Following President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, foreign intelligence services all around the world will have hopped into overdrive. Intelligence analysts from Moscow to London and all the way to Beijing will be working overtime to provide foreign policymakers with assessments of the irrevocably altered status and stability of the U.S. government. And their bottom=line conclusion is likely to be consistent across the globe: Under Trump, the U.S. government has vacated its position as a credible global leader.
The core assessment, whether from our allies or enemies, will be that the U.S. government is, in the near term at least, compromised. Based on the necessary diversion of resources to deal with containing COVID-19 at the most senior levels of our government, valuable U.S. government assets—time, attention, or physical resources—that would normally be devoted to identifying and mitigating external threats are being redirected to do contract tracing, communications, and more.
Plus, in light of ill health and quarantines and tracking movements, key U.S. officials including the president aren’t able to fully function. A president cannot fully discharge his duties from a hospital bed at Walter Reed. It’s impossible. Plus, any personnel who have to quarantine miss out on regular access to classified servers and documents, not to mention seamless communications with colleagues.
These assessments are assuredly being made by both our allies and our adversaries. Our allies will logically integrate this intelligence analysis into mitigation measures of their own. They will game out where there are gaps in U.S. government functionality and try to plan around it. With Trump MIA from major moments while he is at the hospital, it’s safe to assume that everyone from Merkel to Macron to Moon (he’s from South Korea) are talking to each other about how to operate without us, even temporarily. Key negotiations that need a head of state in charge will have to come up with emergency Plan Bs, whether it’s arms control or trade-related.
And when it comes to our adversaries, remember, it’s not like Vladimir Putin is taking a sick day. The “convalescence” of President Trump gives our enemies an edge, and they will likely seek to exploit key vulnerabilities in our national security apparatus.
Our adversaries’ intelligence assessments likely view this period as prime for influence operations. The timeline surrounding Hope Hicks’ diagnosis, and who knew what when, is, well, questionable, to put it charitably. The information that the president and so many members of his team were putting out in the last several months was already ripe with misinformation (even Twitter agreed on more than one occasion). So there was already a level of distrust about information coming out of the White House, which led to confusion and could fan panic.
Now, the White House is probably viewed as even less of a reliable source based on the president’s infection with a disease he claimed was largely handled. The administration’s non-credible explanation of how and when recent events unfolded—coupled with their general domestic disinformation ops, like the conspiracy theories they’ve been spreading about the upcoming election—likely mean that foreign actors like Russia see a window to amp up influence operations geared at sowing confusion and undermining confidence in our institutions. We know that Russian actors have worked to spread divisions on a host of domestic issues like racial inequality and COVID-19, and Putin has good reason to kick these operations into overdrive to take advantage of this confusing moment.
And whether it’s our allies or our adversaries, foreign intelligence analysis probably is providing policymakers with a bigger-picture assessment that the U.S. is no longer viewed as a credible leader of the free world. Consider how few heads of state have contracted COVID.
“Whereas the United States led globally on other health threats like Ebola, we’re doing the opposite this time around.”
The fact that the most important head of state on the planet, in the country with the most sophisticated and advanced medical infrastructure of any nation in the world, couldn’t or wouldn’t do what it takes to keep himself and his team safe from this pandemic doesn’t position POTUS to be viewed as willing or able to confront global challenges. Whereas the United States led globally on other health threats like Ebola, we’re doing the opposite this time around.
This is another area for adversaries to exploit online, and they don’t even have to fabricate information on this front. While they seek to exploit tactical opportunities provided by the diversion of resources and relative incapacitation of a fully functioning government, just letting this news cycle play out helps countries like China with their goal of discrediting the United States’ credibility and positioning the CCP as a more capable alternative.
When it comes to Russia, their overarching mission of undermining confidence in U.S. institutions gets a lot of momentum from the reality that U.S. institutions may be crippled by this pandemic. While Iran and North Korea have probably been putting more really aggressive behavior on hold while they waited to see the outcome of the 2020 election, now both rogue regimes may think about conducting a show of force to paint a picture of their own power in contrast to the compromised character of our own government.
All available instruments of U.S. power are likely being deployed to try to message stability, whether it’s through phone calls to foreign counterparts or press conferences. Secretary of State Pompeo will be calling everyone in his Rolodex to offer assurances about the president’s health and stability of the U.S. government, but it’s unlikely anyone is taking his words at face value. Nothing can obscure the reality that there are major downside risks to U.S. national security and, more broadly, to credible U.S. leadership around the world.