Retired Gen. David Petraeus appeared at the Aspen Idea Festival last week, and fielded an awkward question about Donald Trump. His answer, however, is worth considering in detail.As the Washington Post reported, political affairs scholar David Rothkopf noted at the event that, throughout his lengthy career, he never confronted questions from foreign officials about “whether or not the president of the United States was fit to serve and whether or not the president of the United States was actually mentally ill.” Now, however, with Trump in the White House, such questions arise “every couple of days from senior leaders around the world.”
Rothkopf’s question for his fellow panelists was straightforward: “Do you think the president of the United States is fit to serve as president?” Given a chance to answer, Petraeus didn’t seem at all eager to respond.
“As I used to say in uniform, that sounds like a policy question. [LAUGHTER] And look, I think it’s immaterial. Again, what I’m focusing on is the team. [GROANS]
“Let me explain. You know, pronouncing yes or no, I don’t think that changes a darn thing. What I’m pointing out is that around him, he has a very good team….”
From there, Petraeus went on to say he sees elements of this administration’s foreign policy with which he broadly agrees.
The response, while evasive, is nevertheless telling.
Asked if Trump is fit to serve as president, Petraeus, whom Trump considered as a possible secretary of state, might have been expected to say something along the lines of “yes” or “of course.” Another option might have been to say, “That’s a judgment for the American people to make.” That wouldn’t have been a great answer since the American people voted in larger numbers for Trump’s opponent, but it probably would’ve worked anyway.
But Petraeus didn’t go that route, instead arguing that it doesn’t matter whether Trump is fit for the office or not, since members of the president’s team are generally reliable. That’s more than just an unsatisfying answer.
First, Petraeus would have never accepted this from a person in a position of authority before. During his career in the military and the CIA, if he had concerns about a leading official’s mental state or fitness for office, Petraeus wouldn’t have said, “Well, so long as he has a good team around him, I’ll look the other way.”
Second, having a good team is inadequate for an obvious reason: the president makes the final call, and those around Trump in the White House serve at his pleasure. The president may receive excellent advice, but if he’s impaired or unfit in some way, there’s no reason to assume he’ll accept this advice.
And finally, with his public response, Petraeus didn’t leave much doubt that he doesn’t see Trump as fit for the Oval Office. As the Post’s report added, “The fact that Petraeus can’t even say that Trump is a fit commander in chief speaks volumes.”