Back in the distant days of July 2016, when Donald Trump was still holding press conferences and spawning controversy by criticising the parents of a Muslim American soldier killed in action, the world was suddenly introduced to Tony Schwartz. This man, a former journalist now infamous for his role as Trump’s ghostwriter, offered a deep insight into the mind and character of the then candidate that was nothing short of alarming. Every word of his interview with The New Yorker painted an image of a volatile and petty man-child obsessed with his own image and lacking any ability to self-assess or listen to advice.
Schwartz, who had unique access to Trump’s world while he shadowed him for eighteen months in order to ghostwrite The Art Of The Deal, was left with no doubt that the man he observed had neither the experience nor the temperament for the presidency. What seemed to disturb him above all else (the vengefulness, the egotism, the blatant lies) was Trump’s short attention span – a characteristic crucial for the Commander in Chief making life-or-death decisions about the security of America. According to Schwartz:
“It’s impossible to keep him focussed on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement, for more than a few minutes, and even then… If he had to be briefed on a crisis in the Situation Room, it’s impossible to imagine him paying attention over a long period of time.”
The truth of Schwartz’s observation about Trump’s character seemed to play out again and again during the presidential campaign. Trump consistently refused to give details about any of his policies beyond the broad strokes (build a wall, ban Muslims, make America great again), and showed little understanding of the issues facing the US or the world – his assessment of the war in Syria in the final debate was “Mosul is so sad”. When asked which foreign policy experts he listened to, he declined to name any but claimed he would just trust himself as “I have a very good brain” and “good instincts”. But on election day, enough Americans either didn’t care about Trump’s disturbing lack of concentration or refusal to listen to guidance, or were confident enough he would adjust in office that they voted for him anyway.
As a result, the US will soon have a president who is not only uniquely ignorant about the global challenges facing America today, but also uniquely uninterested in finding out.
This week, Greg Miller and Adam Entous at the Washington Post report that Trump has been rejecting the daily intelligence briefings offered to presidents-elect. These briefings, which provide the president with up-to-date intel on global security developments from all sixteen US intelligence agencies, are traditionally also given to presidents-elect to prepare them for office. So far, Trump has sat through only two, while finding time to meet with Indian business partners and TV network executives.
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Although previous presidents-elect have immersed themselves in the briefings to varying degrees, current and former US officials are worried at the lack of interest Trump seems to be showing in the process. According to the Washington Post:
“‘The last three presidents-elect used the intelligence briefings offered during the transition to literally study the national security issues that they would be facing and the world leaders with whom they would be interacting as president,’ said Michael Morell, former deputy CIA director, who supported Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during the campaign.
‘The president-elect is missing out on a golden opportunity to learn about the national security threats and challenges facing our nation,’ Morell said, ‘knowledge that would be extremely valuable to have when he takes the oath of office and when he steps into the Situation Room for the first time.’”
As his erstwhile ghostwriter predicted, the man portrayed in The Art Of The Deal is showing himself either unable or unwilling to put in the work necessary to be an effective Commander in Chief. But from January 20th, the next time Russia flexes its muscles across its western borders or violence intensifies in Syria, military generals and security officials will look to President Trump to call the shots. God bless America.