Liberal heads are exploding all over Washington today as word spreads like wildfire that President Trump has been giving out his phone number and encouraging world leaders to call him.
Security experts aren’t worried but State Department staffers held over from the Obama/Kerry days are really in a panic. It seems their friends just found out they are no longer in the loop. That is almost the worst thing that can happen to a career administrator in D.C.
The fracas started after it was reported that “former and current U.S. officials say Trump has given his digits to leaders in Canada and Mexico.” A French official separately confirmed to AP that Trump also gave his number to French President Emmanuel Macron.
Trump is not giving his number out to just anybody. These are other world leaders. We share a border with two of them.
Most of you have the phone number of your neighbors. It does not matter if you have barbecues every Saturday together or it is someone you just can’t stand. You have their number and they have yours for those “Hey Bob, just thought I’d let you know your trash can is on fire” kind of moments.
Security experts are only mildly nervous.
“If you are speaking on an open line, then it’s an open line, meaning those who have the ability to monitor those conversations are doing so,” Derek Chollet, a former Pentagon adviser, and National Security Council official told AP.
“Nearly every foreign intel service, hostile or otherwise” is trying to listen in on Trump’s phone conversations, tweeted Susan Hennessey, a Brookings Fellow in National Security Law and former attorney in the Office of General Counsel of the U.S. National Security Agency. “They wouldn’t doing their jobs if they weren’t,” she said.
Nearly every foreign intel service, hostile or otherwise. They wouldn't doing their jobs if they weren't. https://t.co/1Xyvhx6eil
— Susan Hennessey (@Susan_Hennessey) May 31, 2017
Matt Tait, a former information security specialist for Britain’s signals intelligence organization GCHQ, called these fears “overrated,” and cuts to the bottom line.
Tait tweeted that impromptu conversations with world leaders “would cut out the Department of State which works closely on bilateral relations, and potentially make ‘U.S. policy more dysfunctional and disjointed.'”
Hmm. Cutting State out of calls makes US policy more dysfunctional and disjointed, but security probs here overrated https://t.co/2T5vUL735Z
— Pwn All The Things (@pwnallthethings) May 31, 2017
State Department staff have been feeling a little left out of things for a while now.
Margaret Peterlin, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s chief of staff has more power than any chief of staff in recent memory, bringing in key associates to fill critical openings but so far leaving a lot of empty desks and making staffers more than just a little nervous.
The holdovers are throwing tantrums about being cut out of policy decisions. One official said Tillerson and his staff “treat career officers like Siri or Google, seeking concise answers to questions but not wanting any discussion or debate.”
“If you’re going to take hard decisions you ought to at least be willing to discuss them with the staff,” said Laura Kennedy, a former deputy assistant secretary of state. “A chief of staff ought to be attuned to just basic things like the morale of the building, and I’d pretty much give them an ‘F’ on that.”
Jared Kushner has been taking heat recently for a similar issue. He tried to set up a direct line with people he would be working with in Russia.
Back channels often can be helpful in order to explore available options directly without the circus of aides and media. Kushner wanted to discuss better coordination with Russia of U.S. policy toward Syria.
As reported by the Washington Post:
“President Kennedy used his brother for discreet contacts with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin during the Cuban missile crisis, partly because JFK didn’t want his advisers to know what trade-offs he was considering. President Richard Nixon and his top adviser Henry Kissinger used back channels so often and widely that they became habitual. The Obama administration continued this pattern: Obama explored options with Iran through an Omani intermediary and used a similar, secret channel to begin discussions with Cuba about the normalization of relations.”
Back channels are not always a bad thing. They can cut through the clutter and allow someone with purpose and direction to get the job done.