In the coming hours, we may or may not learn the identity of the ally whose top-secret information the president shared with the Russians (Israel, the New York Times and others say). We may or may not learn from what city the intelligence originated, though we can make educated guesses. We may or may not learn how Donald Trump’s national security team could waive away any concerns about what the president said even though officials were frantically trying to contain the nature of the conversation, urging the Washington Post not to go into details (The Post complied).
But here’s what we have learned: One of the key reassurances that reluctant Trump supporters embraced throughout the campaign—and the first months of Trump’s presidency—now lies in ruins. And that is the assertion—more like a mantra—that “the grownups” will protect the president, and the country, from Trump’s own worst impulses.
All last year, a dialogue of sorts was taking place on the mainstream right. It went something like this:
“We can’t support Trump; he’s ignorant. Doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, with the impulse control of a hyperactive six-year-old.”
“But he’s the only thing standing between us and a Clinton presidency that will give us a liberal Supreme Court for a generation and a bloated, leftist federal government.”
“OK, but the combination of ignorance and arrogance is an existential threat.”
“But as long as he appoints a seasoned, experienced national security team, we’ll be fine. The grownups will keep him from going off the rails.”
Those reassurances gained credibility, at least in the national security arena, once the ill-fated Mike Flynn was dragged off the stage. With ex-general James Mattis at Defense, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson at State, and counterinsurgency guru H.R. McMaster atop the National Security Council, it seemed at least plausible that guardrails were in place to restrain the president’s more unsettling impulses. Some foreign policy wonks even started referring to them as the “Axis of Adults.”
What last week’s Oval Office lovefest with the Russians demonstrated was that the adults are not, in fact, in charge: a 70-year-old man-baby named Donald Trump is. There are just too many ways in which the president—any president, but especially this one—is beyond the restraints of those who serve him.
Consider the most likely explanation for what happened at that meeting. The president did not have a clue that he was revealing highly classified information provided by an ally. Why not? Because, according to information from endless anonymous sources, Trump has no patience for detailed intelligence briefings and wants information boiled down to bullet points, preferably with pictures or graphics. He has no sense of what’s classified and what’s not. Information goes “in one ear and out the mouth,” as one exasperated official put it to Reuters. boasting is just what Trump does, whether it’s a sensitive piece of intelligence or descriptions of his buildings, his golf clubs and the size of his electoral victory.
So what are the “grownups” supposed to do? In his briefing today, General McMaster kept insisting that whatever the president shared with the Russians was “wholly appropriate.” Putting aside the pesky question of whether that sharing jeopardized U.S. relations with the unnamed ally who provided hard-won intelligence, what was McMaster and the other top aides supposed to do if they felt that sharing wasn’t appropriate? Interrupt the president and change the subject? Wrestle him to the ground? Begin singing “Hail to the Chief” loudly enough to drown out what Trump was saying?
No adviser, no matter how sagacious and experienced, can do much damage control when a president can undermine a communications strategy with a tweet (as Trump did about the firing of Comey and as he did on Tuesday morning about that Oval Office meeting). No aide can monitor a president’s conversations and interactions, especially a president who picks up the phone late and night and talks to whomever he wants to about whatever he wants to. Up until now, presidents have embraced the adage that, when they speak, “every word weighs a ton.” It’s why conversations with foreign leaders take on the aspects of ritual, with every communique, every toast, shaped by teams of experts.
This president, by contrast, knows more than generals about ISIS, knows more than intelligence agencies about national security, knows more about anything than anybody. Not long ago, I noted how important it has been for a president to have his assumptions challenged, to bring in someone to tell him “you are on the wrong path.” And I asked, if there is anyone around Trump with the willingness, will he listen?
I think we have always known the answer to that question, but the events of the last 24 hours make it unmistakable. All the grownups in the world cannot protect us from the man-child in the White House.