Every two months the new issue of Foreign Affairs arrives in the mail. The subscription was a gift from the nephew who now teaches Land Warfare Theory at the Army War College in Carlisle, not far from Gettysburg – after West Point, tank warfare in Kuwait when we threw Saddam out of there, then that posting to Istanbul, to liaise, as they say, then this command and that stateside, mixed with five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan – operational planning in the end, with our NATO partners in Kabul – and then a stint at the Pentagon. We talk now and then, sometimes about Erdogan and Turkey – he’s fluent in Turkish and can explain how all the Kurdish subgroups are quite different and how the legacy of Ataturk is now in shambles – but more often we talk about hard power and soft power and national interests. We do talk about war and its uses, and talk of Clausewitz and of Sun Tzu – because The Art of War always comes up.
Sun Tzu matters. Mao Zedong read that book. General Võ Nguyên Giáp read that book. General Douglas MacArthur read that book, and the leaders of Imperial Japan read it too. Everyone’s read The Art of War – because it’s full of good stuff, well said, like this – “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
It’s tempting to make a comment about the Inscrutable Chinese – think of those old Charlie Chan movies – but there’s nothing inscrutable here. Wars are won before you go to war. Establish the conditions. Assure the right alliances. Do the tedious logistical planning, and the even more tedious complete contingency planning. Do all that and you’ve won already. Go to war to see what will happen and you’ll lose. Actually, you’ve lost already. You just don’t know it yet. The war was over a long time ago. Sorry about that.
Donald Trump has not read Sun Tzu. He’s already lost his war with James Comey. He’s not done the tedious work. Robert Costa, Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker explain. Defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win:
Alone in the White House in recent days, President Trump – frustrated and defiant – has been spoiling for a fight, according to his confidants and associates.
Glued even more than usual to the cable news shows that blare from the televisions in his private living quarters, or from the 60-inch flat screen he had installed in his cramped study off the Oval Office, he has fumed about “fake news.” Trump has seethed as his agenda has stalled in Congress and the courts. He has chafed against the pleas for caution from his lawyers and political advisers, tweeting whatever he wants, whenever he wants.
And on Thursday, the president will come screen-to-screen with the FBI director he fired, James B. Comey, thoughts of whom have consumed, haunted and antagonized Trump since Comey launched an expanding Russia investigation that the president slammed as a “witch hunt.”
He fired this guy. Now this guy will talk – he’ll say that Trump asked him if he could lay off Michael Flynn and the whole Russia thing. He’ll say that he never told Trump that Trump wasn’t under investigation, after Trump said that Comey told him that directly, three separate times. He has notes. He talked to others.
Damn it, this is war. Trump will destroy this guy with a tweetstorm – Trump’s heavy artillery – in real time – and it will be epic:
Comey’s testimony is a political Super Bowl – with television networks interrupting regular programming to air it, and some Washington offices and bars making plans for special viewings.
Trump is keen to be a participant rather than just another viewer, two senior White House officials said, including the possibility of taking to Twitter to offer acerbic commentary during the hearing.
“I wish him luck,” the president told reporters on Tuesday.
“He’s infuriated at a deep-gut, personal level that the elite media has tolerated the Russia story and praised Comey,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich said. “He’s not going to let some guy like that smear him without punching him as hard as he can.”
These three reporters interviewed twenty White House officials and Trump friends and well-connected Republicans, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, and they seem to know this war is already lost:
The president’s lawyers and aides have been urging him to resist engaging, and they hope to keep him busy Thursday with other events meant to compete for his – and the news media’s – attention.
“The president’s going to have a very, very busy day,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said. “I think his focus is going to be on pursuing the agenda and the priorities that he was elected to do.”
The idea is to keep the already defeated warrior from the battlefield, but he won’t allow that:
As of now, Trump’s Thursday morning – when Comey is scheduled to start testifying – is open. He plans to deliver a 12:30 p.m. speech at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s conference in Washington, followed by a 3:30 p.m. meeting with governors and mayors on infrastructure projects.
He may not get beyond the morning:
Trump’s advisers said they are bracing for a worst-case scenario: that he ignores their advice and tweets his mind.
“He’s not going to take an attack by James Comey laying down,” said Roger Stone, a longtime Trump friend and former political adviser. “Trump is a fighter, he’s a brawler and he’s the best counterpuncher in American politics.”
The president increasingly has come to see Twitter as his preferred method of communicating with his supporters, no matter the pitfalls.
And that’s that, followed by the inevitable preparations for the loss:
White House counsel Donald F. McGahn has told staff to hold onto emails, documents and phone records, officials said, a move of caution designed to prepare the staff for future legal requests, should they come. McGahn has specifically advised staffers to avoid what are known as the “burn bags” in the executive branch that are often used to discard papers.
While people familiar with the White House counsel’s office described McGahn’s moves as appropriate steps because of the ongoing probes, they said many junior staffers are increasingly skittish and fearful of their communications eventually finding their way into the hands of investigators.
Some staffers nervous about their own personal liability are contemplating hiring lawyers and have become more rigorous about not putting things in text messages or emails that they would not want to be subpoenaed, one person familiar with the situation said.
Establish the conditions. Assure the right alliances. Do the tedious logistical planning, and the even more tedious complete contingency planning. None of that was done. None of that could be done:
In the weeks leading up to Comey’s testimony, the White House had privately tried to erect a war room that would handle the communications and legal strategies for responding to the Russia matter. Former Trump campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie were in discussions to lead it.
But the plan was scuttled, as with so much else in Trump’s administration, because of internal disagreements, according to multiple officials. Arguments included whether the war room would be run from inside or outside the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.; who would staff it; whether they could be trusted by the president’s high-ranking advisers, or even trust one another; and whether Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s outside counsel, would ultimately control the message.
That guy’s a problem:
Kasowitz, who has a long-standing relationship with Trump, has been operating as an island of sorts in Trump world. He has been meeting regularly with the president and has a nascent relationship with McGahn, but he has not widely shared his legal strategy within the West Wing, according to two officials involved.
Kasowitz, whose combative personality mirrors Trump’s, has not found it easy to entice other big-name lawyers with Washington experience to join the cause because many prominent attorneys are reluctant to have him giving them direction and wonder whether he will be able to keep Trump from stumbling, one official said.
No one likes Kasowitz and those big-name lawyers with Washington experience know Donald Trump all too well – he won’t listen and he won’t pay. They all walked away, so this was left:
In the absence of a war room – and with the departure of communications director Michael Dubke – planning for the White House’s response to the Comey hearing has fallen largely to Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and his lieutenants.
Trump’s team is preparing a campaign-style line of attack aimed at undercutting Comey’s reputation. They plan to portray him as a “showboat” and to bring up past controversies from his career, including his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation in 2016, according to people involved in the planning.
That’s a previous war, not this one, and thus irrelevant, but this is even worse:
Some Trump loyalists outside the White House who are preparing to go on television news shows Thursday to defend the president and undermine Comey’s testimony said they have been given no talking points, nor seen any evidence of a strategy taking shape. One such loyalist said external supporters are afraid to coordinate too closely with the White House because they fear they could be accused of obstructing justice.
This war is lost:
Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School professor and criminal law expert whose television commentary on the Russia probe has caught the White House’s attention, said he understands why the president would be motivated to speak out to counter Comey’s testimony.
“Every lawyer would tell the president not to tweet, not to react,” Dershowitz said. “But he’s not listening. This is typical. I tell my clients all the time not to talk and they simply disregard it. It’d be very hard to tell a very wealthy, very powerful man not to tweet. He thinks, ‘I tweeted my way to the presidency,’ and he’s determined to tweet.”
He’s determined to lose. Sun Tzu says so, and alliances are fraying:
President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have had a series of heated exchanges in the last several weeks after Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe, a source close to Sessions told CNN Tuesday.
A senior administration official said that at one point, Sessions expressed he would be willing to resign if Trump no longer wanted him there.
Trump was pissed that Sessions recused himself from the Russia stuff, even if he had to. That made Trump look bad, and now this:
Tuesday afternoon, White House press secretary Sean Spicer declined to say whether Trump has confidence in Sessions.
“I have not had a discussion with him about that,” Spicer said.
As of 9 p.m. ET Tuesday, the White House still was unable to say whether or not the President backs his attorney general, a White House official said. The official said they wanted to avoid a repeat of what happened when Kellyanne Conway said Trump had confidence in Flynn only to find out hours later that the national security adviser had been pushed out.
That’s ominous, but Jeff Sessions has a hard job:
The day after President Trump asked James B. Comey, the FBI director, to end an investigation into his former national security adviser Mr. Comey confronted Attorney General Jeff Sessions and said he did not want to be left alone again with the president, according to current and former law enforcement officials.
Mr. Comey believed Mr. Sessions should protect the FBI from White House influence, the officials said, and pulled him aside after a meeting in February to tell him that private interactions between the FBI director and the president were inappropriate. But Mr. Sessions could not guarantee that the president would not try to talk to Mr. Comey alone again, the officials said.
Sessions told Comey he was on his own. The attorney general was not going to choose between defending his FBI and his loyalty to Donald Trump, and now Trump may fire him anyway. There’s no way for Sessions to win now of course – and Comey has already won.
But it got worse for Trump:
The nation’s top intelligence official told associates in March that President Trump asked him if he could intervene with then-FBI Director James B. Comey to get the bureau to back off its focus on former national security adviser Michael Flynn in its Russia probe, according to officials.
On March 22, less than a week after being confirmed by the Senate, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats attended a briefing at the White House together with officials from several government agencies. As the briefing was wrapping up, Trump asked everyone to leave the room except for Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
Two others didn’t want to be left alone with the president, for good reason:
The president then started complaining about the FBI investigation and Comey’s handling of it, said officials familiar with the account Coats gave to associates. Two days earlier, Comey had confirmed in a congressional hearing that the bureau was probing whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia during the 2016 race.
After the encounter, Coats discussed the conversation with other officials and decided that intervening with Comey as Trump had suggested would be inappropriate, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters.
This is not good:
Coats will testify on Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Lawmakers on the panel said they would press him for information about his interactions with the president regarding the FBI investigation.
And there are others:
A day or two after the March 22 meeting, the president followed up with a phone call to Coats, according to officials familiar with the discussions. In the call, Trump asked Coats to issue a public statement denying the existence of any evidence of coordination between his campaign and the Russian government. Again, Coats decided not to act on the request.
Trump similarly approached Adm. Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, to ask him to publicly deny the existence of any evidence of coordination, as The Washington Post previously reported, according to current and former officials. Like Coats, Rogers refused to comply with the president’s request.
This war was lost long ago. Trump just doesn’t know it yet.
Trump doesn’t know a lot of things, and Ezra Klein suggests why:
Trump was never the omnicompetent CEO he played on television. His core business was licensing his name out to other people who actually ran businesses. He’s a genius marketer, not a genius manager. The “Trump” brand appeared on steaks, on vodka, on eyeglasses, on lamps, and on fragrances, to name just a few. But he didn’t run those companies or manage the people who did. He didn’t take responsibility for those products or those teams.
Sometimes the results were comical, as with Trump’s steak company. Sometimes the results were disastrous, as with Trump University, or those Florida condos. Sometimes he just made a quick buck, as with his line of neckwear. Trump was so successful as a marketer, in part, because he was unusually disinterested in the companies he endorsed. One reason athletes and celebrities don’t sell their brands more widely is it’s hard to exert quality control over too many products. Trump didn’t care about the quality of the products he backed, and that let him cash a check from many, many more of them.
A genius marketer is not a genius manager, and certainly not a genius at political warfare:
Among the many problems with Trump’s presidency is he appears to be treating it much as he treated his branding empire. He runs his White House, and feels responsibility for certain decisions he makes personally – like pulling out of the Paris agreement, or sending cruise missiles to Syria. But the further a decision gets from his core interests and nearby staffers, the less responsibility he feels for it.
This is the difference between a CEO and a brand licenser. Trump doesn’t look at the Justice Department and see Trump’s Justice Department. He looks at the Justice Department and sees the Trump-branded Justice Department – his name is in the lobby, but no one could fairly hold him accountable for everything that happens in the building.
If this doesn’t sound like the way good chief executives run their organizations, it’s because it’s not.
And that’s why he’s losing:
Trump’s alienation has likely been worsened by the resistance he’s gotten from the bureaucracy he’s supposed to lead. He entered office with national parks sub-tweeting him and has been rocked by leaks from every corner of the executive branch. Far from worrying over how to better manage the government he runs, much of Trump’s time seems to be spent trying to protect himself from the government he runs.
The result is a president who doesn’t understand the full scope of his job, a bureaucracy that doesn’t trust its leader, and the most powerful country in the world being managed in the most dysfunctional way possible. It has long been a trope in American politics that the government needs to be run more like a business, but no board of directors would allow a business to be run like this.
The result is also a defeated warrior. Chris Cillizza puts that this way:
If Comey comes anywhere close to affirming the reporting on the nature and specifics of his relationship with Trump, it will raise deep questions about not only whether Trump understands the rules governing his job but also whether he feels any need to tell the truth. If Comey comes out and says, “Yes, in a one-on-one meeting, Donald Trump asked me to drop the Russia investigation,” the ball is very much in Trump’s court to respond. And, in a battle of he said-he said between Comey and Trump, the bulk of the public is likely to side with the deposed FBI director.
Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, and that’s what Comey has done:
High stakes. Major revelations. Wall-to-wall TV coverage. And a president ready to blow. Add it all up and Thursday is shaping up to be the single biggest day in Washington in decades.
Yes, it’s war. Carl von Clausewitz covered that – “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”
The reverse is true too, even if the war is already over.