James Comey’s Testimony Cements It—Trump Is a Walking Disaster
Opinion—how can Trump be commander-in-chief if national security officials can't trust him?
There’s a popular meme among U.S. Pres. Donald Trump’s online followers that depicts him as a man playing 4-D chess against opponents who barely understand 2-D checkers. According to the meme, Trump is a brilliant political tactician playing a game his opponents can never hope to understand.
If only that were true. Trump has yet to translate his canny ability to win a reality television-style popularity contest into leading the most powerful country on the planet. In the few months since the election, Trump has whined about his domestic opponents, ceded U.S. power to its allies, rivals and enemies, and tweeted when he should have led.
Trump wants to put America first, but we don’t live in a world where isolationism is a rational response to foreign policy problems. The world is interconnected, in large part thanks to the efforts of America and its allies, and Trump doesn’t seem to understand that.
Worse, his ignorance is willful to the point of negligence. As Trump draws America away from the rest of the world, China and Russia have become de facto replacements. In just the past few weeks, the Middle East has gone from bad to worse as a brewing conflict between Qatar and Saudi Arabia threatens to further destabilize the region.
Now more than ever, America needs a strong, determined and capable commander-in-chief. Trump is neither. Former FBI director James Comey’s testimony on June 8, 2017 cemented that fact.
Comey spent almost three hours testifying before the Senate on Thursday and his testimony was damning. In a morning full of bizarre and stunning revelations, a few moments stuck out. Before the hearing, Comey released a seven-page prepared statement detailing his various private meetings with Trump.
The record exists because Comey took pains to record every meeting he had with Trump and, during the hearing, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) wanted to know why. “I honestly believed he might lie about our meeting,” Comey said. “I gotta write it down and I gotta write it down in a detailed way … not just to defend myself, but to defend the integrity of the FBI.”
Think about that for a minute—and who is saying this. One of America’s former top cops wanted a record of his contact with the President of the United States because he didn’t believe Trump could be trusted to tell the truth. Suffice to say, as a matter of public perception this is devastating for Trump. Comey, as former FBI director, didn’t become one of the country’s most senior law enforcement officials without integrity.
Let’s also go back and review Comey’s 2004 confrontation with the Bush White House.
Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft was sick and Comey, as deputy attorney general, was acting in his place. White House officials crowded around Ashcroft’s bed and attempted to bypass Comey to get an extension and an expansion of Bush’s domestic surveillance programs. Comey wouldn’t let them, and in his own words, believed he “witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man.”
When the squeaky clean choir boy who stood up to the White House calls the president a liar in an open Senate session, Americans should take notice. Comey also apparently thought so little of Trump’s character that he attempted to make sure he was never alone with the man. These are steps he never took with any other sitting president.
Later, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK) asked another damning question. “Do you believe Donald Trump colluded with Russia?”
“That’s a question I don’t think I should answer in open session,” Comey replied. To be fair, this is how Comey responded throughout the entire morning when pressed on his knowledge of any ongoing investigation into the Russian hack of the 2016 election and the extent of Trump’s involvement.
It’s telling that Comey doesn’t want to talk about those investigations in the open. It means they’re possibly still ongoing, that he no longer possesses all the information, and that there is a possibility that Trump colluded with the Russians to help him get elected. But we don’t know.
Based on the current evidence, I don’t think Trump colluded with the Kremlin. Some of Trump’s campaign associates may have had inappropriate relationships with Russian officials and there may be an undisclosed monetary relationship between Trump and Russia. The Kremlin also seemed to be gambling during the election—Russian state-owned, English-language news outlets boosted both Trump and Green Party candidate Jill Stein—with the goal of hurting the presumed president-to-be Hillary Clinton.
But Trump did benefit from Russian interference in the U.S. election and we won’t know about the collusion until the investigation is over. That might take years. Given the dire geopolitical circumstances and the possibility—but not the proof—of collusion, I think it’s a good time to remember former Vice Pres. Dick Cheney and the one percent doctrine.
“If there’s a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping Al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon,” Cheney once said. “we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis … It’s about our response.”
If there is a one percent chance that Trump has an inappropriate relationship with Moscow, Americans must treat it as a certainty. The stakes are too high. Just look at the geopolitical mess he’s made since he took office.
Trump’s trip to Europe and the Middle East was a disaster. “We are not here to lecture,” he told a room of Saudi officials. “We must seek partners, not perfection … and to make allies of all who share our goals.”
Days later, Trump traveled to Brussels where he lectured America’s staunchest allies. In a speech to NATO leaders, he complained that they weren’t paying their fair share to defend Europe. “This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States,” Trump said.
Trump reportedly chided Germany for its trade surplus, shoved the Prime Minister of Montenegro to get in front of cameras and repeatedly chided America’s strongest allies. Remember, NATO stood beside the United States after 9/11 and sent troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the only time a member nation has ever invoked Article 5—the one that states an attack on one member is an attack on the whole.
While it’s true that some NATO allies don’t pay the required two percent of GDP on defense, they’ve more than paid in blood what they haven’t paid in treasure by following America into combat. For a U.S. president to stand in Brussels and whine about unpaid bills is a slap in the face of those who fought and died alongside Americans in the past 15 years of perpetual war.
The Middle Eastern powder keg moves rapidly toward explosion. Islamic State claimed responsibility for a terror attack in Iran. Germany is withdrawing troops from Turkey, another show that NATO—or at least Turkey’s place within it—is on shaky ground. A Kremlin-supplied Taliban has gobbled up most of Afghanistan while America wasn’t looking. Syria burns while Saudi Arabia is making moves to isolate Qatar, which hosts a strategic U.S. air base.
Moscow lurks behind some—but not all—of these chaotic cross sections of geopolitical power. At the heart of tension between Qatar and the Gulf states is a fake news story hacked into existence on state-run news site. That story put unflattering words in the mouth of Qatar’s leader and made him seem both soft on Iran and a proponent of terror.
As Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cut ties, Trump took to Twitter to congratulate them. He praised Saudi Arabia, the country he once accused of perpetrating the 9/11 attacks. FBI investigators in Qatar concluded that freelance Russian hackers—who employed them is unknown—planted the fake story with the hope of driving a wedge between Qatar and its neighbors. It seemed to work. Trump, always the useful idiot, helped it along.
As the militaries of the Middle East form up along battle lines, many of them outfitted with American weapons, any normal administration would be deploying State Department officials across the region to ease tensions. Instead, the commander-in-chief tweets off the cuff remarks without considering either the veracity of the accusations or the consequences of his words.
There is hardly a State Department to send. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is tired, incompetent and worthless. Hundreds of Foggy Bottom positions sit open. It’s a bad situation, one Secretary of Defense James Mattis understands.
“If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately,” he told the National Security Advisory Council in February 2017. “So I think it’s a cost-benefit ratio. The more that we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget as we deal with the outcome of an apparent American withdrawal from the international scene.”
Trump doubled down on that withdrawal. In mere months, America has ceded its power and leadership role on the international stage to China, Europe and Russia. In exchange, Americans have gained a presidency that resembles a reality television show with the highest stakes imaginable. Trump is entertaining, but he might get us all killed.
And in the back of it all, questions surrounding the Kremlin hacking and possible collusion linger. Russia is a petro-state and a kleptocracy whose leaders have learned how to weaponize the Internet as means of soft-power influence and disruption.
Every step Trump has taken since the election has strengthened Moscow’s position on the world stage. He talks about sending more troops to Afghanistan, a country where the Taliban is winning and taking cash from Russia to help keep the U.S. military distracted. Between the disastrous Brussels visit and withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, Europe no longer views America as a trusted ally.
Now, a respected public servant has stood before the Senate and told the world that the man in charge of the world’s most powerful military wanted him to end an investigation into his campaign’s alleged connections to a hostile foreign power. If there is even a one-percent chance that Trump has inappropriate ties with Russia, we must treat it as a certainty. Comey’s testimony makes that chance far greater than one percent.
In the moments after Comey finished testifying, House Speaker Paul Ryan rushed to defend his boss. “The President’s new at this,” Ryan said. “He’s new at government … he’s just new to this.”
That’s true. It’s also painfully clear that America can no longer afford to give him the benefit of the doubt.