Both in content and in context, the official transcripts of Donald Trump’s January phone calls with Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto—which were leaked to The Washington Post and published Thursday—depict a president whose very presence in high office is destabilizing, and whose continued service constitutes a dangerous crisis.
We learn, in intimate and excruciating detail, the ways the president’s mental limitations make basic requirements of the job (such as understanding what allied leaders are talking about) impossible for him. We see not for the first time that Trump will lie about anything, even when he knows, or should know, that foreign governments can produce evidence of his deceit.
The most immediate effect of the disclosures, though, wasn’t to recenter the national political debate on the question of Trump’s obvious unfitness for his job, but to prompt a separate debate over the propriety of the leak.
“Leaking the transcript of a presidential call to a foreign leader is unprecedented, shocking, and dangerous,” argued The Atlantic’s David Frum. “It is vitally important that a president be able to speak confidentially—and perhaps even more important that foreign leaders understand that they can reply in confidence.”
National leaders should indeed need to be able to trust that their discussions with one another will remain secure. But we are far from the point where foreign leaders assume transcripts of their calls with Trump, let alone future presidents, will end up on the front pages. Many have been quick to assume that this leak will have a chilling effect on U.S. relations with other countries, without stopping to ponder the likelihood that some foreign leaders might be relieved to learn that factions within the U.S. government are taking extraordinary steps to weaken this particular president.
If there are norms worth fretting over here, they aren’t the ones that govern whistleblowing, but the ones that should govern what U.S. political leaders do when the president is too incompetent to serve. It is because of their cowardice—their refusal to uphold norms they were elected and appointed to guard—that these transcripts leaked in the first place.
Since the conversations with Turnbull and Nieto first took place, Trump has been through one national security advisor, one chief of staff, one FBI director, two communications directors, and a press secretary.
His complete failure to grow into the job has allowed multiple power centers to emerge and vie for ascendency within the administration. It has impelled other institutional actors to essentially expropriate from Trump governing tasks that should be his exclusively. In some cases, as when he gave military leaders a free hand in fighting terrorism, he has willingly parted with these obligations. In others, as when Congress wrested discretion over Russian sanctions away from him, he has been layered over reluctantly.
But the most alarming development is the one that ironically has official Washington the most relieved: the emergence of a trio of military officers (two retired, one actively serving) as de facto caretakers of the presidency.
It is perfectly consistent to say that the growing clout of generals John Kelly (the White House chief of staff), H.R. McMaster (the national security advisor), and Jim Mattis (the defense secretary) is preferable to an alternative in which Trump shambles through his presidency unencumbered, but also dangerous in its own right, and evidence of serious institutional failure. The hope is apparently to keep Trump’s administration within certain guardrails, so that if and when it fails, he doesn’t take the country and the world off the road with him.
To that end, this trio has met with some modest success.
Kelly has—in his brief tenure, and for now at least—managed to impose more control over the flow of aides, information, and other forms of presidential influence in and out of the Oval Office better than his predecessor, Reince Priebus, ever could.
McMaster has, after months of setbacks, successfully removed two corrosive figures from the National Security Council—both holdovers from the abbreviated Michael Flynn era.
Where the generals haven’t been empowered to run the show, they have asserted themselves nonetheless. “In the earliest weeks of Trump’s presidency,” the Associated Press reported Tuesday, Mattis and Kelly agreed “that one of them should remain in the United States at all times to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House.”
It would be sensationalizing things to call this a soft coup, but it is impossible to deny that real presidential powers have been diluted or usurped. Elected officials have decided that leaving the functioning of the government to unelected military officers is politically preferable to invoking constitutional remedies that would require them to vote.
When a president can no longer serve faithfully, there are means available to Congress and the cabinet, through the impeachment power and section four of the 25th Amendment, to remove him.
Pushing Trump out of office would be a politically destabilizing event in its own right, perhaps more acutely so than handing the reins of government over to a cadre of generals and hoping for the best. But the processes are legitimate, and were created for precisely the kind of situation that confronts us today. It is often said that impeachment is a political process, but it is also a normative one. Or at least, it should be the norm that elected officials step in to protect the public from a president who is lawless and befuddled—even when the president happens to be from the same party.
If you fear the creep of autocracy or the crisis of absentee leadership in Trump’s White House, then the truly troubling thing isn’t that government officials, current and former, are sounding the alarm. It’s that the people who have the power to end these crises are leaving us all at risk by placing their faith in generals and looking the other way.