Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She served on President Obama’s National Security Council from 2009-2013 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.
Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the president of the United States, modeled on the President’s Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the president almost daily.
Here’s this week’s briefing:
Words matter, especially when they come from the President of the United States.
That’s why, historically speaking, presidential statements have played an integral role in our national security process. They can be used to encourage or discourage behavior, to lay out the costs or benefits of specific activities and to announce accomplishments or mourn tragedies.
If nothing else, official presidential statements are seen as a clear declaration of US policy and as a way to establish trust with the public, especially since misleading citizens on critical security issues could be dangerous. A failure to carefully craft statements risks the president speaking (or tweeting) without knowing key details, national security considerations and potential impacts.
As President Donald Trump’s Twitter trigger finger has revealed, he has taken a much more haphazard approach when it comes to both crafting policies and communicating them to the public. He often seems to leave members of his own administration in the lurch when he decides to take the country in a new direction.
Policymaking by tweet has serious repercussions that the President may not understand or want to acknowledge. His team may want to brief him on some of the effects of his social media policy announcements, including:
The President said that he didn’t “know about” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tough re-election bid when he tweeted on Thursday that it was time the US recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, upending decades of existing US policy.
But that seems highly unlikely since the upcoming election has been widely reported in the US, and presidents are often briefed about similarly high-stakes events. Trump’s claim seems even more ludicrous given that Netanyahu is set to arrive at the White House on Monday. Surely the President’s team would have prepared briefing materials on the Prime Minister’s footing in Israel with just two weeks left until the April 9 elections.
It’s no secret that Trump is widely popular in Israel, with approval ratings at almost 70%, or that Netanyahu has been under pressure this election cycle due to a pending indictment from a corruption investigation. And since Trump and Netanyahu are known to have a close relationship, the President’s announcement on the Golan was more likely a pre-election goodie bag for the Prime Minister.
Netanyahu is now able to turn to voters and say Trump did something for Israel – and for him – that no other Israeli Prime Minister has been able to achieve since Israel captured the territory from Syria. Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, but that has not been recognized by the international community – until now.
It is unclear whether Trump thought through the policy implications of his tweet on the Golan – including how it jibes with UN resolutions, how it could affect the Middle East Peace process, how it could set a precedent for territories seized by force, and more.
And, notably, Netanyahu used the President’s announcement as a campaign ad against his primary opponent, Benny Gantz, shortly after it was made. That raises the question of why the President chose to make this announcement ahead of the election, if he did not intend to actually influence the outcome of Israel’s election. This may establish a new precedent – or expectation from the President’s friends – that the United States is willing to interfere in other countries’ elections by timing policy announcements to fit election cycles, even if the legwork to make an informed US decision hasn’t been completed.
Preemptive presidential pardons
The President set off a completely unnecessary kerfuffle on Friday when he tweeted about withdrawing new sanctions aimed at North Korea just hours after the Treasury Department announced them. Staff members scrambled to try to clarify (or clean up) his Twitter announcement, because it was unclear whether he was referring to sanctions announced by Treasury on Thursday or designations that are still in the works.
It is evident from this announcement-by-tweet that Trump doesn’t consult with experts (or even his communications team) before making major decisions, and it signals that he’s not spending a whole lot of time getting briefed on North Korea if he doesn’t understand which sanctions he is withdrawing from. This doesn’t instill confidence in the White House policy process or create any sense that he’s making informed decisions on national security issues with nuclear implications. Our sanctions are geared, in part, toward denying North Korea revenues used for nuclear weapons.
Of course, this was just the latest example of Trump publicly undercutting his own team – including the intelligence experts that helped prepare the sanctions designations packages. The announcement wasn’t just a process foul – it may indicate a new presidential policy of preemptively pardoning his pals.
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders went so far as to say Trump withdrew sanctions because he “likes” North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un. Sanctions (historically) aren’t levied or lifted because the US “likes” or “doesn’t like” someone – they’re implemented because people and entities violated US law. They’re implemented when a person or entity violates US law. At a minimum, there’s a policy process that looks at the impact of any sanctions decisions as part of a broader strategy discussion.
Trump’s tweet, in contrast, appeared to give sanction busters a “get out of jail free” card. This sent a clear (if inept and uninformed) Twitter message that anyone looking to manipulate the President must simply persuade Trump to like him first.
The President’s Twitter policy announcements have also affected counterterrorism campaigns and military decisions. In December, shortly after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump announced on Twitter that the US had defeated ISIS in Syria and would be bringing US forces home. This caught many by surprise, including Trump’s own team, and sparked a game of catch-up, as US officials tried to understand, explain, and then implement his guidance.
The actual territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria is a major accomplishment, but because of the President’s preemptive policy statement (delivered yet again by Tweet) , announcing our withdrawal from Syria several weeks ago, this “victory” won’t impact our military posture. The President had already decided to withdraw forces well before ISIS was defeated. His decision back in December signaled that we were leaving with or without regaining all territory from ISIS.
The President finally acknowledged on Friday that the territorial defeat of ISIS is just one piece of the counterterrorism puzzle, when he tweeted that the terrorist group “uses the internet better than almost anyone” (his subsequent tweet called ISIS “losers”). The announcement could indicate the President is looking into further steps to combat online radicalization, but it’s really hard to know what tweet to believe, and what will actually be implemented based on the ever-changing narrative about the actual status of ISIS.
Presidential policy statements get a lot of coverage no matter how they’re delivered – that’s just one reason why presidents ostensibly try to make sure their statements accurately reflect US policy (and the reality of each situation).
In the age of Twitter, Trump reaches tens of millions of people with a few taps on his phone. When his tweets don’t actually reflect coherent strategies or even basic facts, they trigger mass confusion, which can be amplified and manipulated by dangerous actors.
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To top it off, the President’s Twitter habits reveal he is malleable enough that a single insult can send him spiraling, and reckless enough that he’s willing to make official US policy statements in 280 characters or less – even if he seems to have little idea what he’s tweeting or no concern about the accuracy of his statements.
For all of these reasons, please think before you tweet Mr. President, especially when making US policy announcements.