How will this White House re­spond to an emer­gency?

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - RUTH MAR­CUS ruth­mar­cus@wash­post.com

What hap­pens when there’s a cri­sis? When, not if, be­cause that is the na­ture of the pres­i­dency: Bad things hap­pen — of­ten early on, some­times an­tic­i­pated, some­times out of nowhere. Con­sider the his­tor­i­cal ros­ter: So­mali pi­rates hold­ing an Amer­i­can cap­tain hostage (Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion), the Chi­nese forc­ing down a Navy air­craft and de­tain­ing its crew (Ge­orge W. Bush), a siege and raid gone bad at a cult com­plex in Waco, Tex. (Bill Clin­ton).

For a new pres­i­dent, April is the cru­elest month; add John F. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fi­asco to that litany of spring­time woes. An un­sea­soned new pres­i­dent and a wob­bly team still learn­ing how to work the sys­tem and work to­gether are go­ing to be more sus­cep­ti­ble to blun­ders than later on.

But a cri­sis un­der Pres­i­dent Trump — a real cri­sis, not the seem­ingly end­less se­ries of self-in­flicted wounds that has scarred the new ad­min­is­tra­tion — poses a far scarier sit­u­a­tion than with the usual fledg­ling pres­i­dency. Trump’s un­forced er­rors have im­pli­ca­tions and rip­ple ef­fects for when the real prob­lems in­evitably ar­rive.

First, the best lead­ers be­come even more calm, de­lib­er­ate and fo­cused in mo­ments of stress and emer­gency. Trump lashes out — be­fore check­ing the facts, be­fore con­sid­er­ing the con­se­quences. Some peo­ple be­lieve Trump tweets strate­gi­cally, as part of a plan to dis­tract. Per­haps, but even so, his cal­cu­la­tions have a propen­sity to boomerang.

That dan­ger has never been more clear than with his ir­re­spon­si­ble ac­cu­sa­tions of wire­tap­ping by Obama. Trump isn’t play­ing chess — he’s play­ing check­ers, with an el­e­men­tary schooler’s urge to up­end the board when the game isn’t go­ing his way.

What hap­pens when the pres­i­dent is pro­voked by a real prob­lem, not an un­sup­ported re­port by a loud­mouth talk-ra­dio host and a right-wing web­site? Twit­ter is a risky enough tool for mak­ing for­eign pol­icy, but the other tools at a pres­i­dent’s dis­posal are even riskier. Trump’s fury over every­thing from pal­try in­au­gu­ral crowd counts to fall­ing poll num­bers does not por­tend a trusty hand when the chal­lenge comes, whether from China, Iran, North Korea, Rus­sia or else­where.

Sec­ond, the skill set of steady pres­i­den­tial lead­er­ship must be aug­mented by a func­tion­ing team of prin­ci­pals, deputies and ad­vis­ers. This tru­ism en­vi­sions both the “func­tion­ing” part, as op­posed to the ev­i­dent ri­val­ries and schisms in­side the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, and the “team” part, as op­posed to the vir­tual ab­sence of key per­son­nel. Who is avail­able, in this home-alone ad­min­is­tra­tion, to ask the sec­ond- and third-or­der ques­tions about the con­se­quences of a par­tic­u­lar course of ac­tion?

If any­thing, Trump has thrown ad­di­tional sand in the gears of the ex­ist­ing in­sti­tu­tional ma­chin­ery. His con­tin­u­ing feud with the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity erodes the rap­port and trust es­sen­tial for op­er­at­ing ef­fec­tively dur­ing a cri­sis. His rocky start with key al­lies — those phone calls with the lead­ers of Aus­tralia and Mex­ico, and the take­aways by other for­eign lead­ers — sim­i­larly au­gurs poorly for the kind of con­certed ac­tion and united front es­sen­tial in an in­ter­na­tional emer­gency.

Third, Trump’s predilec­tion to as­sert and cling to un­truths in the face of con­trary ev­i­dence raises ques­tions about his ca­pac­ity to ab­sorb and act on un­wel­come in­for­ma­tion. If the pres­i­dent can’t ac­cept that he lost the pop­u­lar vote, what hap­pens when ad­vis­ers de­liver bad news? More dis­turb­ing, Trump’s ten­u­ous con­nec­tion to the truth dan­ger­ously un­der­mines his cred­i­bil­ity with ev­ery­one from the U.S. pub­lic to for­eign lead­ers.

The sober­ing state of af­fairs was un­der­scored in a re­mark­able tweet Mon­day by the rank­ing Demo­crat on the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, Adam Schiff of Cal­i­for­nia: “We must ac­cept pos­si­bil­ity that @POTUS does not know fact from fic­tion, right from wrong. That wild claims are not strate­gic, but worse.” Schiff is not a par­ti­san hot­head, so his dis­cus­sion of the sit­ting pres­i­dent in lan­guage more suited to a com­mit­ment hear­ing was that much more strik­ing.

“The im­pli­ca­tions are quite ex­tra­or­di­nary,” Schiff said in a fol­low-up in­ter­view with NPR. In a cri­sis, he asked, “how much cred­i­bil­ity will the pres­i­dent have left to per­suade the coun­try of what has hap­pened, what needs to be done? How much cred­i­bil­ity will he have with our al­lies to get them to back us up? So th­ese have real-world reper­cus­sions . . . . It’s the pres­i­dent los­ing the cred­i­bil­ity of the of­fice.”

That’s the most alarm­ing part of all. Be­cause there is some hope, how­ever scant, of a pres­i­den­tial learn­ing curve. But trust once squan­dered is not eas­ily, if ever, re­gained. And with­out it any pres­i­dent will re­main se­verely hob­bled.

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