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Opinion Republicans allow attacks on dissent at their own peril

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders read a statement from President Trump revoking ex-CIA director John Brennan's security clearance on Aug. 15. (Video: Reuters)
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The Post reports:

President Trump has revoked the security clearance of former CIA director John O. Brennan, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced Wednesday, citing “the risk posed by his erratic conduct and behavior.” . . .
Trump is also reviewing security clearances of other former officials including former FBI director James B. Comey, Sanders said during a regular White House news briefing.
“First, at this point in my administration, any benefits that senior officials might glean from consultations with Mr. Brennan are now outweighed by the risk posed by his erratic conduct and behavior,” Trump said in a statement read by Sanders at Wednesday’s briefing.
“Second, that conduct and behavior has tested and far exceeded the limits of any professional courtesy that may have been due to him,” Trump said in the statement. “Mr. Brennan has a history that calls into question his objectivity and credibility.”

This has nothing to do with national security. Neither Brennan nor any of Trump’s other critics pose a security risk. The White House can cite no objective evidence to support its action because there is none. Moreover, as many reporters noted, the memo yanking the clearance had been signed on July 26. Waiting nearly three weeks to release it suggests the motive was to distract the press and public from a rotten news week, not to protect the nation’s secrets.

This is but one in a long line of Trump attacks against his dissenters and critics. The president’s fundamental inability to tolerate dissent is unmatched by any predecessor. His response to critics is not to engage or answer them, but to bully and silence them.

House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tweeted that Trump’s actions was a “pathetic attempt to silence critics”:

And what of Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and CIA Director Gina Haspel — do they agree with this use of national security as a premise to retaliate against political enemies. If we had real oversight — instead of Trump crony and collaborator in interfering with the Russia investigation, House Intelligence Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) — we might have a fruitful hearing. We would like to hear answers to these sorts of questions:

  • Does the extension of security clearances to former officials benefit U.S. security?
  • Does rescission of clearances for partisan or political reason hurt U.S. security?
  • Did the DNI, CIA or FBI have input into the decision? What process was followed?
  • Is there any precedent for yanking security clearances for the purpose of retaliating against critics?
  • What was the actual reason the security clearances were pulled?
  • If this was an attempt to bully former officials into silence, would this be objectionable? Would you quit rather than countenance an assault on the principle of free dissent?
  • Does this episode hurt morale in the intelligence community?

As I wrote when Trump first threatened to pull critics’ security clearances, Trump has been slapped down before when he tried to silence (i.e., block) critics on Twitter. Perhaps one of the affected individuals will bring suit to challenge the president’s action, clearly an effort to squelch speech based on the content of the speakers’ messages. Defending the First Amendment would be a service to the country.

As the American Civil Liberties Union said in a written statement, “The First Amendment does not permit the president to revoke security clearances to punish his critics. . . . Trump’s revocation of Brennan’s clearance, and his threats to revoke the clearances of other former officials for the sole reason that they have criticized his conduct and policies, amount to unconstitutional retaliation. They are also part of a broader pattern of seeking to silence or marginalize critics, which includes forcing staff to sign unconstitutional non-disclosure agreements.”

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And let’s face it, Republicans in Congress will do nothing about this latest tin-pot-dictator move. They long ago decided to be passive abettors in Trump’s assault on the rule of law. Hearing Sens. John Kennedy (R-La.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) defend the president’s attack on critics was stomach-turning, one more sign o Republicans’ abandonment of basic democratic principles.

For this very reason, a change in control of one or both houses of Congress is needed — to conduct oversight, to hold the White House accountable, to censure the president if need be and to pass necessary legislation explicitly barring the president from pulling a security clearance when there is only a personal or partisan grudge, not a national security issue. Whether it is an attack on dissent, a violation of the emoluments clause or other abuse of the office, the failure to check an out-of-control executive does damage to our democracy and the rule of law. Since Republicans will not change, the majority control of Congress must.

UPDATE: In case you had any doubt, Trump confessed — in the mode of his Lester Holt interview, when he blurted out that Russia was the reason for firing James B. Comey as FBI director — in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that this had nothing to do with national security. “I call it the rigged witch hunt, [it] is a sham,”  Trump said about the Russia investigation. “And these people led it! So I think it’s something that had to be done.” Actually, Trump’s own appointees are leading the investigation (Christopher Wray, Rod J. Rosenstein). Nevertheless, you can see why Trump has to avoid an interview with the special counsel. The bigger risk is not that he will lie, but that he won’t.