President Trump probably won’t follow through on his threat to revoke the security clearances of a bunch of former federal officials who have been critical of him, if only because within a couple of days he’ll get distracted by something else and forget all about it. But this bizarre episode contains so many Trump administration pathologies wrapped up into one idiotic idea that it really is a wonder, and something we shouldn’t forget.
Yesterday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the press corps that Trump is considering revoking the security clearances of former CIA directors John Brennan and Michael Hayden, former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., former FBI director James B. Comey, former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe and former national security adviser Susan E. Rice. All have been publicly critical of Trump in one way or another.
What do I mean when I say that this idea wraps so many Trump administration pathologies together? Let’s count the ways. It has no real policy justification but is based entirely on the president’s momentary whims. In fact, it has its roots in right-wing media. It’s born of the president’s inability to tolerate criticism and his authoritarian impulses. It’s petty and vindictive. In justifying it, the administration accuses others of things Trump and those around him are guilty of. It was offered without any understanding of even basic facts. (For starters, Comey and McCabe no longer have security clearances, so there’s nothing to take from them.) And arguing in its favor requires a herculean level of shamelessness and dishonesty, but Trump’s employees and allies will show themselves to be up to the task.
Let’s look at how Sanders described the reasons Trump might take this step:
The president is exploring the mechanisms to remove security clearance because they’ve politicized and, in some cases, monetized their public service and security clearances. 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.
Naturally, she provided no details or specifics. But stand back and marvel for a moment that Trump’s White House is taking the position that “making … baseless charges” is absolutely intolerable and must be punished. Trump, the most profligate liar in the history of the American presidency. And the Trump administration now believes that you’re not supposed to monetize your public service? Good to know.
This idea, however, didn’t just occur to Trump yesterday morning. It goes back a couple of months, and like many things, it began on the fringes of the right and moved quickly to Fox, and from there into Trump’s brain.
It’s important to note that many people, both high-ranking and not-so-high-ranking, retain their security clearances after leaving government service. According to a fiscal year 2016 report from the Director of National Intelligence, at the time there were 4 million Americans with security clearances, which includes not only the staff of agencies such as the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security or the CIA, but also former employees and people employed by government contractors, many of whom have never worked for the government. This was actually a decline from a few years before, when the number topped 5 million.
But few Americans understand that, which is why it wasn’t hard for those on the right to begin shouting OMG these former officials still have security clearances! as though it were something unusual. On April 30, right-wing conspiracy site Gateway Pundit published a piece entitled “Clapper and Brennan STILL Have Security Clearance as They Trash Trump and Work at CNN, MSNBC,” breathlessly reporting this shocking news.
A few weeks later, former Trump official Sebastian Gorka went on Fox News to demand that Trump “pull the clearances of Clapper, Comey, Brennan, and Hillary.” Host Jeanine Pirro was incredulous. “Hold on a second,” she said. “These people are not in office anymore and they still have security clearances?” “Yes! Yes!” Gorka shouted.
Then yesterday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said on Twitter, “Today I will meet with the President and I will ask him to revoke John Brennan’s security clearance!” Apparently, he was quite persuasive.
Let’s return to Sanders’s assertion that it’s so problematic that former intelligence officials have gotten work using their government experience, thereby “monetizing” that experience in a way no Trump aide would ever dream of. Had it been Sean Spicer, you would have seen droplets of sweat pouring off his forehead, the telltale sign of shame and fear as he offered up what he knew was an laughable justification for an indefensible decision. But Sanders doesn’t hesitate or waver, not for an instant. She can tell you that today is Tuesday or that Hillary Clinton killed JFK, and she’ll say both things with the same flat affect and barely disguised contempt at anyone who would possibly question the rightness of everything she says. This is why Sanders is and will always be the one true Trump spokeswoman, no matter who comes after her when she leaves. No one could possibly match her unwavering shamelessness.
As to what it means to monetize your security clearance and government service, it’s what thousands of officials from Democratic and Republican administrations, not to mention Congress, do all the time. They serve on corporate boards, they make paid speeches, they become lobbyists, they go into “consulting,” they work for defense contractors or other corporations. Even those who go to think tanks or nonprofit advocacy groups are using what they learned in government to earn a salary. There’s plenty to criticize about the revolving door, but the idea that it’s something that only a few former officials who served under Barack Obama (as well as Republican presidents) have done is so plainly ludicrous that it’s almost surprising that even Sanders could say it with a straight face. Almost.
In the ever-growing list of moronic Trump administration ideas, stripping security clearances from former officials who have had the temerity to criticize the president won’t count among the most consequential. But it will be one of the most Trumpian.