President Donald Trump is roaming the White House with a highly infectious disease, pumped up on experimental drugs and high-powered steroids that he claims make him feel “perfect.”
The West Wing, the administration’s usually packed office space, is described as a ghost town, with only two aides decked out in front-line PPE attending to Trump in the Oval Office. At least 20 White House staffers, from press secretary Kayleigh McEnany to 2020 campaign manager Bill Stepien, have tested positive for Covid-19 and placed themselves under quarantine.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mike Milley and nine other generals and admirals in charge of the nation’s defense forces were exposed to an infected colleague during a top-secret meeting last week and, like the president’s staff, are working from home.
Fears of an “October Surprise” impacting the Nov. 3 election might have seemed wild imaginings just two weeks ago. With a sick commander-in-chief, sequestered government and congressional leaders and a military command scattered beyond the D.C. beltway, concern is mounting that the United States is vulnerable to violent foreign provocation.
Hostile foreign powers are not the only threats to U.S. security at this time of unprecedented distraction and discord.
Federal agents on Thursday said they thwarted a plot by an armed hate group to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer before election day. An allied militia, the Wolverine Watchmen, planned to storm the Capitol in Lansing and incite “civil war,” Andrew Birge, U.S. Attorney for Western Michigan, said in announcing 13 arrests of men he deemed “violent extremists.”
Whitmer called out Trump for his refusal during the first presidential debate of 2020 to condemn white supremacists.
“Hate groups heard the president’s words not as a rebuke but as a rallying cry,” Whitmer said in a televised address, referring to Trump’s response to the white supremacy question that the Proud Boys racist militia should “stand back and stand by.”
A White House statement called Whitmer’s criticism of the president “outlandish.” The Democratic Michigan governor has been a favorite target of Trump for imposing lockdowns during the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus in her state this past spring. Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” after an armed militia surged into the state Capitol in April.
“In a very dangerous world, with a number of crises that we’re facing here at home and abroad, there are concerns about whether or not the United States of America can, in fact, provide the governing that is necessary in order for our democracy to be able to survive in this difficult moment,” Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta warned in an interview with Judy Woodruff on PBS last week after Trump was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center with fever and shortness of breath.
Panetta, who also served as CIA director and Pentagon chief in the Obama administration, said national security officials are always greatly concerned about adversaries taking advantage of the United States during “a very vulnerable moment.”
“We know what the Russians are doing, in terms of trying to undermine our election process. We know that China is doing the same thing. We know that Iran and North Korea have conducted those kinds of operations as well,” Panetta said.
In an article for The New Yorker by veteran foreign policy analyst Robin Wright, the magazine disclosed that 40% of the 231 U.S. military installations are under some form of movement restrictions because of Covid-19 infections. As of Wednesday, almost 70,000 service members or employees of the bases have been infected, according to a Defense Department website for information on the pandemic’s impact.
“This president’s failure to manage the Covid-19 pandemic effectively, his failure to reduce the dire economic impacts, and his propensity to inflame rather than heal the deep divisions in this country have all contributed to a perception, among allies and adversaries alike, of an America that is in crisis, if not decline,” Michele Flournoy, an Obama administration undersecretary for defense, told The New Yorker. “This perception increases the risk that our competitors may seek to take advantage of this moment to make mischief abroad. Couple that with the election and we are looking at a period of extreme uncertainty.”
Foreign Policy magazine earlier this week enumerated national security threats resulting from Trump’s diagnosis and erratic behavior since returning to the White House while still infectious.
“Pharmaceutical treatments, fatigue, and elevated stress impair people’s cognition and alter how they make and communicate decisions,” Foreign Policy analyst Micah Zenko wrote, noting that Trump’s authority to escalate military action abroad is his “most immediate and observable foreign-policy tool.” Trump tweeted early Thursday that all U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, making no mention of the reduction in hostility previously set as a condition for a full U.S. withdrawal.
Other concerns of national and global security experts involve what the United States might not do when its leadership is so distracted and disengaged from allies.
The Trump administration has said little about the two-month standoff between embattled Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and the thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators taking to the streets each day to contest what are widely seen as corrupted election results giving the incumbent another term in the office he has occupied for 26 years. Nor have Trump or his toadying diplomats called on the Kremlin to explain how Alexei Navalny, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critic, was poisoned with a Soviet-era nerve agent supposedly under the control of the Russian military. Washington’s silence has left the task of mediation in the Belarus standoff and probe of the Navalny attack to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the European politician increasingly acting like the leader of the free world in America’s absence.
China, the ascendant superpower, is unlikely to direct aggressive action against the United States, no matter how weak and divided the country has become. But Beijing has ratcheted up threats to blockade or retake Taiwan, which China regards as a wayward province. The Communist-ruled country has also pressed its claim of sovereignty over islands and resources in the South China Sea.
“Any problem elsewhere is just a third- or fourth-order problem right now because we are so self-absorbed, inward looking and consumed with our own toxicity,” Nick Rasmussen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Washington Post earlier this week. “And when you’re distracted, you make mistakes.”