Washington (CNN)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.
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.
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?