It’s less than a month in to the Trump administration, and we have the first truly major scandal: National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s resignation after damning evidence emerged that he talked with the Russian ambassador about US sanctions on Russia before taking office, and then misled both the press and the vice president about it.
There are a lot of unanswered questions about Flynn’s call with the Russian ambassador. It’s still unclear, for example, when President Donald Trump found out about Flynn’s actions. Trump said on Friday that he didn’t know anything about the scandal. Then on Tuesday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that Trump had been reviewing the situation “daily” for a while now. But the palace intrigue shouldn’t overshadow the policy implications here: This is a major, major development in the new administration’s approach to foreign policy.
Flynn was the most extreme voice on Trump’s foreign policy team, a striking contrast with the more stolid Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Flynn advocated for teaming up with Russia to fight ISIS, has said that “fear of Muslims is rational,” and endorsed bringing back torture of suspected terrorists. He is a living, breathing instantiation of the worst foreign policy instincts of the Trump administration.
So with Flynn gone, the key voices in Trump’s national security are all of a sudden a lot more level-headed. This suggests that a recent, under-heralded trend — the Trump administration floating radical ideas that quickly fall apart — might not be an aberration.
It might become the norm.
In the first three weeks of Trump foreign policy, radical ideas keep getting shelved
After Trump’s victory in November, foreign policy scholars and professionals were terrified that Trump would throw out the largely bipartisan approach that has shaped American foreign policy for the last 70 years. That fear was rooted in Trump’s friendliness to Russia, his skepticism of traditional American alliances like NATO, and his truly extreme views on Islam.
In the weeks and months following the election, Trump and his team floated a series of ideas that, if implemented, really would have amounted to a radical reorientation of American foreign policy:
- About two weeks after the election, Trump’s pick for CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, tweeted that the administration would “roll back” the Iran deal.
- On December 3, President-elect Trump spoke directly with Taiwan’s president, which no US president had ever done. The call was reportedly part of a long-planned initiative to provoke China by threatening the “One China” policy, a US commitment to seeing China and Taiwan as one country that should eventually be reunited.
- In mid-December, Kellyanne Conway told reporters that moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was a “very big priority” for the administration. Every US administration had refused to do this prior to an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, as the move would signal that the US didn't care about a two-state solution and further destabilize the situation there.
- In the December 29 phone call to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that would eventually get him fired, Flynn reportedly implied that the Trump administration would eliminate sanctions imposed by the Obama administration as punishment for Russia’s hack of the US election.
- In Trump’s first week as president, draft executive orders that would reopen CIA black sites and slash US funding for UN programs leaked to the press.
We’re three weeks into the administration, and pretty much all of this has fallen by the wayside.
The Iran deal is still intact. Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping, in a phone call, that he would abide by the One China policy. The Jerusalem embassy move has been abandoned, according to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker. Obama’s Russia sanctions are still in effect. The executive orders reopening black sites and defunding the UN have both been shelved.
This pattern of reversals and backtracking has been overshadowed by scandal and controversy: stories about the Muslim ban, coverage of the Senate confirmation hearings of Trump’s extreme or unqualified Cabinet picks, and bizarre incidents like Trump’s call to Australia’s prime minister. All of those point to real and very serious issues with the Trump administration.
But when it comes to foreign policy proper, not immigration or diplomatic etiquette, the Trump administration hasn’t done much to change America’s approach to the world. On key issues where it seemed like they had a plan for major revisions, they’ve done very little. The result is that US foreign policy is more or less the way Obama left it.
Flynn’s departure could make normalcy the norm
Of course, it’s only been three weeks. And President Trump is famously mercurial, known for changing his mind based on the advice of the last person he spoke to.
But that’s actually why Flynn’s departure is such a big deal. Flynn was one of Trump’s longest-standing counselors, one of the few Cabinet members who joined Team Trump during the campaign. The national security adviser is also an exceptionally important post. The NSA’s key job is helping the president sort through the intelligence and policy ideas coming from various government agencies, essentially deciding what the boss sees and helping him interpret it.
Flynn, in other words, was in a unique position to fundamentally shape the way that Trump sees the world — and push him toward the more radical positions that the two of them embraced during the campaign.
Defense Secretary James Mattis, by contrast, is an arch-establishmentarian. On his first day, he called NATO allies to reassure them that Trump was committed to America’s traditional approach on Russia and Europe. His first foreign trip was to visit America’s chief Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, to reassure them that America still had their backs.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appears to have a similar agenda to Mattis’s. He was endorsed by foreign policy stalwarts like former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, people who deeply support maintaining the foreign policy status quo. In his confirmation hearings, Tillerson expressed opposition to some of the more radical Trump ideas (like moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and tearing up the Iran deal).
With Flynn in office, the stage was set for a major clash between leading agencies. The National Security Council, under Flynn’s command, would have been pushing a radical agenda on things like Russia, ISIS, and NATO while Defense and State, lead by Mattis and Tillerson, sought to maintain the foreign policy status quo. With Flynn gone, the balance of power shifts dramatically.
It’s hard to imagine someone more radical than Flynn replacing him, simply because there aren’t very many people with views that far outside the mainstream who could also conceivably do the job. The names already floating around Washington for his replacement, like retired Adm. Robert Harward and retired Gen. David Petraeus, are known for having more typical views. We could end up in a situation, then, where the entire national security architecture is united in pushing Trump toward basically centrist, normal foreign policy.
This wouldn’t guarantee normal foreign policy from the Trump administration. Steve Bannon, arguably the president’s closest aide and the key force behind the Muslim ban, has even more aggressive foreign policy views than Flynn. But it’ll be much harder for Bannon to win out if the national security adviser is aligned against him and with the rest of the foreign policy principles.
“His best weekend on foreign policy as president”
Over the weekend, you started to see what a more normal Trump foreign policy might look like.
As Trump welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to his estate at Mar-A-Lago over the weekend, North Korea tested a new missile, and the press, meanwhile, was feverishly reporting on the Flynn scandal. It seemed like a recipe for a disaster, a Trump tantrum or tweet that would embarrass the leader of a key ally — but things were actually fine.
“If you just measure on what the president actually did, this was his best weekend on foreign policy as president,” says Peter Feaver, a professor at Duke University who served in the George W. Bush administration. “He had good personal diplomacy with Abe, said things about the [US-Japan] alliance the establishment wanted him to say, and he didn’t overreact to North Korea. But no one is talking about that.”
You could say the same thing about Trump’s meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday. Trump didn’t pick a public fight about NAFTA or refugees, two issues where Trump and Trudeau’s priorities have come into conflict. Instead, he managed to have a snoozefest of a press conference and a pretty standard summit about women in business.
This is not to say that the Trump administration is handling foreign policy well. Feaver’s bar for success is that Trump “didn’t overreact” — a case of what his old boss Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” if I’ve ever heard one. Good foreign policy presidents don’t just fail to screw things up; they actually accomplish things that improve America’s strategic position and make the world a better place.
But given how worried the foreign policy community was about Trump coming in, very few people in Washington would be upset if Trump’s record ends up being a blank page.