Every U.S. President faces a major crisis at some point in their presidency. Although the administration of Donald Trump has already been buffeted by a hurricane season for the record books, and a stubbornly persistent Russia investigation, he’s yet to be hit by the kind of geopolitical crisis that will make the world stop and watch what happens next. Here are five candidates for Trump’s big pressure moment:
1. A large-scale cyber attack
Let’s say a cyberattack makes public all the proprietary information of a major corporation, roiling markets. Or a shadowy hacking collective brings down the electrical grid of the Pacific Northwest. Chaos ensues; people will look to the White House for guidance and comfort. As Puerto Rico made clear, playing comforter-in-chief is not Trump’s forte. Compounding the issue is that when it comes to cyber warfare, you can’t publicize your military response—the most effective cyber measures are covert. For a showman like Trump, that’s a problem.
The source of the cyberattack matters too, and information in the early hours and days can oftentimes be spotty. When China allegedly hacked into the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and stole the data of 21.5 million government employees in April 2015, it set off months of investigations and counter-measure planning. The FBI made an arrest just last month related to the OPM breach, highlighting just how long and complicated catching cyber perpetrators can be, especially if the suspects reside outside the country. Trump tweets first and asks questions later. A problem in most instances, but downright debilitating when responding to cyberattacks, especially those unprecedented in scale.
2. A faceoff between Washington and Moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin had high hopes for the incoming Trump administration, and while Trump has given every indication he would like to work closely with Putin, political realities (the Mueller investigation, congressional Republicans, the 70 percent of Americans who hold unfavorable views of Russia) have gotten in the way. There is no coming Russia rapprochement. And in the seemingly zero-sum world of US-Russia relations, if you’re not Moscow’s friend, you’re its enemy.
Every day brings fresh revelations of Russia’s sophisticated campaign against Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party during the 2016 campaign. And as domestic political realities pull Trump further from Putin’s orbit, we’re liable to see just how extensive those Russian hacking operations were. An increasingly-frustrated Putin may well start releasing RNC emails as a shot across the bow at Trump, deepening divisions between Trump and the GOP establishment. And if things get bad enough, Russia might even start releasing damaging information about Trump himself. Then we’re off to the races.
3. A stumble into direct conflict with North Korea
To put this bluntly: Kim Jong-Un is winning. He already has a nuclear weapon, and continues to make progress towards an ICBM capable of striking the U.S. mainland. As Trump threatens “fire and fury”, Kim creeps closer to the ability to deliver his own.
The Trump administration’s responses so far have been all over the place, and it’s unclear if this is by design. Trump has promised direct intervention and hinted at the possibility of war. Beleaguered Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried communicating directly with the North Koreans, but Trump warned publicly that he was wasting his time; Defense Secretary James Mattis said a preemptive military strike is on the table. Before being shown the door, chief strategist Steve Bannon (correctly) pointed out that the number of South Korean casualties Kim could inflict makes any first move by the U.S. prohibitively costly in terms of human life.
Trump and Kim each have a flair for escalatory rhetoric, and it might be hard for either of them to back away from an accidental escalation. Now factor in China, which would surely find itself in the middle of any escalation, with military and/or economic implications for relations with Washington. There’s no shortage of ways this one goes sideways.
4. A stumble into direct conflict with Iran
North Korea is scary, because an accident can come without warning. Iran is scary precisely because we’re witnessing the escalation in real time.
Trump’s refusal to recertify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal doesn’t automatically withdraw the U.S. from the agreement. Trump has simply kicked the question to Congress, which now has the option to reimpose sanctions if it chooses. European allies will likely join China and Russia to keep the deal in place—the last thing Europe needs is another political flashpoint that divides the continent.
But just as Trump has political incentives to look tough on Iran, some members of Congress do too. They may be tempted to reinstitute sanctions. If that happens, Washington could find itself in a diplomatic crisis with some of its closest allies—or in a standoff with two hostile powers at once.
5. A terrorist attack on the U.S.
Finally, the one threat that looms over every president—a foreign terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
The response by Americans in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 is arguably America’s finest hour. People stood in line for hours across the country to donate blood. Politicians, including then-President George W. Bush, took pains to emphasize that “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam… Islam is peace.” It’s hard to imagine Trump delivering that speech, or anything like it. In fact, Trump’s reference to 9/11 on the campaign trail was to single out the “thousands and thousands” of people (read: Muslims) he says were cheering in New Jersey (they weren’t).
If such a situation unfolded on Trump’s watch, Trump would likely deflect blame from himself and his administration for any security lapses, and point to the event as proof he was right all along about Muslim bans and immigration. In short, he would further divide the country rather than rallying it together.