Military leaders moved quickly to reassure the American public Friday that it was business as usual at the Pentagon despite President Donald Trump’s announcement that he tested positive for coronavirus, making it clear in the hours that followed there was no indication of an immediate threat to the US homeland from a foreign adversary.
In a statement issued Friday morning, the Pentagon sought to alleviate fears that Trump’s positive Covid-19 diagnosis presented a potentially imminent threat to national security, emphasizing that the development did not warrant a change in defense alert levels or military posture.
“There’s no change to the readiness or capability of our armed forces. Our national command and control structure is in no way affected by this announcement,” said Jonathan Hoffman, assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs.
“The US military stands ready to defend our country and interests,” he added.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spoke with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday while both were abroad about the President’s positive test and other topics, according to a US defense official. The call took place before Trump went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Esper is in Morocco, while Pompeo is in Croatia.
But while defense officials attempted to dispel fears of a looming national security crisis, the uncertainty surrounding Trump’s health presents a clear challenge for those charged with protecting the US from threats foreign and domestic.
Like the Pentagon, several current and former national security officials noted that there are mechanisms in place to deal with instability caused by harm or injury befalling a president.
But at the same time, Trump’s illness “only makes that already chaotic system more chaotic,” according to John Gans, a former Pentagon speechwriter and author of a book on the national security council who added that the President’s own actions while in office may increase the risks of a “total breakdown in government.”
“It is important to remember that most of the modern American national security infrastructure and processes were built because of the instability wrought by infirm or injured presidents,” Gans, who served under the Obama administration, told CNN. “Because of the way Trump’s runs government, his illness, like Roosevelt’s death and Reagan’s incapacitation, risks a total breakdown in decision making in government.
How bad is it?
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, also acknowledged that there are “security implications any time that a president falls ill,” but acknowledged that the urgency of those concerns is predicated, in part, on whether Trump’s health status deteriorates further.
Murphy told CNN’s Kylie Atwood at the Truman Center for National Policy Conference that he took White House chief of staff Mark Meadows “at his word that the President has not been incapacitated, that he has mild symptoms, that he’s continuing to be able to function as the head of state.”
“I was glad that Mark Meadows came out and made that clear this morning, our allies and our adversaries need to know that and understand, because we still have many of those on the latter list that are probing at our vulnerabilities,” Murphy said.
That view was echoed by some former national security officials who urged caution when assessing the current level of concern but warned the threat landscape could shift depending on Trump’s condition.
“As long as the President just has mild to moderate symptoms, I wouldn’t expect any major shifts in either how our national security apparatus operates or the actions of our adversaries,” said Eric Brewer, a former NSC official during the Trump and Obama administrations.
However, Samantha Vinograd, a CNN national security analyst and former NSC official during the Obama administration, stressed the situation was much more urgent, calling this a “code red moment for the US government, on multiple levels.”
“The positive Covid-19 diagnosis of President Donald Trump is a worst-case scenario from a national security perspective. It could cripple the US government. But, more immediately, as we await news about potentially other infected personnel, this may already be one of the most dangerous moments the federal government has faced,” she wrote in a CNN op-ed Friday.
Those fears will likely only be exacerbated by news late Friday that Trump will be hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and remain there for “the next few days,” and will likely only raise more concerns about whether the President’s health poses a serious national security threat.
By Friday evening, as the President was being flown to Walter Reed, several high placed government officials including a cabinet official and two senior Republicans had not been briefed about the situation, the officials told CNN.
But in the meantime, US national security officials continue to maintain a watchful eye on foreign adversaries who may seek to exploit the current state of upheaval caused by Trump’s positive diagnosis.
Intelligence agencies on alert
For the intelligence community, officials and analysts will now be looking to see whether foreign foes see the uncertainty in the White House as an opportunity.
“We will be watching adversaries closely to see how they respond and what they might do during this time,” a US official said.
“This will include the Russians, Chinese, Iranians, and terrorist groups,” said former senior intelligence official Norman Roule. “Analysis and multi-source collection will cover decision making, military activity, as well as movements of personnel and resources that would facilitate operations against us.”
The Office of Director of National Intelligence – which leads the community’s 16 agencies - could issue specific guidance to scale up collection through an instrument known as a “collection emphasis message” with specific requirements or questions about an adversary.
James Clapper, who led ODNI under President Barack Obama, told CNN he would be telling the heads of the various agencies to “lean forward in the foxhole to be extra alert for any provocation.”
“This has got to be a huge distraction” for the national security apparatus, Clapper said, adding that it’s “very unlikely” adversaries would do anything for now.
Brewer, a former intelligence official, echoed that view, telling CNN that he believes adversaries like Russia will likely attempt to amplify conspiracies and misinformation related to the situation but that such actions are not outside the realm of what it is currently doing.
“I’m sure the conspiracy theorists will run wild with all kinds of claims that will serve as useful fodder for Russia and others to try and play up and exploit. But I wouldn’t put that in the category of something ‘new,’ he said.
However, Murphy said Friday that his concerns vary depending on the adversaries geopolitical motivations. Iran, for example, could seek to exploit the situation as an opportune moment to retaliate for the US killing its top general Qasem Soleimani earlier this year he said.
Russia, who the US intelligence community has assessed is actively interfering in the 2020 presidential election to “denigrate” Democratic nominee Joe Biden and help Trump, may ramp up its disinformation efforts to aide the President while he is at a limited capacity.
“I am convinced that the Russians are prepared to do anything and everything in order to get this president reelected,” Murphy said.
“And knowing that he is going to be sidelined from at least normal campaigning over the next two weeks, it may mean that that’s massive multi-layered octopus-like Russian interference operation is going to ramp up, and I think we all need to be cognizant of that and we all need to be taking steps to try to make the American people understand what is real information from that being proffered by countries like Russia,” he added.
This story has been updated with additional Friday developments.
CNN’s Barbara Starr, Vivian Salama, Kylie Atwood, Jennifer Hansler, Jamie Gangel and Ryan Browne contributed to this report