On the Sunday news shows, we got a vivid display of President Trump’s enablers deploying weasel words in defense of his attack on dissent. Forget for a moment Rudy Giuliani, who uttered words that could have been written by George Orwell (“Truth isn’t truth”). Look instead at the Republicans who could, if they had character and courage, repudiate Trump’s yanking of former CIA director John Brennan’s security clearance, and thereby halt Trump’s pernicious assault on dissent.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) initially cheered Trump’s actions. On Sunday, he again sympathized with the president having to put up with critics. Johnson had the temerity to assert that he didn’t want the practice of yanking critics’ security clearances to be “routine.” However, by defending Trump over and over, Johnson is, in fact, encouraging Trump to make this “routine.” Like other GOP senators, Johnson refuses to stand up to a president who is trying to extract a pound of flesh from his critics.
Meanwhile, national security adviser John Bolton, appearing on ABC News’s “This Week,” insinuated with no basis in fact that Brennan might have divulged classified material:
BOLTON: Well, you know, I think Senator Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, whom I don’t think anybody could excuse of being a gofer for the Trump administration, had some very trenchant observations on Brennan’s behavior since he left with CIA, and I think also on his behavior while he was at the CIA. It was my view at the time that he and others in the Obama administration were politicizing intelligence. I think that’s a very dangerous thing to do.
And I think especially for senior intelligence officials, career intelligence officials who come out of the government, to keep that wall of separation between intelligence policy. And I don’t think Brennan has follow that and, you know, whether he actually used classified information, I think people will be able to determine. But I think that’s a serious problem.
MARTHA RADDATZ: Are there any specific examples that you think he used classified intelligence…
BOLTON: No, but I think there is a …
RADDATZ: … to politicize?
BOLTON: There is a line and somebody can cross it. I know from my own experience in the Bush administration after I left, I was accused by a senior State Department official of criticizing the administration’s policy on North Korea and using classified information.
And it happened he was half right, I was criticizing the Bush administration, but I was not using classified information. Had I been, it would have been a different story.
RADDATZ: I assume that John Brennan says the same thing, that he didn’t use classified information. You — would you have been fine if President Obama had revoked your security clearance for criticizing him, which you did frequently?
BOLTON: No, because I didn’t use classified information there either. I say there’s a line and I think it’s clear some people can cross it.
RADDATZ: But let me be clear here, you’re not sure whether John Brennan used classified information? You have no specific examples.
BOLTON: In terms of what he said since he left, I think a number of people have commented that he couldn’t be in the position he’s in of criticizing President Trump and his so-called collusion with Russia unless he did use classified information.
But I don’t know the specifics. What I do know is when he was director of CIA, I was very troubled by his conduct, by statements he made in public, and by what I thought was his politicization of the intelligence community.
“People have commented…” is the kind of slippery language the president uses to make unfounded allegations. For the national security adviser to use that phrase makes him nothing more than a political hack. His undermines his own credibility when he sounds like a knockoff of his boss.
Bolton is not obligated to go on TV to defend Trump’s conduct. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis doesn’t do this, and thereby preserves his dignity and integrity. So long as Trump gets reaffirmation from his senior advisers — especially on TV — he will keep going in his crusade to silence critics.
And, of course, a parade of conservative pundits, from former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) to National Review’s Rich Lowry, rationalizes Trump’s conduct. (Lowry said of Brennan: “It’s just a really bad idea to have someone who was wielding some of the most sensitive powers in the United States government immediately upon leaving his office reveal himself to be the most hackish political actor, who is making wild and outrageous charges.”)
Nowhere do we get from GOP quarters any sense that the president’s behavior is antidemocratic. Republicans rationalize that because Trump’s critics are harsh (as if other presidents didn’t receive worse) the president can do as he pleases.
If you want to know why the president persists in lying, attacking democratic norms, smearing the intelligence community and interfering with a legitimate criminal and national security probe, you need look no further than his corps of GOP defenders. Their inability to see beyond partisan tribalism and to consider how they’d regard, say, President Barack Obama if he were doing the same things, has emboldened Trump and led to the intellectual and moral collapse of the GOP. Perhaps if the GOP suffers that fate in the midterms, a new party can emerge that would represent a responsible counterweight to Democrats. We need two parties, but at this point we don’t need the Republicans.