A nonpartisan guide to national security and foreign policy issues in the presidential election (part I)

Is Trump a Russian agent? And is Clinton an emailing criminal? Will we be less safe during the next administration?

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump shakes hands with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton following the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.

Patrick Semansky/AP

This article was co-published with Salon.com and The Huffington Post.

According to Hillary Clinton and her supporters, Donald Trump is crazy friendly with Russian president Vladimir Putin, a bad man who hates America and threatens its interests, and therefore Trump cannot be trusted even with U.S. intelligence secrets, much less the presidency. He is so thin-skinned and impetuous that he could drop nuclear bombs on someone who criticized him, so insulting to nearly everyone outside his family that the country would become dangerously isolated during his presidency, unable to address challenges like ISIS that we cannot take on alone. Trump’s incendiary rhetoric about Muslims is a potent recruiting tool for jihadists. And he is so unconcerned about the welfare of others that he wouldn’t blink at severing defense ties with allies who don’t send us a lot more cash, provoking them to create or expand their own arsenals of nuclear arms — which is actually okay with him. His campaign slogan might as well be, let global chaos reign.

According to Donald Trump and his supporters, Hillary Clinton is a seminal figure in Washington’s corrupt establishment, which has weakened our military and made the country a patsy of friends and foes alike, unwilling to stand up to the likes of Saudi Arabia, Mexico, China, and Japan, whether the issue is immigration, trade or national security. She’s a prisoner of monied interests, not just Wall Street powerbrokers, but cringe-worthy countries like Qatar, which gave huge sums to the Clinton Foundation. And she’s been so careless handling national secrets that she could have – and should have – been jailed for ignoring the State Department’s own secrecy rules and for defying a congressional demand to surrender all her emails. Her campaign slogan might as well be, I’m going to look after my friends and I’m not going to tell you anything.

These are some of the milder claims being made during this year’s acrimonious race to become America’s 45th president. And while national security issues might not be foremost in voters’ minds on Nov. 8, the debates over America’s proper place in the world have touched on broader questions about the candidates’ character, integrity, and temperament.

And so the Center for Public Integrity has prepared a voter-friendly guide to what the contenders really stand for on defense and foreign policy and how they will likely act if they wind up as the occupant of the Oval Office.

Today, we look at Donald Trump. Tomorrow, we look at Hillary Clinton.

So what would Trump do, exactly? His rhetoric on foreign policy issues has been all over the map.

Trump has tenuous connections to the Republican Party, but he remains the party standard-bearer. And so it’s worth citing a few of the national security goals enumerated in the party’s platform: Lifting a congressional cap on defense spending; expanding the Army; deploying a more robust missile defense; and spending more in particular on nuclear weapons. The Obama administration’s nuclear arms deal with the Russians, the platform says, has flimsy verification provisions and wrongly allows Russia “to build up its nuclear arsenal while reducing ours.” The platform also states: “We will meet the return of Russian belligerence with the same resolve that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union…We will not accept any territorial change in Eastern Europe imposed by force.”

Trump has separately discussed adding more troops to the Marines as well as the Army, and boosting the number of U.S. military ships and planes. He hasn’t detailed how to pay for all this, except to suggest that he would negotiate lower prices. Weapons, he says, “come in at costs that are so far above what they were supposed to be, because we don’t have people that know what they’re doing.” He says our military power overseas should be focused on defeating the Islamic State (ISIS).

Okay, but let’s get to the urgent stuff: Is Trump a Russian agent, or as Clinton suggested at the Alfred E. Smith dinner in New York on Oct. 20, akin to the horse “Vladimir Putin rides around on”?

This issue is more than a little odd. Typically, it’s been Republican presidential candidates who have inveighed against Democrats for supporting rapprochement with the country Mitt Romney called “our number one geopolitical foe” in 2012. Democratic candidates have usually responded that it’s the Republicans who don’t understand the need for global peace — Obama reminded Romney in a debate that year “the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” This year, these stances have been turned upside down, with Clinton depicting Russia as an aggressive and meddling adversary bent on undermining our democracy, and Trump describing the Russian leader as a future partner that he is eager to meet between winning the election and taking the oath of office.

So what’s the deal here? Is Trump a modern-day Manchurian candidate, with Putin secretly pulling his strings? Sen. Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) suggested at one point that Trump shouldn’t be given the usual pre-election briefing by U.S. intelligence officials because he’s so dangerous.

Trump has visited Moscow, where he tried to do some business, but he admitted during the second debate that “I know nothing about Russia – I know about Russia, but I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia.” From a distance, Trump has admired Putin for being “very much of a leader” and someone with robust popularity. But Trump has an exaggerated sense of Putin’s return admiration, believing that Putin called him brilliant and a genius; actually Putin called him talented and used a Russian word correctly translated as “colorful” or bold rather than brilliant.

“If we got along well, that would be good,” Trump said of Putin at the third debate. He also has said, with an odd casualness, that “I don’t happen to like the system” in Russia, but he hasn’t acknowledged the systematic stifling of dissent under Putin, which led to street protests by tens of thousands of citizens between 2011 and 2013 (Putin has alleged that Clinton, while at the State Department, helped finance and stoke those demonstrations, giving him ample motive to try to subvert her campaign).

Some of those who are close to Trump or contributors to his campaign do have ties to Moscow. A Russian-American businessman, Simon Grigorievich Kukes, who was installed as the head of the Yukos oil empire after Putin’s government ousted one of his critics from that job, contributed more than $150,000 to Trump’s campaign and a related joint fundraising committee, according to OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan group. A businessman who Trump identified earlier this year as a foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, has worked with state-owned Russian energy companies subsequently punished by U.S. sanctions — which Trump might want to lift. Moreover, Trump’s campaign manager for four months this year, Paul Manafort—a longtime consultant to dictators and others of ill repute on the international stage — resigned from his managerial post shortly after new Ukrainian documents surfaced that linked him to the political party of a Putin ally.

So Trump is likely not as hostile to Russia as many in Washington. Does this mean he’s in the Russians’ camp, as Clinton’s campaign has claimed?

Two years ago, Trump said “we should definitely do sanctions” in response to Russia’s takeover of Crimea by military force, rather than annexation through peaceful political means. (The Russian military’s occupation preceded a pro-Russian vote by Crimea’s population, representing a classic “rigged election” of the type Trump has been warning about at home.) But more recently, breaking with a broad consensus in Washington and allied European capitals, Trump has noted neutrally that “the people of Crimea…would rather be with Russia than where they were. And you have to look at that.” He said his administration “will be looking at” lifting anti-Russian sanctions.

Also, using exceptionally awkward phrasing, Trump said in a July 31 television interview that Putin’s “not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down.” When the moderator gently responded that “he's already there, isn't he?" Trump replied, "OK — well, he's there in a certain way.” He then cleaned up his remarks with tweets saying he meant any further into Ukraine, fitting an established pattern of loose talk-followed-by-clarifications that seems likely to persist if Trump reaches the White House.

In another stark dissent from Washington consensus, Trump has repeatedly refused to blame Putin’s government for the computer hacking of email accounts for Clinton aides and Democratic Party officials. He falsely insisted during the third debate that “our country has no idea” who did it, even though, before that event, the Obama administration pointedly said its intelligence community knows Russia was the culprit. Adm. Michael Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency, reiterated that view at a Baltimore cybersecurity symposium on Oct. 20.

Does any of this make Trump disloyal? Clinton has suggested as much, saying that Trump has “shown a very troubling willingness to back up Putin, to support Putin” and that this “raises national security issues.”

Trump’s remarks make it clear he would interrupt the current trajectory — the declining trajectory — of U.S.-Russian relations. But the claim that President Trump would deliberately pursue Russia’s interests instead of what he considers U.S. interests, is utterly unsubstantiated. Trump himself hasn’t offered an articulate rebuttal: “No puppet, no puppet,” he said during the third debate, as if he was channeling one of Alec Baldwin’s Saturday Night Live parodies. But the fact that he would start from a different place than Clinton in a future negotiation with Putin does not mean he intends to capitulate; it just means the outcome could be different. “Trump is not a foreign agent,” says Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist who wrote a widely-praised, critical biography of Putin.

But didn’t Trump actually invite Russia to use a computer hack to find and divulge the tens of thousands of official emails Clinton’s aides destroyed? He actually said, "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find” them. This is like saying, come spy on us. Clinton has even charged him with “giving aid and comfort to our adversaries,” like a traitor.

That’s hardly credible. Russia does not need an invitation to spy; both countries do this all the time, as a matter of routine. And Trump has said he was just being sarcastic.

Is this believable?

Yes. He’s not a professional politician or a diplomat, or even been a close observer of America’s international relations. As everyone now knows, he regularly talks in public as if he’s sitting at a college fraternity’s bar late on a Saturday night, after a few beers; he taunts, teases, jokes, and puts all his resentments and raw emotions on display. These traits endear him to his supporters, and make others pull their hair out.

Trump has collected the public endorsement of 88 former retired U.S. generals and admirals. Isn’t that an impressive haul?

It’s actually less than a fifth of the number of admirals and generals who publicly supported Mitt Romney in 2012, according to a tally by the Atlantic. And while it includes several former U.S. Army commanders in Europe and others who held senior Pentagon posts, many of those involved may have been inspired by a single issue: their opposition to a U.N.-approved deal to control and monitor Iran’s nuclear program. Roughly 60 percent of the Trump military signers also appeared on a September 2015 letter opposing that deal, according to the Center’s estimate. The anti-Iran deal letter was organized by a member of the board of advisers to the Jewish Institute for National Security. The Trump-supporting letter, according to his campaign, was also organized by a member of the Institute’s board.

Taking an opposite tack, 50 national security experts who said they worked for Republican presidents — including 24 who had jobs at the White House and the National Security Council — signed a joint letter in August declaring Trump unqualified and claiming he would put the country’s security at risk. They further said he had dangerous personal qualities and called him ignorant of U.S. laws and vital national interests.

Didn’t they also say he lacked “the temperament” to be President?

Yes.

So this pulls us into a whole new bucket of issues. What are we to make of the Clinton campaign’s claim that Trump is simply too dangerous to be given access to nuclear weapons? Could he really, singularly, make an unlivable mess of the planet in a fit of pique?

It might seem odd, in a democracy built on pluralism, that nuclear weapons actually function as the private arsenal of a single American – under what former launch control officer Bruce Blair has referred to as “a nuclear monarchy.” Only the president can launch a nuclear attack (others can step in if he dies), and the military’s nuclear officers are rigorously trained to follow a president’s precise orders. Although the nation’s defense secretary is supposed to confirm the order before it’s carried out, he or she doesn’t actually have veto power; any resistance would constitute insubordination. That’s why Richard Nixon is said to have once bragged, as his impeachment neared, that “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone, and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead.”

Since the United States presently has around 900 deployed nuclear warheads on missiles subject to launch within less than a half hour (another 480 are associated with bombers that function more slowly), it’s an inescapable fact that this rigid protocol of singular command and unblinking, system-wide nuclear response raises the stakes of every presidential election. As ten former launch nuclear launch control officers said in a joint statement on Oct. 13, “the pressures…are staggering, and require enormous composure, judgment, restraint and diplomatic skill.”

They went on to complain that Trump doesn’t have these qualities.

Is this fair? Trump did say in a primary debate that “we have to be extremely vigilant and extremely careful when it comes to nuclear.” He might be erratic, and uninformed; after all, he called the New Start nuclear arms treaty the “Start Up” treaty, as if he was weighing a new investment. But would he really want to put dozens of gleaming Trump Towers and hotels, Trump Plazas, and Trump golf courses in 40 cities, plus the nation’s population, at risk by initiating a nuclear exchange?

Clinton strikingly accused Trump in the third debate of being “very cavalier, even casual about the use of nuclear weapons.” She also said Trump had told Asian nations engaged in a nuclear competition to “go ahead, enjoy yourselves, folks.”

Trump has called these claims a distortion. In March he said “maybe it’s not so bad…if Japan had that nuclear threat.” He also said this is “going to happen whether we like it or not,” and that other countries such as South Korea and Saudi Arabia might also get the bomb unless the world gets “rid of them entirely.” But this seemed like more of a prediction than an endorsement, particularly when viewed alongside his remark last January that nuclear proliferation – including the seizure of a warhead by a madman — is “the single biggest problem that our country faces right now.” When asked again about Japan that month, however, Trump muddied the water further: “Maybe they would be better off — including with nukes, yes, including with nukes.”

Separately, at a rally before the Wisconsin primary the following month, Trump said if war one day broke out between Japan and North Korea, Japan would “wipe them out pretty quick.” He also said “it would be a terrible thing” but then added, in a characteristically flippant way, “Good luck. Enjoy yourself, folks,” according to The Guardian’s account of his remarks. He was not, he told Clinton at the third debate, endorsing a nuclear exchange between the two.

But didn’t he also ask some foreign policy expert why – if we have nuclear weapons – can’t we use them? This remark has been cited widely. Isn’t this scary, as Clinton’s supporters say?

The quote originated in a claim by Joe Scarborough, a popular cable TV host who has distanced himself from Trump. But Scarborough hasn’t said who he heard it from, so there hasn’t been any corroboration; Trump, moreover, has denied saying it. Even if he did, he wouldn’t be the first non-expert to attempt to understand what, exactly, the massive U.S. arsenal of nuclear weapons is for. Just asking the question doesn’t make him trigger-happy.

Okay, but this is still confusing. Trump has said he wants to build more nuclear warheads – only the Russians are doing that now, he says—but at the same time he warns countries in Europe and Asia that depend on our nuclear arsenal that they will have to go it alone, unless they pay us a lot more money.

Clinton has attacked Trump’s position, claiming that “he wants to tear up our alliances.” But Trump’s argument is economic, not political. It’s based on the fact that key U.S. allies – such as Japan, Germany, and South Korea — contribute only a small portion of the costs of defending their territory from attack, as a legacy of policies dating from World War II. The U.S. share of total defense spending in Europe by all NATO members, for example, exceeds 70 percent, although some of this spending is for forces that can be used elsewhere in the world. Washington’s share of NATO’s direct budget (for its operations and staff) is far less — roughly 22 percent — but still larger than anyone else's.

Here are Trump’s words at the third debate: “We’re defending other countries. We are spending a fortune doing it. They have the bargain of the century…We have to renegotiate those agreements.” He went on: “South Korea, these are very rich, powerful countries. Saudi Arabia, nothing but money. We protect Saudi Arabia. Why aren’t they paying?” Actually, they do pay billions of dollars to reimburse some U.S. costs. But senior U.S. officials, including Obama himself, have repeatedly expressed identical frustrations; in April, Obama colorfully called them “free riders,” virtually echoing Trump.

There still seem to be many other disagreements between Trump and Clinton. Do they agree about anything related to the nation’s defense?

Yes. Both have proposed policies that almost certainly would require an increase in military spending. But this is at best an uncertain prospect, since Democratic lawmakers have said they will agree only if Republicans agree to commensurate increases in non-defense spending, which most Republicans still oppose. Although the makeup of Congress will doubtless change next year, this deadlock could persist.

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