Strains between President Donald Trump and leading figures in the defense establishment, including the military and intelligence community, have been laid bare in his first two months in office.
The rupture between Trump and the intelligence community, in particular, has been combative.
Early in his campaign, Trump disparaged the country’s vast intelligence apparatus as incompetent, citing its claims of the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Once elected, he stood in front of a memorial for slain CIA officers bragging about his election victory.
Since the election, the relentless drip of leaks emanating from the White House has led Trump to claim there is a “deep state” of former Obama officials, disgruntled bureaucrats and hostile intel agents working to undermine his presidency. The first manifestation of that conspiracy theory occurred with the explosive bombshell that Russia had compiled scintillating, compromising information that could potentially be used to blackmail Trump — an unsubstantiated report whose veracity has been widely panned. Nevertheless, the leak left bad blood between the intelligence community and Trump, who on Twitter compared America’s spies to Nazis for leaking the “fake news.”
But perhaps the most damning manifestation of the divide between Trump and the intelligence community involves the pervasive questions over Russia’s ties to the administration, questions that — despite Trump’s best efforts to change the subject — are unlikely to die down any time soon.
Trump vehemently denied for weeks that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election by hacking the Democratic National Committee, despite the unanimous conclusion of 17 federal intelligence agencies in January that Russia was responsible for the hacks.
On Feb. 13, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned amid revelations that he had spoken with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak weeks before Trump’s inauguration and lied about it to Vice President Mike Pence. More recently, evidence that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had also spoken with Kislyak last year forced him to recuse himself from any probes related to the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials.
Trump had initially denied that members of his team had been in contact with Russian officials during the election, although the FBI is still investigating the matter.
The revelations of Russian connections to the president’s top aides may be fueling a feud between Trump and the intelligence community. After Trump regularly skipped daily intelligence briefings and dismissed the value of the information, some in the intelligence community appeared to retaliate.
The Wall Street Journal, citing current and former officials, reported in February that intelligence officials were withholding some information from the president’s daily briefings.
But Michael Shurkin, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation who previously worked in the intelligence community, says Americans should be skeptical of such reports.
“Whether or not the intelligence community is withholding information is only known by very few people,” Shurkin told The Diplomat in a phone interview.
Contrary to press reports, Shurkin would not go so far as to say there’s a “rift” between Trump and the intel community.
But there is a “leeriness” of Trump’s “America-first attitude,” he said, because intelligence officials are conscious of the vital role that allies play in sharing information and assisting U.S. security operations. Antagonizing Mexico, for example, complicates joint border efforts against drug traffickers, illegal immigrants and even possible terrorists.
The “America-first” mindset is also at the heart of the Trump administration’s dramatic divergence from long-held views inside the Department of Defense about the kinds of threats the U.S. faces and how they should be met.
On the one hand, Trump and the DoD are in agreement on some of those threats. They both view the Islamic State as a top priority, along with China, North Korea and Iran. On the Islamic State, Trump has essentially continued Obama’s strategy of supporting Kurds, Iraqis and moderate Syrian rebels to drive the terrorist group out of its strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa — a military offensive that has yielded tangible gains. Trump ordered a Pentagon review of the campaign, which was delivered at the end of February, but he has yet to indicate how he would alter the current strategy.
Meanwhile, Trump’s proposed budget to dramatically beef up military spending by over $50 billion is music to the Pentagon’s ears.
But on Russia, the two sides diverge sharply. Despite the controversy over his administration’s alleged ties to the Kremlin, Trump has repeatedly stressed that he would enlist Russian President Vladimir Putin as an ally in the fight against the Islamic State, presaging a broader rapprochement between the two one-time Cold War adversaries.
Leading Pentagon officials, however, view Russia as the nation’s most urgent threat, even calling it an “existential” threat because of its nuclear arsenal.
“If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia,” Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year. “If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming,” he added, referring to its military, cyber and nuclear capabilities, as well as its meddling in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere.
A Dec. 20 article in Foreign Policy revealed a Pentagon memo listing the incoming Trump administration’s “defense priorities.” Among them were the Islamic State, eliminating defense budgetary caps, developing a comprehensive cyber strategy and improving efficiency. Russia was not mentioned.
The omission was “both surprising and concerning … given what the Russians are doing against Ukraine, their military modernization effort, the bellicose tone we’ve heard from Moscow the past three years, and NATO’s effort to bolster conventional deterrence and defense capabilities in the Baltic region,” Brookings Institution scholar Steven Pifer told reporters Dan De Luce, John Hudson and Paul McLeary.
With Trump casting Islamic radicalism as the country’s top threat and the Pentagon citing Russian authoritarianism, it is difficult to envision how the two sides can reconcile such diametrically opposed views. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he has “very modest expectations about areas of cooperation with Mr. Putin.”
Russia is a source of “real friction between the defense establishment and the administration,” Shurkin said.
This is due, in part, to the legacy of the Cold War, according to Shurkin. Many commanders grew up during that period, giving them a “Cold War mindset” that is inherently suspicious of Russian motives, particularly under Putin, a former KGB officer and shrewd operator.
More recently, Moscow has been “pioneering all sorts of new warfare,” Shurkin added, from its invasion of Ukraine to its “surreptitious undermining of democracy,” like election-related hacks.
It is possible Trump advisers simply disagree with U.S. military assessments. Many experts agree with Trump that there are areas where Russian and American interests overlap and cooperation is not only possible, but also might be beneficial. Yet it is also possible that Trump is miscalculating, Shurkin warned.
Singing Different Tune
On issues old and new, Trump and defense experts seem to be singing from two different hymnals.
On nuclear nonproliferation, Trump’s comments during the campaign and after — he suggested Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Japan should defend themselves with their own nuclear arsenals and in December appeared to welcome an arms race with Russia — contradict U.S. policy since virtually the dawn of the nuclear age. Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower aimed to slow the spread of nuclear weapons and limit the number of nuclear states.
Trump’s oft-repeated claim that NATO is “obsolete” similarly drew shock and condemnation from defense experts and elected officials of both parties, as well as NATO allies.
“What we’ve seen is just ignorance,” said Robert A. Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who previously served as a senior strategist at the National Counterproliferation Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Defense Secretary Mattis and Vice President Pence have rushed to reassure NATO allies that the U.S. will adhere to its security commitments, while reminding them that they must contribute their fair share of the financial burden — as Trump and presidents before him have stressed.
Manning pointed out that top advisors, including Pence, have sought to temper some of Trump’s more inflammatory rhetoric — and even the president himself was forced to walk back his comments on the “one-China” policy.
Under that decades-long policy, America acknowledges there is a single Chinese government in Beijing, ruling out independence for Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province.
Shortly after his election, Trump infuriated the Chinese by breaking diplomatic protocol to accept a call from the president of Taiwan and insinuating that the one-China policy could be used as leverage to extract trade and other concessions from Beijing.
The response was swift: China told the U.S. in no uncertain terms that Taiwan was not up for discussion. Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping reportedly refused to speak to Trump until he honored that position, which he did during a February phone call. Trump is now scheduled to meet with Xi at his Mar-a-Lago estate early this month.
“The trend line is toward more continuity,” Manning said.
But there is still plenty of unpredictability. China is a prime example of Trump’s schizophrenic approach to foreign policy, as he veered from slamming Beijing on the campaign trail, accusing its leaders of cheating the international trading system, to backtracking on his Taiwan outreach, to threatening to confront China militarily if it doesn’t stop its expansionism in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
Trump has also surrounded himself with hardline China critics. Peter Navarro, director of Trump’s National Trade Council, has for years railed against the dangers of China in killing off American manufacturing jobs (even producing a splashy documentary titled “Death by China”).
Less dramatically, Ashley J. Tellis, who is rumored to be on Trump’s shortlist for ambassador to India, coauthored a Council on Foreign Relations report with Robert D. Blackwill that argues China is a rising rival that must be checked. The report urges the U.S. to implement more aggressive policies to rein in China’s economic influence and military capabilities.
Perhaps the most incendiary figure, however, may be Steve Bannon, the former head of the far-right news website Breitbart who now sits on the National Security Council and has said that he believes the U.S. will go to war in the South China Sea within the next decade.
Indeed, Trump’s election prompted the Chinese military to step up preparedness for the greater possibility of war with the U.S., according to a report in the South China Morning Post.
But Michael Swaine, a Chinese security expert who was formerly at the RAND Corporation and is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, disagrees. His most recent book, “America’s Challenge: Engaging a Rising China in the Twenty-First Century,” argues that very few situations can lead to serious conflict between China and the United States.
“I certainly don’t see war with China as inevitable,” Swaine told The Diplomat by phone.
The U.S. needs to determine what the appropriate response to China’s rise should be, but it should not assume that China is an inevitable adversary, Swaine argued.
Nevertheless, Swaine said the apparent policy disorder and intra-governmental finger-pointing has left international actors in the dark, unable to predict the words or actions of the U.S. commander in chief.
“The Chinese look at this and see an administration that is in serious disarray,” Swaine said.
The North Korea Threat
In particular, Trump’s policy statements on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and the dangerous escalation of its missile program have been “all over the map,” Swaine said.
North Korea has volleyed a series of missile tests in its pursuit of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could possibly carry a nuclear warhead to the continental U.S., a nightmare scenario for any American president.
Trump has tweeted that, “It won’t happen” but otherwise has not formulated a concrete plan for dealing with the erratic regime. Just as his predecessors did, he is sure to soon discover that his policy options on North Korea are extremely limited.
Trump has vowed to work with Japan and South Korea to counter the threat from Pyongyang, and the U.S. recently sped up deployment of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea to thwart a possible attack by the North. But the system has angered China, which says THAAD could be reconfigured to spy on Chinese military bases or shoot down its missiles, thus altering the balance of power in the region.
Although it staunchly opposes THAAD, China, North Korea’s economic lifeline, has become increasingly fed up with Kim Jong-un’s behavior. (He’s suspected of assassinating his exiled half-brother at a Malaysian airport using a nerve agent in a James Bond-esque plot.) Beijing has steadily moved to enforce U.N. sanctions, most recently suspending all coal imports from Pyongyang. At the same time, China has little appetite to stir the pot and risk a regime change that would send millions of poor refugees across its borders and place a U.S. ally on its doorstep by uniting the two Koreas.
That leaves Trump with a host of unpalatable options. He could slap tougher sanctions on North Korea, essentially echoing Obama’s approach, although repeated U.N. sanctions have had little effect on the hermit kingdom, which has tested five nuclear weapons so far. He could order a military strike, but that’s considered a last resort because the North would likely retaliate with a conventional artillery attack aimed at tens of millions of people in and around Seoul. Trump could continue to ratchet up pressure and bolster defenses in the region, through THAAD or more covert measures (the New York Times reported that Obama ordered a secret cyber-war program to sabotage the North’s test launches). Or he could try to work with China and re-engage with North Korea diplomatically.
Complicating matters is South Korea’s political turmoil. Park Guen-hye, who was mired in a corruption scandal that caused widespread public outrage, was removed as president by the Constitutional Court in March — a first in South Korea’s history. Park advocated a hardline stance toward North Korea, although her successors may push for engagement to prevent a conflict from breaking out — a more conciliatory policy embraced by many South Koreans.
Any diplomatic talks involving the U.S., however, are unlikely in the near-term given the North’s barrage of missile tests — not to mention the fact that the regime routinely failed to honor its commitments under previous talks. Nevertheless, Yonsei University professor John Delury, writing in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, says a “grand bargain” is possible, especially under a dealmaker like Trump.
Washington, Delury argues, should “negotiate a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear program in return for a U.S. security guarantee, since that is the only measure that could enable Kim to start concentrating on economic development and the belated transformation of North Korea.”
He suggests the U.S. offer security guarantees and political incentives in exchange for a nuclear freeze, including scaling back or suspending military exercises and moving toward normalized diplomatic relations.
China recently suggested the same thing, proposing that American and South Korean forces suspend joint military exercises in an effort to defuse tensions. Both Washington and Seoul immediately rejected the idea of canceling the longstanding exercises, which many see as especially important given Kim’s increasing belligerence.
“We have to see some sort of positive action by North Korea before we can take them seriously,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley told reporters in March. Haley added that all options are on the table to deal with Kim.
During a mid-March swing through Asia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ruled out the possibility of talks, saying that 20 years of diplomacy have failed. In response, Pyongyang said U.S. military threats were bringing the region to the “brink of nuclear war.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that the alternative to engagement is confrontation, likening the situation to a train wreck. “Are both sides really prepared for a head-on collision?” he asked.
Trump may have little choice in the matter, as experts predict Kim is likely to ramp up the North’s missile and nuclear weapons program, possibly presenting the president with the first crisis of his administration — and a crucial test of how well he can work with the defense and intelligence officials who will guide him through the crisis.
Daniel Benjamin, former counterterrorism chief at the State Department, warns that in addition to the increased likelihood of whistleblowers and leaks emerging from an alienated intelligence community, intel officials may be reluctant to stick their necks out for the president during a crisis.
“One form of punishment that the intelligence community can mete out will likely come to gall Trump and his team most: passivity. Inevitably, there will be missions that Trump wants carried out secretly and effectively, so he can avoid deploying the military and suffering public criticism,” Benjamin wrote for Politico Magazine on Jan. 11. “But it is an iron law of bureaucracy that no agency will knock itself out for a leader it deems capricious, especially one who cannot be relied on to defend his own if something goes wrong.”
Despite fears of the real-world implications of Trump’s frosty relationship with America’s security establishment, some argue that it is too early to claim there is a disconnect between the Pentagon and intelligence community on one hand and the administration on the other.
“I don’t know that there’s enough evidence [of a disconnect],” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in D.C.
In a phone interview with The Diplomat, she recommended caution before jumping to conclusions.
Trump has only been in office for just over a month, she pointed out at the time, and Pentagon appointments and defense policies are beginning to look “normal.”
If anything, normal is certainly a welcome change of pace from an administration that has been anything but.
About the Author
Ryan Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.