As Friday evening draws to a close around Washington, D.C., the city’s tight-knit and secretive national security clan goes to sleep with a new unease. It’s not Syria or Iran or even North Korea they’re most worried about. They’re uncertain just what President Donald Trump may tweet in the wee hours before they wake, and what they’ll have to do to manage the fallout.
“It’s accurate that we don’t always know what’s coming,” one senior U.S. official said with a shrug, as the weekend approached. “We are making sure we are following the president’s tweets because it’s often the first place we hear things.”
In a community that once shunned social media for fear it would damage careers or threaten security clearances, spooks, spies, and special operators are now are signing up for Twitter accounts and setting up @realDonaldTrump and @POTUS alerts so they can find out the inner thinking of their commander in chief, and protect their own bosses from fallout.
“The tweet thing is more immediately affecting the White House staff, and cabinet members who get blindsided every weekend with tweets,” another U.S. official said. The officials interviewed for this story spoke anonymously to discuss the near constant anxiety experienced by senior U.S. national security officials.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer gamely pushed back on the notion that his team was braced for the impact of another weekend tweetstorm, after surviving last weekend’s tsunami when Trump accused President Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower. Spicer’s team took a day to embrace the tweets, before releasing a statement and sending Spicer’s deputy Sarah Sanders into the maw of a feisty Martha Raddatz interview to back the charges, and call for Congress to investigate.
“The president says what he wants, when he wants, and we’ll support him,” Spicer told The Daily Beast Thursday.
But ask military, intelligence, or law enforcement officers charged with defending the nation’s security what they think of Trump’s out-of-the-blue weekend tweets, and you get grimaces, shakes of the head, and even physical cringing. Verbal responses range from “I wish he would just stop,” to “Not helping. Just… not… helping.”
Multiple national security professionals interviewed—both in the administration or in uniform—said they are also concerned over what they perceive as a lack of emotional and intellectual discipline they believe is behind the tweet rage.
“National security professionals value orderly process for decision making,” said Bruce Riedel, director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, and a former CIA officer. “They abhor unpredictable and rash impulses. Twitter temper tantrums undermine process and create wasteful distractions at best and unnecessary wars at worst.”
What Trump tweets is also the kind of information foreign intelligence agencies devote legions of spies to uncover. Now, there’s almost no need. Sign up for Twitter, and any user has a view into what the president is thinking, and feeling about an issue—that which is often hardest to gauge for an intelligence officer.
The new riddles spies ask include: How will Trump’s White House staff justify the latest tweet storm? How will his cabinet react? Will the emotional outrage become policy, or will someone within the walls of power be able to pacify him and redirect the rage?
Others believe Trump’s tweets are so often at odds with what ultimately becomes policy that they’re taking on a certain “cry wolf” quality.
“On the military side, I believe there’s a certain amount of tone-deafness,” said just-retired Marine Gen. John M. Paxton Jr., speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “There are enough crises in the world between North Korean nukes… ISIS… that they are trying to monitor that risk… and have options on the table,” he said in answer to a Daily Beast question.
“After so many weekends… where there’s a Twitterstorm of some sort, and then there’s a rolling back, my sense is it will tamp down,” added former Obama Undersecretary for the Navy Janine Davidson at the same event. “Below those turbulent waves, people are just doing their job and waiting for the retraction, on Monday or Tuesday,” she added.
“Increasingly, when I talk to people, they just stopped listening to the noise and tuned that stuff out,” said former Trump transition adviser James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation. “Its strategic impact is starting to taper off,” he added.
Essentially, people are learning that Trump flares with anger, and then—usually—retreats into more coherent policy, such as when the tweet feud with the Mexican president over who would pay for the border wall evolved from a diplomatic incident into allegedly business-like phone discussions between the two men.
“I treat them as rhetoric,” said Carafano, who instead watches the formal announcements out of the White House, or from other members of cabinet. “Trying to literally translate them into policy is stupid.”