Before Donald Trump addressed NATO leaders during his first foreign trip as president, prominent administration officials told reporters he would explicitly endorse the core principle at the heart of the alliance: the Article 5 guarantee that an attack on one NATO country would represent an attack on every member. Then Trump spoke – and there was no such endorsement.
The problem wasn’t that those officials were trying to deceive reporters ahead of the speech. Rather, the problem was that those officials were themselves deceived – by their boss.
Politico reported yesterday that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spent weeks making sure that the Article 5 language was included in the remarks, and were blindsided when Trump delivered his speech.
Added a senior White House official, “There was a fully coordinated other speech everybody else had worked on” – and it wasn’t the one Trump gave. “They didn’t know it had been removed,” said a third source of the Trump national security officials on hand for the ceremony. “It was only upon delivery.”
The president appears to have deleted it himself, according to one version making the rounds inside the government…. [T]he episode suggests that what has been portrayed – correctly – as a major rift within the 70-year-old Atlantic alliance is also a significant moment of rupture inside the Trump administration, with the president withholding crucial information from his top national security officials – and then embarrassing them by forcing them to go out in public with awkward, unconvincing, after-the-fact claims that the speech really did amount to a commitment they knew it did not make.
According to Politico’s reporting, McMaster, Mattis, and Tillerson – nicknamed “MM&T” – initially had to lobby just to get an advanced look at the speech, then invested considerable effort into changing it. The president then altered the remarks MM&T had worked on “without consulting or even informing them in advance of the change.”
The result is NATO members that are no longer sure it can trust the alliance’s most dominant member, and an administration burdened by unprecedented dysfunction that undermines its ability to implement a coherent foreign policy.
The idea of rival factions within an administration isn’t new. What’s shocking in the case of Trump World is that the president seems to have gone around on his own national security team – including two of his most important cabinet members.
This leads to two important questions.
The first is who the president is listening to about foreign policy in general, and NATO policy specifically, if he’s ignoring the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, and National Security Advisor. Who has Trump’s ear if MM&T does not? Who told the president to undermine the U.S. commitment to NATO, raising doubts about the future stability of the alliance?
The second question is what MM&T intend to do about what transpired. The New Republic’s Brian Beutler makes a compelling case that they have every reason to consider resigning: “For those who made a moral calculation in joining the administration, the time to reconsider has arrived.”