Jack Goldsmith and Kori Schake are two of the smartest people I know when it comes to questions regarding the politicization of national security. They both have said smart things following President Trump’s political war on John Brennan and other current and former national security professionals, and the rather vigorous response from former policy principals and other retired senior intelligence officials.
Schake, who has long fretted over the politicization of military veterans in recent electoral cycles, wrote in War on the Rocks in the wake of retired Adm. Bill McRaven’s scorching op-ed in The Washington Post. As Schake and others argue, McRaven violated some norms in order to preserve much more significant norms that Trump has violated:
McRaven’s condemnation went well beyond the strictures of denying a former CIA director continued access to classified information. In comparing the president to Sen. Joseph McCarthy and criticizing Trump’s moral example — “you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage” — McRaven crossed an important line from making a national security case, on which his expertise is deeper and more significant than most, to a political one on which for civil-military purposes, he ought to be treated as any other voter. . . .
McRaven is trading on his stature as a widely respected military leader to persuade our public that the president is a genuine danger to our civic life. McRaven is not a political partisan — he was senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council Staff of George W. Bush (where I worked with him). He is not endorsing a political candidate or advocating a specific political platform. That he is making such a brazenly political argument suggests a cri de coeur, an appeal to conscience utilizing whatever public stature he may have to stand sentinel at a dangerous time for our republic.
All of which is simply to say that we are in a time of political upheaval, when norms long respected in our civic and political life are changing in uncomfortable ways.
Goldsmith’s discomfort is on full display in his Lawfare essay. Goldsmith acknowledges that “Trump’s unceasing and increasingly heated charges” against the Russia investigation and his “Deep State” conspiracy theorizing are the main drivers politicizing the intelligence community. But he also points out the dangers of responding to Trump:
In reaction to perceived evils by Trump campaign and transition officials, members of the intelligence community—intelligence bureaucrats or outgoing Obama national security officials, or both—contributed a lot to diminishing trust in the intelligence community when they leaked, early in the Trump administration, a great deal of U.S.-person information collected from FISA warrants in order to bring down Trump’s national security adviser and achieve other anti-Trump goals. . . .
This leads to the second unfortunate trend during the Trump era: the president’s uncanny ability to induce his critics to break norms in response to his norm-breaking behavior, in the process lending credibility to his critiques. . . .
However understandable or admirable the motivation, the fact is that for many Americans the relentless attacks on Trump by scores of senior long-term intelligence officials lend credibility to the president’s claims of a politicized “Deep State” bureaucracy that seeks to preserve its elite authority and reverse the results of the election by nondemocratic means. It is not clear what these attacks on Trump add to the loud chorus of his other elite critics. But I do think that the credibility of the intelligence community as neutral and trustworthy suffers as a result. I might be wrong about this, especially compared to the option of the officials remaining silent. But if I am right, it is ironic that intelligence officials who are speaking out because of (as former Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper put it) “genuine concern about the jeopardy and threats to our institutions” may be exacerbating the problem by doing so. It might also be that they are in the terrible position of watching those institutions be harmed whether they remain silent or speak out—it might be Trump’s particular skill that the institutions lose big either way.
In Schake’s calculation, the violation of some norms is worth it to push back on Trump’s bigger norm violations. For Goldsmith, the senior long-term intelligence officials’ violation of those norms threatens to erode the trust in institutions, which is problematic.
Who is right? This is, in the end, an instrumental question. Would these people be better off if they stayed quiet? As it turns out, we have an excellent test case for this, in the form of special counsel Robert Mueller. In response to unceasing Trump attacks, including his claim on Monday that Mueller was “disgraced and discredited,” the former FBI director has not said anything in response. As my colleague Glenn Kessler tweeted:
It sounds as though Kessler agrees with Goldsmith, that staying silent is the best option. What does the polling data show?
Earlier this year, it did look as if public support for the Mueller investigation had been waning. Monmouth polling data over time showed a decline in support from 62 percent in July 2017 to 54 percent in April 2018. On the other hand, as my colleague Greg Sargent wrote last week, other polling has showed support for Mueller staying pretty robust:
Only small minorities believe the probe is a witch hunt; think he hasn’t interfered in it; believe he’s telling the truth about these matters; and don’t think he should testify. And those minorities are largely dominated by Republicans: In all these cases, independents — who matter in midterms — are tilted against him, a trend that other polls have also demonstrated.
FiveThirtyEight’s Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and Julia Wolfe looked at the polling data more closely back in June and came to a conclusion similar to Sargent’s. Trump’s vituperative attacks have made Americans more aware of Mueller’s existence, and public reaction to those attacks has fractured along partisan lines:
A look at Mueller’s favorability ratings over the past year shows that more and more people have an opinion about the special counsel. And as he’s transitioned from being a relatively obscure bureaucrat to a fixture in the news, the number of people who dislike Mueller has certainly grown (particularly among Republicans), but most polls show that his support is expanding as well. This suggests that the Russia investigation isn’t losing traction among Americans overall — it’s just becoming more polarizing. And that was likely inevitable. . . .
In such a rancorous political climate, Mueller in particular was bound to gain more detractors. But that doesn’t mean Trump’s campaign to discredit the Russia investigation is working.
So, what does this mean for Goldsmith’s discomfort? I fear that it means the reactions of former senior intelligence officials probably have minimal effect on public perception. The moment Trump tweets about something, it primes a partisan reaction. Whether Brennan, McRaven or others respond, Trump is the true polarizing figure in this dynamic.
Goldsmith might be correct that, on the margins, a minimal response is better. On the other hand, I write about this stuff four times a week because venting about this clown car of an administration is far healthier than just holding it in. Based on the McRaven op-ed, these folks feel immense frustration as they watch Trump repeatedly attack their colleagues.
The truth is that when it comes to Trump, keeping silent is not significantly more useful than pushing back. Goldsmith is correct to note the dangers of overreaction. My fear is that staying silent for so long will work only as well as the “Serenity Now!” strategy. Better to vent a little on a regular basis than a lot all at once.
There might be a middle ground, however, in the way to react. The New Yorker’s Adam Entous interviewed multiple former intelligence officials on this question, and the whole piece is worth reading. Most of them agreed that while he had the right to do it, Brennan had erred in attacking Trump personally. Former CIA head Michael Hayden articulated his own rules:
Michael Hayden, a retired four-star Air Force general who served as C.I.A. director during the George W. Bush Administration, had chosen to limit his public critiques of the President to policy matters. When asked during a television appearance if he thought Trump was a racist, Hayden refused to respond directly. “I’m a career military officer. I’m not answering that question,” Hayden told me. “I’m not someone to make a personal judgment about the President.” Hayden’s rhetoric would later take a darker turn when he tweeted out a photo of the Birkenau death camp at Auschwitz, writing, “Other governments have separated mothers and children,” as a critique of a policy that separated immigrant children from their parents at the U.S. border. Hayden said that he didn’t violate the ground rules he set for himself, because he wrote “governments” instead of singling out Trump or the Trump Administration. “That’s a less personal word than some others I could have chosen,” Hayden told me. “But even if in your heart you know you’re just sticking to your narrow lane, the risk is you start to look like the resistance.”
From the perspective of maintaining a code of conduct, Hayden’s rule seems like a sound one. From the instrumental perspective of minimizing Trump’s political benefit from these skirmishes, however, it would seem as though all responses are the same.