Cipher Brief Expert Rolf Mowatt-Larssen is the former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy. He is currently senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. This article was first published in Just Security.
In his stops in Brussels, London and Helsinki, President Donald Trump demonstrated that he is as much an advocate for Russia’s interests than if he were indeed recruited by Russian intelligence and formally responding to Russian tasking. In fact, his handlers would probably exercise a greater degree of subtlety and discretion to ensure he did not go too far in revealing himself as an agent for Russian policies and interests. If there is a silver lining in this disastrous trip, surely NATO, as well as leaders in Germany and the United Kingdom, must now realize that they cannot trust what the U.S. President says, appears to do, or promises. This lesson will be useful for our allies in forging a more independent pathway moving forward, until this American nightmare is over.
But Trump did go too far in revealing his true colors. The U.S. intelligence community can no longer trust the President’s judgment after he clearly sided with Russia in the Mueller investigation and the underlying intelligence information that formed the basis of the indictments of twelve Russian military intelligence officers. If I were still an active CIA officer at the senior leadership level, I would seriously have to consider resigning on principle, rather than serve positions that our president has espoused at the side of the Russian president. For the already diminishing number of die-hard advocates of efforts to improve the U.S.-Russia relationship, the summit was a death blow. History has proven that U.S.-Russian relations must be based on a position of mutual strength, not weakness. Courageous advocates of giving Putin and Russia a chance in spite of all the incidents of naked aggression have been exposed as naive, if not downright irresponsible. The purpose of pursuing channels of communications and high level contacts will be seriously questioned by this summit, and justifiably so. For what purpose would Americans reach out to Russia in a bid to increase trust, as President Putin underscored in his summit statement, when our own president is either delusional or willing to accept attacks on the United States and on the very institutions of western democracy, even when practiced in an acute form?
Which raises the final, most worrisome observation. Donald Trump said what he said in Helsinki because he believes it. Our own president believes in the zeitgeist of the 21st century autocrat, the leader who controls events and is able to crush all barriers to absolute rule. Trump respects the strong, the unbridled leader who through the force of personality and a position of strength are able to bully and silence their critic. Free press. “Fake news.” Rule of law. What’s the law? Pardon militiamen and rule-of-law-crushing sheriffs instead. Civil rights and civil liberties? Gone too far and needs a correction. For Donald Trump, the core values of American democracy are to overcome, not to respect and defend.
This is a time for choosing. Government officials, senior and junior alike, take an oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the United States, not to obey any single President. The calculus of whether to resign or stay must be based on whether one is able to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the United States from within or from without. Serving the interests of this president is not serving the country.