I wish this week’s bombshell from The Washington Post — that President Donald Trump “revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week,” which “jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State” — was a surprise.
It is not.
Let’s put aside the possibility that Trump was deliberately giving information to Russia as part of a deliberate, long-term quid pro quo going back to the campaign. That seems far, far less likely to me than a much more characteristic explanation for Trump actions: He was just shooting off his mouth without having any idea about potential consequences. In other words, it’s yet another example showing that the president of the United States is either incapable of or unwilling to learn what he needs to know to function even minimally in his job.
A man who would blurt out that he obstructed justice is hardly likely to bother learning what he should and shouldn’t say to anyone in any situation. Granted, one might think he would care when U.S. interests (and perhaps lives) are on the line, but we’ve seen no evidence of that; that “officials expressed concern with Trump’s handling of sensitive information as well as his grasp of the potential consequences” is consistent with everything we’ve seen from him in the campaign, during the transition, and after he took office.
Or there’s this, from The Post’s story:
“U.S. officials said that the National Security Council continues to prepare multi-page briefings for Trump to guide him through conversations with foreign leaders but that he has insisted that the guidance be distilled to a single page of bullet points, and often ignores those.”
Can anything be done to improve this situation while he remains in office?
The same thing is true now that’s been true from the start: As unsuited as Trump is for office, his weaknesses could at least be minimized if he were forced to accept a professional presidential staff structure. There was some talk over the weekend of Trump himself wanting to clear house, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What’s needed is for patriotic-minded Republicans to impose on him a professional chief of staff — a Rob Portman, or Mitch Daniels — and to get rid of the amateur hour hangers-on, beginning with Trump’s own family members.
Doing so wouldn’t solve everything — not by a long shot. The constitutional system requires a real president, and we’re not going to have a competent one anytime soon. But it could help quite a bit. For one thing, a strong, professional chief of staff could impose some rational order on the paper flow, which is one reason Trump keeps getting in trouble.
The truth is that Trump has given Republicans in and out of Congress more than enough leverage to force him to behave himself. He’s been in violation of conflict-of-interest guidelines and the emoluments clauses of the U.S. Constitution since Inauguration Day, and he’s now almost certainly guilty of at least a mild form — and perhaps a lot more — of obstructing justice. If House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell threaten him with impeachment and conviction, it’s no empty bluff. They could threaten to do plenty of other damage to him without playing the impeachment card, whether it’s insisting on making his income tax returns public or (finally!) forming a select committee to look into the Trump-Russia scandal.
And, yes, if he resists, they can also threaten to go public with any number of highly embarrassing things he is certain to have said and done behind closed doors with them and with other members of Congress.
Sure, Trump will still be nearly impossible to manage no matter how the White House is organized. But right now it’s organized to maximize chaos, with a president who needs the tightest possible constraints on everything he sees, reads and watches. Ronald Reagan needed to be carefully managed so he didn’t go off script inappropriately — but when he had a competent White House staff, he rarely harmed U.S. interests by doing so.
What it comes down to is that senior Republicans have a responsibility to their party and to the nation to intervene and get this administration to shape up. History is already going to be harsh to those who allowed Trump to win the Republican nomination for president; it will be even harsher to those who don’t step up now.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University in Indiana.