Dan Coats may stick around, Mike Morell argued today on CBS’ This Morning, but maybe what’s needed for US intelligence is a strike of sorts. Donald Trump’s dismissal of US intelligence on Russian cyberops during the election returns the relationship back to the bad opening days of his presidency, and it might be time for officials in that community to walk out in protest. “Yesterday was a blow to that morale, that relationship,” Morell says:
"Senior officials in the intelligence community need to ask themselves whether they can continue to serve this president." @MichaelJMorell says he would advise intelligence officials "to consider stepping down" in the wake of the U.S.-Russia summit. https://t.co/2vNKsDazNe pic.twitter.com/gKzCtIXvO3
— CBS News (@CBSNews) July 17, 2018
Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell said following President Trump’s comments during a joint news conference with Vladimir Putin that he would advise senior officials in the intelligence community to consider resignation. During the news conference, Mr. Trump appeared to accept the Russian president’s claim that Russia didn’t meddle in the 2016 election over his own intelligence community’s conclusion that the country did just that.
“I do think that senior officials in the intelligence community need to ask themselves whether they can continue to serve this president and represent the men and women of the intelligence community in a way that is positive,” Morell said. “I’m deeply concerned about that.” …
“You’ll remember in the early days, the relationship was bad, the morale was bad. The president called his intelligence community Nazis,” Morell said. “People were considering resigning. But over time, that relationship got better, in large part because the intelligence community got access to the Oval Office on almost a daily basis.”
Interestingly, Morell gives Coats a big vote of confidence in the full interview. Morell credits Coats by saying that the DNI has been “very vocal” about what happened with Russia in 2016 and the threat they pose now and in the future. Rather than advise Coats to resign in protest over Trump’s Helsinki remarks, Morell wants Coats to stay on and “continue to tell the president what they think.” But if Morell isn’t calling on Coats to resign, then who’s supposed to take his advice? Gina Haspel? She just got the top job. Christopher Wray at the FBI, who wasn’t around when this intel was developed?
Maybe Morell’s thinking about deputies at these intel agencies, but why would he call on less-senior officials to walk out and leave Coats holding the bag? Better yet, why would Morell advise intel officials to resign knowing that Trump will control the hiring of their replacements? That doesn’t seem like a very wise strategy if one believes that Trump is politicizing intelligence, or ignoring any of it except for that which fits his preconceived ideas. This call for resignations seems more like emoting than wisdom, a short-sighted reaction rather than a longer-term plan to strengthen American security, unless one subscribes to the “we had to destroy the village to save it” theory of leadership.
Calls for other resignations might be less fraught and therefore more manageable. For instance, here is Ambassador Jon Huntsman’s former campaign manager challenging his honor:
@JonHuntsman Resign, if you have any honor.
— John Weaver (@JWGOP) July 16, 2018
Huntsman even got some pressure from his own family, at least indirectly:
Chris Cilliza of CNN tweeted: “How can Jon Huntsman not resign immediately after that Trump-Putin presser?”
But Republicans also wondered about Huntsman’s response.
Utah State Senator Todd Weiler, a Republican from Davis County Tweeted: “I would love to know what Jon Huntsman is telling his close friends and family about today. I’m sure it’ll be in a future book …” …
The statement getting the most attention online came from Huntsman’s daughter Abby, an anchor on the Fox News Channel: “No negotiation is worth throwing your own people and country under the bus.”
A resignation from an ambassador over a policy dispute with the president would be a more routine occurrence. We’ve seen a couple of these already, although they were in both cases holdovers from the previous administration. Does Huntsman think this rises to the level where a resignation is necessary? Or does he think that this was a one-off misstep that he can better correct by staying in place rather than resigning?
Dr. Kori Schake, the deputy director-general of the Institute for Strategic Studies in London, has different advice for all of the above. Stick around, Schake tells Hugh Hewitt, when your country needs you most, even though Trump’s actions “went beyond disgraceful”:
KS: … It was so genuinely shocking to see a president of the United States equivocate between the conclusion of 17 American intelligence agencies and the promise by the murderous leader of an enemy country, that he had nothing to do with it, I really, I really think the President went beyond disgraceful. What he did yesterday was dangerous to our country. …
HH: Now the key question, I don’t want anyone to resign. I don’t want Dan Coats to resign, who is said to be on the ledge. I do not want General Mattis to resign, because we need the steady hand at Defense. I don’t want Mike Pompeo, who has strategic vision, I do not want John Bolton, who hates the Russians, I don’t want anyone to, I don’t want Fiona Hill to go anywhere. What’s your advice to people who are seriously thinking that their reputations are impaired by the President’s lack of understanding of Russia and Putin?
KS: I wholeheartedly agree with your judgment. The only area in which I differ with what you just said is that as somebody who cares about civil military relations, I would say Secretary Mattis shouldn’t resign, because respecting the niceties of the fact that he’s a civilian, not a serving general officer…
KS: …matters for American perceptions. But I passionately am appealing to all of my friends in the Trump administration not to resign, because especially given the President’s performance yesterday, it matters to have people who have taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, keeping their shoulder to the wheel doing that hard work. It matters to stand sentinel. It matters to hold the line. It matters to have people of principle and conscience saying he can go this far in support of the President’s policies, but beyond that, we cannot go. But that really matters, because the President deserves to have people willing to carry out his policies consistent with the law and the Constitution, and the country deserves civil servants and political appointees who understand where that line lies. And I think it’s really important in a difficult time to have people of sense and judgment navigating those rocky shoals.
HH: 100% agree. Last question. If you had two minutes on the phone with the President today, what would you advise him to do?
KS: I would advise him to recant the press conference, to say that you know, I was diplomatically trying to build a different kind of relationship with a major American adversary, but by no means did I mean to equate the rule of law in the United States with the behavior of a government that kills political dissidents in the street.
There is one point in Schake’s favor for this argument. While Trump blundered badly yesterday at the presser, he’s overall been tough on Russia in actions. He’s increased sanctions on the Putin regime, reluctantly to be sure, and he expelled dozens of “diplomats” in the wake of the Sergei Skripal poisoning. There has been a weird disconnect between rhetoric and policy on Russia in this administration, which the Helsinki presser made even weirder, but the policy remains tougher than what the Obama and Bush administrations imposed on Putin. Trump may shoot off his mouth and insult his intelligence agencies, but it’s also the case that their work has significant influence on the actual policy choices.
Would that be true after a mass resignation, followed by appointments and hiring by Trump of like-minded replacements? That seems very doubtful, and that’s a good reason to take Schake’s advice rather than Morell’s.