White House drama leaves national security in a perilous spot, officials fear

WASHINGTON — Current and former U.S. national security officials believe that the U.S. government is in crisis — and that the current status could lead to serious national security consequences.

No current officials would speak on the record with WTOP, but several expressed disappointment that they and their agencies are the targets of a harsh and unforgiving international spotlight, brought on by the political intrigue emanating from the White House.

Several former appointed national security officials — who served both Democratic and Republican administrations — agreed that the stream of stunning and aggressive behavior from the White House has embarrassed the nation and played perfectly into the Russian government’s objective of creating dysfunction and chaos in the U.S.

Among the developments are President Donald Trump’s condescending remarks on Twitter about his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, which some observers say are designed to break his spirit and cause him to submit his resignation.

Other jaw-dropping moments described as “distasteful” by one former official WTOP spoke to include: Trump’s sudden ban on transgender people in the military (announced via Twitter) and White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci’s harsh, expletive-laced criticism of fellow White House staffers in an article published by The New Yorker on Thursday.

That conduct, according to former CIA and National Security Agency director Michael Hayden, “will affect the willingness of partners to work with us,” he said in an interview.

“Such decisions always require the partner to balance their narrowly defined national interests with the benefits of opening up a bit and working with us,” he said. “They have to see the benefits of partnering because it always involves risk.”

Trump’s repeated rejection of the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 election — as well as other controversial decisions, some of which were announced on social media as opposed to through official channels — have and will send very negative messages to allies and make them resistant to working with the U.S., Hayden said.

“If the president will disregard the final intelligence estimate, what’s the point?” Hayden asked rhetorically. “If the president doesn’t listen to its American partners, what’s the point? If the Americans or even the president can’t keep a secret, what’s the point?”

‘A slap in the face’

Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military was heavily criticized, especially by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

“The president’s decision to ban transgender people from service in the U.S. military is a slap in the face to all of those who believe we are created equal and deserve the opportunity to serve their nation,” Panetta said in a statement.

The impromptu ban, which caught Defense Department leaders off guard, has consequences, he told WTOP.

“I think this is another indication to the world the U.S., which has provided strong world leadership and the strongest military on earth, seems to not be sure of what we stand for.”

Panetta believes that Trump and Secretary of Defense James Mattis are facing what could be a difficult conversation.

“I think that Secretary Mattis has to have a long conversation with the president about how these kinds of decisions are going to be made. The president ought not to just simply tweet out whatever policy he wants to tweet out, particularly when it comes to our military and national security,” said Panetta.

A growing number of former national security officials have expressed uneasiness about Russian government officials gloating over their election meddling, and they fear that Trump’s dismissal of the intelligence assessment has emboldened Moscow to continue its efforts.

Even though it’s been accused of taking a soft approach to Moscow’s interference, the Trump administration has shown signs of pushing back periodically.

On April 6, after the U.S. launched cruise missiles at a Syrian military chemical weapons base, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson responded to vehement criticism from Russian leaders saying, Moscow was either “complicit” or “simply incompetent” in preventing the attack.

It is widely believed in the intelligence community that Moscow was aware of the attack preparations.

And on July 9 in Kiev, Ukraine, Tillerson said Russia must use its influence to reduce the conflict there and to restore Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty in order to get the sanctions relief it so desperately wants.

Russia bristled and took no action.

But the U.S. Congress has.

Sanctions await signature

By a vote of 98-2, the Senate passed a package of sanctions Thursday punishing Russia for its meddling. It’s not clear whether Trump will sign the measure.

Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately threatened retaliation for what he called “insolence.”

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper indicated in a recent interview with WTOP that it’s imperative that Trump administration officials stop undercutting each other and the country, because it comes with a cost.

Clapper cited Trump’s high-profile rejection of the Russian meddling assessment in Warsaw, Poland, on July 6.

“I think it plays into their hands,” Clapper said. “His having disparaged and cast doubt on the veracity of a U.S. intelligence community assessment on foreign soil — before the G-20 and before his bilateral meeting with Putin — strengthens Putin’s hand and weakens his.”

As the U.S. struggles through this rough period, current and former officials worry that ultimately, missteps and self-inflicted distractions will make it harder for the U.S. to effectively and efficiently respond to national security crises that could arise in an instant.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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