By Howard Kurtz
Published January 16, 2019
There is no longer any question that some of the top officials surrounding President Trump are trying to restrain him from certain dramatic decisions, especially on foreign policy.
And that one of their preferred methods is making sure that the press finds out about these efforts.
One view would be that these are "deep state" operators trying to rein in a president who wants to be disruptive — although they often include his own top appointees.
Another view would be that these are the so-called adults in the room, people far more knowledgeable than Trump, especially on military matters.
Clearly, "the generals" have left — Jim Mattis, John Kelly, H.R. McMaster — along with the likes of Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn and Jeff Sessions. (William Barr, Trump's nominee to succeed Sessions, tried to reassure senators at his confirmation hearing yesterday that he would protect the integrity of the Mueller probe.)
But even those tapped by Trump as more in step with his agenda are sometimes acting as a brake on his hit-the-gas approach.
That much is clear yesterday's head-turning piece in The New York Times:
"Last year, President Trump suggested a move tantamount to destroying NATO: the withdrawal of the United States."
The ubiquitous "senior administration officials" told the paper that "several times over the course of 2018, Mr. Trump privately said he wanted to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Current and former officials who support the alliance said they feared Mr. Trump could return to his threat as allied military spending continued to lag behind the goals the president had set."
This is stunning because the 70-year-old alliance has strong bipartisan support and is widely viewed as having helped both America and Europe win the Cold War and deter communist aggression.
But it's also worth noting that whatever venting he's done behind the scenes, Trump hasn't actually proposed such a drastic step.
And yet there's enough continuing concern that highly placed officials, or their intermediaries, were involved in this leak.
At the time, "Mr. Trump's national security team, including Jim Mattis, then the defense secretary, and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, scrambled to keep American strategy on track without mention of a withdrawal that would drastically reduce Washington's influence in Europe and could embolden Russia for decades."
The key word is Russia because many anti-Trump pundits are jumping on this story as evidence that Trump is doing Vladimir Putin's bidding. The only question, as they see it, is whether the president is merely soft on the Kremlin or Putin has something damaging on him. There is no evidence, obviously, of the latter.
It's no secret that Trump has repeatedly disparaged NATO and called out Angela Merkel and other leaders at its meetings. Since he tends to view global alliances mainly in financial terms, the president has complained that member countries aren't contributing enough to joint defense and relying on the United States to carry them.
And it's well known that Trump isn't a fan of treaties and trade deals, having withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The White House did not deny the story, but a senior official pointed the Times to Trump’s July comments calling the alliance "very important" and the U.S. commitment to NATO "very strong."
Still, according to the story, "when Mr. Trump first raised the possibility of leaving the alliance, senior administration officials were unsure if he was serious. He has returned to the idea several times, officials said increasing their worries."
Congress would probably block any attempt to withdraw America from NATO, but the story itself is undoubtedly making leaders in London, Paris, Berlin and other western capitals pretty nervous.
Any serious effort to bail on NATO would be as big a bombshell as Brexit. And that's why the story was leaked to Trump's least favorite newspaper.