Donald Trump's intelligence disdain belies national crisis decisions | News Coverage from USA

Donald Trump’s intelligence disdain belies national crisis decisions

opinion

Millions of Americans could have been killed in a matter of minutes. That’s how terrifying it was during the Cuban missile crisis — easily the most frightening moment of the Cold War. The only reason we are here today is because President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev were able to work together to avoid nuclear holocaust. And, it should be noted, it was a close call.

But what if, in October 1962, Donald Trump had been president? If he had said he didn’t trust the intelligence he was shown about Soviet missiles in Cuba? If he instead had said that he believed Soviet denials about not having any missiles? And what if he had harmed his relationship with the intelligence community from the beginning of his presidency by accusing its agents of Nazi-like behavior? 

We ask such questions about Trump because his relationship with the U.S. intelligence community has been deeply rooted in hostility and paranoia from Day One. It’s perfectly normal for a president to push back against the IC and to question it. But Trump’s public, often belittling attacks on the experienced men and women who work to keep us safe reflects something different: an apparent lack of interest in, or respect for, data and analysis that fail to validate his preexisting views. Sen. Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. put it best: “People risk their lives for the intelligence he just tosses aside on Twitter.” 

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How do you solve a problem like Donald Trump? Impeachment isn’t the answer. Yet.

And therein lies the danger to us all. 

One example, especially pertinent now as tensions mount with Iran: Trump’s handpicked director of national intelligence — former Indiana Sen. Daniel Coats, a Republican — told Congress in January that Iran, while still a menace, was complying with the 2015 agreement designed to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. Yet Trump believed what he wanted to believe.

“The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran,” he tweeted. “They are wrong!” He added an insult: “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”

What next, side with Japan on Pearl Harbor?

Nor does Trump buy U.S. intelligence on North Korea. He still seems to think Kim Jong Un will magically give up his nuclear weapons, even though the IC assessment doesn’t see it that way. 

Trump hasn’t caught on to the fact that Kim, the brutal leader of a tiny, impoverished country, is the one making demands now, giving the U.S. president until Dec. 31 to shape up and stop being “impracticable.” Trump once gushed like a giddy teenager about how he “fell in love” with Kim and now wants another date — a third summit. But the president doesn’t get that he has been dumped. His insistence that everything remains on track, all intelligence to the contrary, is not a prescription for wise policy.

Trump also says the Islamic State terrorist organization has been wiped out; his own intelligence chiefs say no: “ISIS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and it maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks, and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world.” 

And Trump has famously said that climate change is a “hoax.” His own intelligence chiefs warn of “environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change,” that “are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.” 

Then, of course, is the most famous example of all: Trump tossing his intelligence chiefs under the bus on Russia. You’ll recall that stunning news conference last year in Helsinki, where Trump sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin and dismissed the U.S. intelligence community’s findings that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election. “I will tell you,” the president said as the delighted Kremlin dictator stood just feet away, “that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” What next, side with the Japanese on Pearl Harbor?  

Cross your fingers if a true crisis erupts 

We have a president who doesn’t believe in facts, dismisses his intelligence advisers, places his faith in dictators and gets his news from blow-dried bootlickers on Fox & Friends. What happens when a true crisis erupts? If Kim resumes testing of long-range missiles? If Russia makes a move on the Baltics, which are now members of NATO? If climate change spawns deadlier, more frequent storms, fires and drought, and more global migration? 

And what happens if you appear to make decisions not in terms of what’s best for the country but what’s best for you? This is what sets Trump apart from his predecessors. We’ve certainly questioned past presidents and their handling of crises — notably and most recently George W. Bush’s overreliance on what turned out to be faulty intelligence leading to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But we’ve never seriously wondered whether Bush, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln,.Franklin Roosevelt or any other presidents cared about themselves more than the country, or were somehow selling out or beholden to a foreign power. It is extraordinary, and disturbing, that such questions continue to be asked of our current president.

This is why we can thank our lucky stars that 2 1/2 years into his presidency, Trump hasn’t been confronted (as far as we know) with the kind of crisis that would force him to make, in a highly pressurized, short-time frame, decisions that JFK had to make, decisions that in minutes could mean life or death for millions. Thank God it hasn’t come to that, for I honestly don’t know whether Trump — based on all we know and have seen since January 2017 — would make such decisions based on what’s best for national security or what’s best for Donald Trump. 

Paul Brandus, founder and White House bureau chief of West Wing Reports, is the author of “Under This Roof: The White House and the Presidency” and is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @WestWingReport

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