Why you should care
Because even presidents need to be willing to learn.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
We originally ran this piece from OZY senior columnist John McLaughlin, a former deputy director and acting director of the CIA, back in June, but the discussion of the president’s “learning curve” is again relevant in light of the new best-selling book, Fire and Fury.
Debate is raging after former FBI Director James Comey’s congressional testimony and President Donald’s Trump’s angry attack the next day on Comey’s truthfulness. Trump denied that he had asked Comey to “let go” of the Mike Flynn investigation or that he had sought from Comey a pledge of loyalty, as the fired FBI director claimed.
Trump partisans and Comey defenders will argue about who is telling the truth, but let’s face it, the president’s credibility is in a deep hole based on his long string of whoppers: claiming that Barack Obama was not an American, that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered on 9/11, that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination, that his inauguration crowd was the largest ever, that millions of Americans voted illegally, that the U.S. murder rate is the highest ever, that the media created his feud with the intelligence community, that Obama “wiretapped” Trump Tower … where to stop?
As for Comey, whatever his shortcomings or lapses in judgment, he has a well-earned reputation for carefully sticking to the facts and letting the chips fall where they may. Most of what his critics cite in his testimony is keyed to truthful admissions he made.
Even if the president and his campaign are cleared of any election collusion with Russia, we will still have a chief executive who remains stuck at the bottom of his learning curve.
In fact, the tendency of some in Congress and elsewhere to criticize Comey for not more directly telling the president that what he did was wrong illustrates another pathology of the Trump era. We have come to take Trump’s dissembling so much for granted that we now shift the responsibility to those we think ought to discipline him. In truth, anyone who’s made it to the presidency should not have to be told that it’s ill-advised, stupid and potentially illegal even to imply interference in an FBI investigation. We have set the bar too low for Trump — and gotten used to it.
That said, it will be a long time before we have answers to all the questions raised by the Trump–Comey face-off. What if after all the investigations are done and testimonies gathered, the thick circumstantial smoke suggesting collusion with Russia or obstruction of justice turns out to be just that — smoke? A bizarre set of coincidences that delivers nothing fatal to the Trump presidency, which then continues for at least a full term.
What concerns, if any, should we then have? I believe there are at least five.
First, we will still have a president addicted to self-destructive behavior. Although the evidence of Russian interference in the election is now beyond dispute, the suspicion of collusion with Moscow is bolstered most persuasively by the president’s own behavior — his insistence that the Russia investigation is a “hoax” or “fake news,” his prior encouragement of WikiLeaks and the Russians to exploit Secretary Hillary Clinton’s emails, his frequent praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, his graceless firing of Comey and linking it in an interview to the Russia investigation, and the grip-and-grin session in the Oval Office with two senior Russian officials.
These are all unforced errors.
Second, the president seems unable to learn from his mistakes. He may not even regard them as mistakes. But anyone of the most casual intelligence should understand that the pattern I just laid out is bound to raise suspicion.
Third, Trump seems unable to connect one thing to another. For example, the troubles he is now experiencing flow directly from his foolish March 4 tweet accusing President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower. That subsequently triggered congressional hearings in which, predictably, Comey was asked if he had any evidence of that. He said no, authorized to do so by the Department of Justice, contributing to Trump’s dissatisfaction with him and his decision to fire him. Similarly, Trump’s tweet that he might have taped his conversation with Comey led to a predictable demand from Congress to see those tapes, creating a situation in which the president must either turn over tapes or be seen as bluffing.
Every bit of this was perfectly predictable to anyone able to make the most obvious connections between actions.
Fourth, it is increasingly obvious that no one in the president’s inner circle is able to steer him away from trouble. Presidents are entitled to independence but not to foolishness. The more experienced people in his circle — those with common sense — would surely have advised him not to refer to tapes. They would have told him not to fire Comey in a way that was personally embarrassing to the former director, because he learned about it on television. And they would not have escorted Russian officials into the Oval Office accompanied only by a Russian photographer, excluding American journalists.
This was all stupid stuff. In every White House I’ve experienced, the chief of staff was expected to orchestrate the president’s schedule and activities with the situational awareness to avoid needless, time-consuming controversies that draw energy and time away from important business.
Fifth, the president has not learned to speak persuasively to those outside his hardcore base. By all accounts, most Americans who supported him still do. But his standing among other Americans has not grown; indeed, his falling job approval rating is somewhere in the upper 30s.
Moreover, he does not seem to understand that in some respects, he is also president of the world. When I travel overseas, I am always impressed that foreigners almost everywhere pay more detailed attention to American politics than many Americans. All of the ups and downs seen here as Beltway stuff are followed in great detail overseas, including in the commonly read tabloids. Because of America’s great influence in the world, this overseas audience has to trust a president’s judgment from time to time. So far, Trump is giving them no reason to do so, therefore harming America’s standing and ability to lead.
So the bottom line is that even if the president and his campaign are cleared of any election collusion with Russia, we will still have a chief executive who remains stuck at the bottom of his learning curve. And one who appears less prepared — maybe even less willing — to climb that curve than any president in recent history.