Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The litany of offenses allegedly committed by members of the Trump administration continues to grow. As a result of President Trump’s own conversation coming to light and the whistleblower complaint, leaked communications and congressional inquiries, the world is learning more about Trump and his closest advisers.
Convincing our global counterparts that the administration was fully focused on their day jobs was a hard sell at any point in this presidency – but it’s even harder now. In light of these new revelations, even if members of the Trump White House are now ready to dive into national security work with their counterparts overseas, it is unlikely that their peers and allies are willing to work with them as substantively.
Don’t phone a friend
One of the most important things the national security team can do right now is to convince Trump not to speak with any foreign leaders. His track record of asking foreign powers to investigate his 2020 political rival – whether it be with Ukraine or China or Australia – means his phone calls have become a liability, rather than an opportunity to advance US foreign policy objectives.
And leaders, at least ones from healthy democracies, will likely shy away from speaking with Trump for fear of being embroiled in any abuses of power or criminal activity. They’ll also be wary of the possibility that any communication with Trump will end up as part of a congressional inquiry or leaked to the media. This means that Trump will likely end up speaking with leaders who only want to manipulate him and diminish his credibility further.
Acting chief of what?
As acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney is responsible for a lot of the activities currently being investigated by Congress. This includes potential misuse of classified systems to hide readouts of presidential calls or to try to silence whistleblower complaints, efforts to freeze security assistance to Ukraine, the approval process for the conditions of a Ukrainian White House visit and a failure to raise alarm bells over abusive behavior by the President. (Meanwhile, the White House has called the impeachment inquiry a “kangaroo court” and said that any investigation will show that the President did nothing wrong.)
The House issued a subpoena to the White House on Friday – with a letter addressed to Mulvaney – and the list of alleged bad behavior that happened under his watch deserves real scrutiny. Thus far, Mulvaney does not appear to have followed in the footsteps of previous chiefs of staff who worked to ensure that wrongdoing within the White House, and among the cabinet, was dealt with head on, rather than supported or condoned.
His role in overseeing a White House racked by misbehavior – and the fact that he may have coordinated with Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and the State Department on a quid pro quo with Ukraine – mean that the only way that counterparts probably view him is as the chief of staff to a corruption clique. The White House maintains that Mulvaney has acted appropriately and discounts any reporting that Trump is disappointed in his acting chief of staff.
The President’s personal envoy
As the country’s chief diplomat, the Secretary of State’s reputation abroad relies on the perception that he operates in the best interests of his or her country. In that regard, Secretary Mike Pompeo’s reputation has taken a serious hit.
He acknowledged that he was on a call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his potential 2020 political rival, Joe Biden, along with his son, Hunter. (There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Joe or Hunter Biden). And, on Saturday, Pompeo said that he’s been on most of Trump’s foreign calls.
Pompeo’s peers who believe in the rule of law have every reason to step back from working with him on key issues like anti-corruption and even foreign assistance, knowing that he was at least a party to a discussion that appears to be an abuse of power.
Pompeo’s credibility has also taken a hit when it comes to speaking out about China’s abuses or the importance of democracy, for example. Other countries have less reason to take him seriously, since he may have been aware of a call in which two sources familiar with the call told CNN that the President said he’d keep quiet about the Hong Kong protests while US-China trade talks are ongoing.
Election security is another area where other countries may step back from working with Pompeo. He said last week that the US won’t tolerate election meddling. And he should be working with other countries to stop it. But he was on the call when Trump asked Ukraine to interfere in our 2020 election by investigating Biden.
But it gets worse for Pompeo and his State Department. Text messages between two senior officials working for Pompeo – US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland and former Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker – paint them as serving Giuliani and Trump’s personal agenda rather than doing their actual jobs.
Sondland’s focus is supposed to be in Brussels, where he and his team should serve as the “direct link” between the US and the European Union. Volker was the Special Representative for Ukraine negotiations at the State Department, where he should have been spending time helping to broker negotiations on key issues like Ukraine’s ongoing conflict with Russia in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
And yet both of these men were freelancing with Giuliani rather than doing the jobs that taxpayers pay them to do.
While a member of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, Pompeo railed against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for not knowing everything her team was up to in the run-up to that 2012 attack in Libya. But Sondland and Volker’s extracurricular activities happened under Pompeo’s watch.
In short, Pompeo no longer looks like he’s operating from a baseline position of advancing democratic values and US national security.
Intelligence officers step back
Our intelligence relationships have been strained ever since Trump came into office and began declassifying sensitive information, threatening to expose sources and methods, undercutting intelligence community analysis and more. Now, however, there are more questions about how intelligence is being weaponized by the President.
Attorney General William Barr’s global conspiracy tour – in which he’s asking foreign officials to work with him to investigate the origins of the Russia investigation that led to the Special Counsel probe – diminishes the chances that any intelligence officials worth their salt will work with us as fully.
In my experience, intelligence in democracies is supposed to be an unbiased input to policy, not a political tool.
Plus, there are real questions about how the US intelligence community responded to the President’s actions. It is more than likely that as part of their collection on foreign sources, intelligence analysts learned that the President said he was “unconcerned” about Russian election interference or asked foreign leaders to investigate Biden. We don’t know what happened to this intelligence and whether it was flagged to the FBI.
While we wait for answers, one thing is certain – the hard work of the US intelligence community has been denigrated by the President’s actions over and over again, and that’s going to cause our intelligence partners to question whether it’s worth the risk of maintaining relationships with us if their own highly sensitive work might be caught up in the maelstrom of malign behavior.
And all of this is bad news for national security as foreign counterparts who care about democratic values and the rule of law become even more wary of working with this White House. Members of the administration should have thought about that – and the Americans they are appointed to serve – before making so many dangerous decisions.