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Trump moves to silence critics

President Donald Trump's latest ...

Posted: Jul 24, 2018 12:13 PM
Updated: Jul 24, 2018 12:13 PM

President Donald Trump's latest gambit to choke off the flow of information for past spy chiefs who have criticized him is a disturbing move that again exposes an imperious streak out of place in American democracy.

The President's threat to rip security clearances from some of the nation's most decorated former intelligence officials may turn out to be a classic Trumpian distraction play that whips up a media storm and drowns out stories that are damaging to the White House.

But the idea that it is being seriously contemplated will send a chilling effect throughout Washington.

The wielding of presidential power to punish prominent critics would take this White House perilously closer to potential abuses of executive authority -- perhaps moving it onto territory not tested by any commander in chief since Richard Nixon.

Singling out dissenting former public servants in this way is a norm-busting power play that might seem tame in political systems ruled with an iron grip by Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping, who Trump admires. But it would be fueled by a strongman's instinct that both those leaders might recognize.

A political test for clearance

The idea that a president could establish a political test for the hundreds of thousands of current and former government employees who hold security clearances -- including in the upper reaches of the covert world -- could inflict significant damage on vital institutions. The possibility that he could use such a test to stifle criticism of his actions is almost unthinkable.

"It sounds to me like Donald Trump is talking about building an enemies list," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said Monday on CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront."

Such a claim has validity because Susan Rice, the Obama administration's second-term national security adviser, was on television as recently as Sunday criticizing Trump and questioning his ties to Russia -- and a day later found herself singled out on the White House list.

Perhaps the most astounding aspect of the controversy was that the White House made no secret of the fact that Trump was contemplating the revocation of the clearances for individuals, including former CIA Directors Michael Hayden and John Brennan and ex-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, because they had criticized him.

"Making baseless accusations of improper contact with Russia or being influenced by Russia against the President is extremely inappropriate, and the fact that people with security clearances are making these baseless charges provides inappropriate legitimacy to accusations with zero evidence," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

Sanders' comment yet again revealed the President's extreme sensitivity to allegations that he or his campaign in 2016 colluded with a Russian intelligence effort to put him into office, which appears to have become even more acute since his deferential behavior toward Putin in Helsinki last week, amid an astonishing public debate over whether he has been compromised by Moscow.

Sanders had an ostensible justification for the President's plan -- that barely passes the laugh test.

"The President is exploring the mechanisms to remove security clearance because they politicize, and in some cases monetize, their public service and security clearances," Sanders said.

The irony that Trump, of all people, is criticizing others for politicizing the intelligence community or profiting from public service is rich indeed. After all, he once accused intelligence agencies of behaving as though they were in Nazi Germany and has relentlessly attacked the FBI and subsequent special counsel investigation into alleged election collusion with Russia as a "witch hunt."

Ethics experts have frequently accused the Trump family of profiting from the presidency, and his tenure has included multiple scandalous episodes of Cabinet officers being profligate with government money.

Unprecedented times

While Trump's threat to revoke security clearances is unprecedented, so are the times. In no previous period have former senior intelligence officials been on television so often openly criticizing a sitting President.

There is an argument to be made that some of the commentary by former senior intelligence officers has certainly crossed the boundaries set by their predecessors, many of whom were content to remain in the shadows.

Many of Trump's supporters, receptive to the President's months-long campaign against the Russia probe and the attacks on the "deep state" in Washington on conservative media, are unlikely to share the shock rattling through Washington since Trump's threat.

Some of Brennan's criticism of Trump, which included a charge that the President was "treasonous" in his dealings with Putin last week, have surprised some former colleagues with its vehemence, though none of them doubt he is sincere in his criticism.

Former Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who chaired the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump's threat was worrying but also questioned the outspokenness of Brennan.

"It's petty. It's certainly below the stature of the office of the President of the United States," Rogers told CNN's Jake Tapper on "The Lead." "It is also not customary for the former CIA director to be off the reservation where he is either."

Hayden and Clapper, both of whom now work for CNN as commentators, have also been searing in their critiques of Trump, though they are typically more temperate in their language. Each man worked for Republican and Democratic presidents and never sought to enter politics -- but both have said they feel compelled to speak out because they see the country's institutions in peril.

Clapper has wondered publicly whether the Russians have something on Trump. Hayden has written that the President is the epitome of a post-truth era in politics.

"It's pretty obvious what the reason is: Why we were singled out for this contemplated action is because of criticism that we have expressed, and reservations that we have expressed about the President," Clapper told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Monday.

The former DNI also said it would never have occurred to him to recommend revoking the security clearance of former Trump campaign aide and short-lived national security adviser Michael Flynn for "vitriolic" criticism of Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration.

Some voters might ask why former national security officials need security clearances anyway -- since many of them take lucrative jobs in the security and media sectors.

One justification is that having such status allows former senior officials to be consulted by their successors on issues of a vital national security interest where their experience and institutional knowledge can offer priceless context.

If Trump thinks he can stop senior espionage kingpins from remaining in the know, he will be mistaken, since such officials build up extensive networks at home and abroad.

Trump's on-brand outrage

Even so, as Monday's furor raged, it was clear it shared characteristics similar to many other Trump administration controversies.

It reflected a desire to attack anyone associated with the Obama administration, for which the President harbors seething contempt -- even though some of those on the list were apolitical appointees who served presidents of both parties.

The announcement was also haphazard and may not have been fully thought through. Two of the people on the list -- fired former FBI Director James Comey and former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe -- no longer even have such clearances.

But it is a useful drama for Trump because it pits him against the Washington establishment -- always a sweet spot that the base-pleasing President seeks to occupy.

In a more sinister sense, the desire to censure former intelligence officials also fits with the President's long obvious penchant for testing the boundaries of his power -- for instance in breaking down traditional walls between the FBI and the White House designed to insulate the bureau for political interference.

On Monday, Sanders hinted ominously that Trump may have to get more "involved" in the Russia investigation because he regards it as a "witch hunt."

The idea of stripping security clearances seems to have evolved from a suggestion by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, a sometime Trump ally, that Brennan should be singled out. But it has been a frequent topic in conservative media. The President has a habit of picking up ideas from the Fox News vortex and turning them into political fodder.

Ultimately, Monday's developments pose another test for America's institutions, which have so far largely kept Trump's autocratic instincts in check. But they also raise the question of what's next. If a President can use his power to enact political retribution, could freedoms that Americans have taken for granted for decades soon be imperiled?

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 473413

Reported Deaths: 9214
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison32339474
Hinds30703575
DeSoto29814346
Jackson23263336
Rankin21111358
Lee14600217
Madison14043265
Jones13165218
Forrest12953233
Lauderdale11418297
Lowndes10249175
Lamar10048128
Pearl River8737209
Lafayette8078136
Hancock7324111
Washington6837147
Oktibbeha6820118
Neshoba6404201
Monroe6372158
Warren6326161
Pontotoc610393
Panola6071124
Bolivar6016143
Marshall5972118
Union564086
Pike5491133
Lincoln5232130
Alcorn520888
George457868
Scott451993
Leflore4401140
Prentiss437276
Itawamba436198
Tippah436180
Simpson4268111
Copiah425586
Wayne424863
Tate4234100
Adams4219114
Yazoo415886
Sunflower4088104
Covington407391
Marion4032100
Leake393185
Coahoma388198
Newton364474
Grenada3517101
Stone345657
Tishomingo324888
Attala321185
Jasper310262
Winston300391
Clay288273
Chickasaw282164
Clarke277487
Calhoun259739
Holmes259485
Smith243947
Yalobusha216747
Tallahatchie215649
Walthall205557
Greene204045
Lawrence203831
Perry196453
Amite193751
Webster191941
Noxubee174538
Montgomery169853
Jefferson Davis165541
Carroll159937
Tunica148434
Benton139433
Kemper137439
Claiborne125634
Choctaw124925
Humphreys123337
Franklin115227
Quitman101825
Wilkinson99835
Jefferson86632
Sharkey62120
Issaquena1916
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 768301

Reported Deaths: 13209
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1093481727
Mobile699891179
Madison48418589
Baldwin35707452
Shelby35193291
Tuscaloosa33029512
Montgomery32582664
Lee21908204
Calhoun20140377
Morgan19351318
Etowah18583433
Marshall17272259
Houston16139353
St. Clair14956276
Limestone14129180
Cullman14069235
Elmore14010245
Lauderdale13128272
Talladega12399215
DeKalb11890229
Walker10231312
Autauga9493127
Blount9418149
Jackson9115136
Coffee8646161
Colbert8324169
Dale8284159
Escambia6456106
Tallapoosa6394168
Covington6313157
Chilton6243133
Russell591654
Franklin563597
Chambers5240132
Marion4628115
Dallas4626178
Clarke451471
Pike450091
Geneva4252106
Winston407987
Lawrence4046102
Bibb396177
Barbour338968
Marengo320981
Monroe311547
Butler309783
Pickens298769
Randolph294055
Henry293856
Hale286081
Cherokee279850
Fayette272271
Washington243545
Crenshaw232265
Clay221561
Macon214454
Cleburne209748
Lamar187839
Conecuh177139
Lowndes169056
Coosa163631
Wilcox154335
Bullock147142
Perry134235
Sumter123335
Greene119241
Choctaw72325
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