Editor’s Note: CNN analyst Juliette Kayyem is the author of “Security Mom: My Life Protecting the Home and Homeland.” She is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration and CEO of Zemcar. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear,” is the story of an unstable President and a chaotic White House.
In the run-up to its publication next Tuesday and beyond, expect much debate, blame, denials, pontifications, and tweets (definitely, tweets) either refuting or supporting what the book offers as evidence. That is accounts from President Donald Trump’s own staff that he is unable to grasp policy, is endangering the country and unwilling to acknowledge the depth of his legal vulnerabilities.
This is the story of President Trump. It is the story of the White House.
It is also – sadly – the story of us, America.
The passages released so far are not just about the content of private discussions or the substantive debates over national and homeland security. They describe internal processes that are so dysfunctional, so mercurial, so back-stabbing and destructive that other nations and their leaders – whether ally or enemy – will see in them more proof of an unreliable partner. That partner is us.
It isn’t that revelations about Trump’s personality will be surprising to leaders in Europe, South America, the Middle East or China. They have met him. They have read the tweets. What is new in Woodward’s book is the picture of a President utterly isolated from the very people who serve him in the White House.
The President is in a den of vipers shot through with a cadre of aides trying to save the world from a crisis, according to the book (and since the start of his presidency, we’ve seen little reason to doubt it). The President has lost the authority that matters to us as a nation. Put it this way: does Trump seem weaker or stronger after these stories have come out? Whatever your answer, it’s the same answer for the United States.
Our President cannot control a narrative of American superiority when he has lost control of that narrative. If our allies want a reliable partner, they will look to each other or another heavyweight like China.
Beyond our capacity to support friends, America looks – and therefore is – more vulnerable because of how the President has managed his office. A recent case in point: the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was ultimately about a White House that refused to comprehend the magnitude of the disaster, lead when the threat was real, or take responsibility for a population that lacked potable water and electricity – and a death toll that would be revised upward last week to nearly 3,000.
His response to that news – that the US did a “fantastic job”– falls, like a heartless joke, on the ears of those who lost family, home, livelihood. It was also quite a terrifying response, as it showed that he simply missed the gravity of the situation. A President unable to recognize harms coming our way, and to deploy resources to stop them, energizes our enemies.
Finally, as someone who worked in an administration agency, I can tell you how revelations like those in Woodward’s book play in the halls of power in America and across the world: workers in federal agencies that protect our national security are left with little to support their efforts against the unavoidable conclusion that the lights are not on at the White House.
This can be very dangerous; agencies get their strength and authority by positioning themselves as aligned with the White House and the President. For US officials, a meeting with a foreign diplomat or an urban mayor about safety and security draws legitimacy from the backing of the White House. It works the way a “trump card” should.
Those who work outside the White House, and who are protected by a government that is functional, are also hidden characters in Woodward’s book. They are not anonymous sources or former Trump advisers.
They are … us. The book is about the fate of the United States.