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National security experts describe a distracted and potentially vulnerable country

Consumed by its own difficulties, the country is in a difficult position to respond to adversary provocations, promote its foreign policy interests with the support of allies or serve as a credible model of functioning democracy, former senior national security officials said.

“I see weakness and division and above all distraction,” said Nick Rasmussen, who was director of the National Counterterrorism Center in the Obama and Trump administrations. “Any problem elsewhere is just a third or fourth order problem right now because we are so absorbed by ourselves, looking within and consumed by our own toxicity. And when you are distracted, you make mistakes. “

The fallout spread rapidly over the weekend, radiating outward from the president. More than half a dozen White House aides, Republican lawmakers, and high-level agents tested positive for the novel coronavirus after breaking health protocols at public events, sparking panic in West Wing neighborhoods and forcing the Senate to close the doors to prevent further spread.

The outbreak came as members of Trump̵

7;s national security team faced allegations of using their positions to secure his re-election.

National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe was criticized by his predecessors last week for declassifying discredited intelligence reports allegedly involving Hillary Clinton in an attempt to “stir up a scandal” against Trump in 2016 by involving Russia. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was turned down in his attempt to get a meeting with the pope from Vatican officials who reportedly viewed his approach as an electoral ploy to please Catholics. And Attorney General William P. Barr has been accused of being the source of unfounded allegations of voting irregularities cited last week by the president.

“In a normal government, you could probably absorb some of this dysfunction,” said John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA who now teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “But this government, on national security policy, has had a very rough process – to say the least – for making foreign policy decisions.”

Another former senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid direct criticism, said the actions of Ratcliffe, Barr and others came as no surprise given the patterns of the past nearly four years.

“This is the Trump administration,” said the former official, who also criticized the media for its focus on Trump as the essence and end of all world affairs.

Beyond the chaos in the White House, some state affairs are underway. Pompeo, who returned on Friday evening from his trip to the Vatican and Greece, would leave on Sunday for a two-day visit to Japan. The State Department announced that the visit would continue, although it said without explanation that other stops for what was supposed to be a longer trip had been postponed.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper has been on tour in North Africa and the Middle East since last week, and was in Kuwait on Sunday.

McLaughlin and others pointed out that the country’s main opponents do not seem ready to test the United States, in part due to their own apprehensions about the vote, now only 30 days away.

Russia and, to a lesser extent, China are already seen as interference in US elections with relative impunity. And Iran has yet to finalize its vote of further retaliation for the US drone strike in Baghdad in January that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.

But leaders in those countries, as well as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, may be reluctant to challenge the United States more forcefully in the coming weeks out of concern about the impulses of a troubled president or the potential consequences of a future administration. guided. by Democratic candidate Joe Biden if he is elected.

“Some adversaries may think America can be distracted so they can get away with something,” said Stephen J. Hadley, who was President George W. Bush’s national security adviser. On the other hand, he said, they might think that a provocation “could give Trump the opportunity to be presidential, to be the commander in chief, and that strengthens his hand with the American people.”

“I think it’s probably the thinking of China, I think it’s probably also the thinking of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, I think that’s true for the Iranians, “Hadley said.” They’ll squat and get through this period and see who got elected. “

Trump’s admission to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Friday was greeted with expressions of sympathy and support from foreign leaders including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Putin, who sent a telegram saying he was sure that ” Trump’s inherent vitality, vigor, and optimism will help you overcome the dangerous virus. “

Putin himself has been much more cautious about his personal safety, spending the past six months in virtual isolation on a country estate outside Moscow. Most of his meetings took place via videoconference. Reportedly, those who visit in person must first quarantine for 14 days and get a negative coronavirus test result. Upon arrival they must pass through a “disinfectant tunnel” to the residence, where a strict social distancing is maintained.

Out of Putin’s bubble, Russia reported 10,499 new cases in one day on Sunday, the first time since mid-May that its daily number has exceeded 10,000. With a total of infections during the pandemic totaling 1.2 million, Russian authorities reported an overall death toll of 21,358. Britain and France, where the virus is on the rise again, also experienced record increases in the daily number of cases on Saturday.

Current and former U.S. officials have said Trump’s infection was widely seen overseas as a direct result of his troubled handling of the pandemic and part of a larger and disturbing pattern of perceived incompetence and turbulence.

“There was a constant stream of emails asking repeatedly, at repeated moments, ‘What the hell is going on?’” Said a former senior US intelligence official in frequent contact with counterparts. Trump’s refusal to wear masks or comply with other protective measures baffled foreign officials, the intelligence official said, describing Trump’s symptoms as an “extraordinary manifestation of the dullness of his coronavirus approach.”

This official and others stressed that they believe the US military and intelligence agencies remain focused on threats abroad and perform well despite the turmoil in Washington.

“People can have confidence that the military and the US intelligence community on a professional level are doing their job and keeping an eye on everything and sounding the alarms that need to be sounded,” McLaughlin said. “But in what environment? One very distracted and confused at this point. “

While everyone expressed concern about Trump’s condition and said they hoped for his recovery, several national security veterans said they had contemplated whether the United States would be better equipped to respond to a global crisis if Trump were forced to give up his. duties of president. The White House said it is not under study and Vice President Pence, who tested negative for the virus, has scheduled a full week of on-the-road campaigns.

Hadley said she doesn’t see US national security as particularly vulnerable at the moment. “To some extent, it’s too early to tell. We don’t really know what the president’s conditions are. . . and the other big uncertainty of course is whether. . . Biden will take a test today, tomorrow or the next day and it will test positive. “

Depending on who wins, he said, the riskiest time will be between the election and the inauguration, when “what someone could do would not be seen as an attempt to influence the election result, because all the votes would be cast.” .

“In many ways, this is the most severe moment of vulnerability and distraction. I’m most concerned about that right now,” Hadley said.

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