most not even nominated, including trying to send former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to Moscow. White House aides told reporters at the beginning of March Huntsman had accepted, though no paperwork has been filed with the Senate.
Terry Branstad, who was formally nominated as ambassador to China hours after Trump’s inauguration, hasn’t moved forward with his confirmation hearings. And he’s still sitting in Iowa as governor.
Instead, Trump and his same small circle of largely inexperienced aides are running almost everything, on every governing and political issue coming their way.
“When your entire national security policy is coming out of the White House, how do you walk and chew gum at the same time, if there’s an internal White House political scandal and an external national security crisis?” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Then there’s the new twist Trump added to the mix on Friday: Threatening to release “tapes” of Comey that would prove his version of events — a suggestion that immediately set off questions about what sort of recording devices exist in the Oval Office and elsewhere in the White House, and what they’re being used for.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer didn’t deny that on Friday, batting back every question about the possible system by saying, “the president has nothing further to add on that.”
Confidential conversations in the White House are essential to relationships with foreign and Congressional leaders. Now, many will likely assume everything they might have said in confidence is being recorded, potentially for use against them.
Foreign leaders will also be paying attention to the apparent inability to trust what Trump says, Murphy said.
“This administration has telegraphed a very transactional foreign policy, but they need to understand that a transactional foreign policy only works if other countries think you’re going to keep your word,” Murphy said. “This loose association with the truth has real consequences for a foreign policy that’s going to be based on truth.”
Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and occasional Trump whisperer, dismissed fears of a crisis as hyperventilating. Afghanistan, Syria, North Korea — they’ve all been handled just fine while people scream about what could happen, according to Gingrich.
“This is random behavior in a zone that Trump knows in the long run doesn’t matter. This is all noise,” he said.
Schake agreed that the Syria strike was successful and an impressive showcase of organization and military conduct. Though, she noted, it was the exception to the rule, and doesn’t appear to have had the follow through of any clear action on Syria in the month since.
“In a crisis, signaling clearly and consistently very often matters in a way that I think this administration both undervalues and has not demonstrated any ability to do,” Schake said. “One of the consequences of having a thin-skinned and petulant president who’s so obsessed with his media coverage is it creates enormous disincentive for members of the Cabinet and the national security adviser to be publicly making the case for what we are doing.”
Gingrich admitted that the melee set off by Trump’s canning Comey, and repeatedly revising his account of why, without including the aides meant to defend him, has created needless problems.
“He would be better off if he went slightly slower, held a huddle and everyone knew that what they were doing from day one,” Gingrich said.
But, Gingrich added, try telling a man who built a billion-dollar empire and world famous name, and who then won the White House on his own gut instincts, that he should change how he operates.