Donald Trump's criticism of his Ukraine envoy, deployment of Rudy Giuliani to dig up dirt on a rival, and a move to suspend crucial military aid left U.S. diplomats normally in charge of carrying out U.S. foreign policy forced to contain the damage left in the president's wake.
It's a situation to which they have become accustomed.
Whether it's Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey or other hot spots, American diplomats say "contain the damage" — a quote from the Ukraine whistleblower's letter to Congress released last week — has become their job description after 2½ years serving Trump. Their goal isn't to head off his policies, but to keep him from sabotaging the very plans he's put into motion.
"I think the president has made it repeatedly and abundantly clear that he is the only one who makes U.S. foreign and security policy," said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But by neutering his team, he undercuts his success as a commander-in-chief."
Trump, who came to office skeptical of foreign policy professionals but was willing to consider their counsel, is sufficiently confident in his abilities to dispense with them altogether. Last week's release — by Trump — of a partial transcript of his July telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky demonstrates how the president is willing to ignore his formal foreign-policy team when he's convinced he can be more effective.
"The way I would describe it is they see themselves serving as those bumpers you put up when you take your kid bowling so the person doesn't roll a gutter ball," said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. "But in this instance, a gutter ball is war with Iran or a nuclear armed missile coming from North Korea."
As the foreign policy establishment tries to make policy from shifting priorities and strategies, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been drawn into the Ukraine uproar.
Pompeo, who on Friday said he hadn't had time to read the whistleblower's nine-page account, took part in the call with Ukraine's president, a person familiar with the matter said on Monday. Officials at the State Department didn't respond to a request for comment.
The result of Trump's approach, according to another person, is policy disarray. When the U.S. tried to form a coalition of nations to start a maritime security initiative to monitor Persian Gulf tanker traffic as a warning to Iran, nations such as France and Germany refused to go along for fear that they'd be dragged into war.