Cable news shows spent countless hours in November wondering how the public testimony of national security officials will affect the impeachment proceedings against President Trump. But few are asking how these proceedings will affect national security in the long term.
One potential answer should worry everyone, regardless of your position on Trump: Efforts to turn these officials into political weapons in Congress will put our national security in grave danger.
The president trusts the National Security Council and the broader intelligence community to provide him with the best possible information and analysis for decision making that is essential to national security. But now, after the whistleblower complaint from within the intelligence community and the NSC being paraded on capitol hill as a character witness for the purpose of impeachment, that trust has been shattered.
This goes far beyond Trump. Future presidents are watching this spectacle unfold today and will rightfully suspect that their own intelligence and national security officials will be watching them too. They will have to worry whether these officials are taking notes during sensitive phone calls so they can later pursue their own partisan challenges to the president’s decisions.
What are the implications of a president who doesn’t trust his intelligence community or National Security Council?
At best, future presidents will likely distance themselves from their experts. This means presidents could ignore serious warnings or advice from their national security professionals and fail to act. This has happened before.
At worst, presidential neglect could leave national security and intelligence officials alone to pursue their own agendas, ignoring the policies set by the duly elected president — a completely undemocratic outcome.
Or, presidents could decide to fight political fire with political fire. To avoid having the intelligence community or NSC turn against them, presidents may start insisting on total political loyalty within the ranks and create a single-party national security state.
Trump may already be heading down this path. Since he arrived, Trump has claimed that current national security officials are bent on undermining his agenda, and many of his supporters believe he’s correct. Well before his call with the president of Ukraine, his calls with the prime minister of Australia and the president of Mexico were leaked within weeks of his inauguration. Once the whistleblower complaint emerged with information obtained from people in the NSC, Trump unsurprisingly ordered staff cuts to the NSC.
Expanding our spoils system deep into the national security establishment poses the danger of setting up a new system that lacks expertise and objectivity. A politically oriented NSC and intelligence community could run low on expertise if good subject matter experts weren't found who support the president.
The NSC and intelligence community need voices in the room that aren’t afraid to tell the president, “I disagree; here’s why.” National security is the result of a process that weighs all sides and all concerns and needs something more than “protect the White House” as a guiding slogan.
General George Patton warned, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” Political orthodoxy in the ranks would undercut the creative and dynamic thinking demanded by national security.
A related danger is that through politicization, the national security establishment will lose its credibility with the public. There is already evidence today that Trump’s supporters mistrust the intelligence community and NSC. As Gen. James Mattis recently said, the political division in this country is one of our greatest national security threats. The impeachment is making the loyalty of our national institutions (the president, Congress, and now, our national security professionals) a matter of political opinion.
Moving forward, the hundreds of members of Congress not directly involved in the impeachment proceedings need to rein in the few dozen who are. The impeachment process, so far, has been a circus that is a worse look for Congress than any of the other players involved.
The president must mend broken fences with the intelligence community and NSC. This includes tolerating differences of opinion. Ultimately, decisions are still up to him, so he has nothing to lose by listening.
Finally, intelligence and national security professionals may not always like their boss. But voters choose the president, not just establishment defense professionals. The president makes the policies. The intelligence community and NSC need to do their jobs without reference to what they do or don't like about the president, and without seeking revenge when they don’t like their boss or their boss’s decisions.
The motto of the KGB, the notorious intelligence service of the former Soviet Union, was “Loyalty to the Party. Loyalty to the motherland,” in that order. The idea of placing politics over patriotism fundamentally offends American principles. But that is just what the impeachment process is asking our national security professionals to do.