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The Trump White House’s hypocritical, slippery slope on purging its critics’ security clearances

Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on July 23 that President Trump is "exploring the mechanisms to remove security clearance" for six former intelligence officials. (Video: Reuters)

Now we know why President Trump complained about former intelligence officials being paid as cable analysts. On Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was looking into whether to revoke the security clearances of some of his chief intelligence and law enforcement critics for, among other things, “politicizing” and “monetizing” their past positions.

Here are the people Sanders listed:

  • Former CIA director John Brennan
  • Former FBI director James B. Comey
  • Former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.
  • Former CIA and National Security Agency director Michael Hayden
  • Former White House national security adviser Susan E. Rice
  • Former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe

The potential move appears mostly symbolic. Brennan and Hayden quickly noted that they don't use their clearance anymore. And McCabe has already lost his clearance, given that he was fired by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The fact that McCabe was included on the list suggests this wasn't exactly a well-researched trial balloon — if it even was researched.

But even beyond that, the White House's effort and justifications are a fantastic mix of problematic and hypocritical.

Here's how Sanders explained it: “The president is exploring the mechanisms to remove security clearance because they 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.”

The first part of this that's rich is the idea that it's unacceptable to “monetize” political office and experience. Trump as president hasn't gone very far to separate himself from his businesses, and he has made a habit of promoting and using his properties, with foreign leaders and political types frequenting them. As for using positions of power for personal gain, there were more than a dozen investigations into now-former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt for exactly that kind of thing before he was pushed out. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke faces similar review.

The second part that's rich is the idea that making “baseless charges” is now disqualifying. Trump has lodged many conspiracy theories from the comfort of the White House, most notably that the Obama White House wiretapped his campaign, that it spied on his campaign, that voter fraud made him lose the popular vote, that a Pakistani-born Democratic IT aide was part of some kind of conspiracy, etc. If making charges with no evidence is now the standard, Trump should be the first person excused from future briefings.

But the slipperiest slope of all is the idea that these officials are “politicizing” their positions. This is a word that gets thrown around a lot — almost always in bad faith. It's often how you try to censor someone for saying something you don't like. Definitionally, it's suggesting that because they don't like Trump, these former officials are saying things they don't believe, but that's a completely subjective judgment. If this is the standard, you could use it to justify freezing out pretty much anyone who blows a whistle or disagrees with you politically. It could very quickly become a tool for creating a monolith inside intelligence circles in which nobody with any stature is allowed to disagree. It could also have a chilling effect on any such official who might speak out in the future.

And in all of this, Trump really doesn't have a leg to stand on. For months during the 2016 campaign, Michael Flynn was one of his lead surrogates, even leading a chant of "Lock her up" during the Republican National Convention. If it was wrong to be political while having a security clearance, Trump sure didn't seem to speak up about Flynn or ask him to tone it down. In fact, he hired Flynn despite the White House knowing that Flynn was under investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey. So Flynn was allegedly "monetizing" and "politicizing" his past position, and Trump's impulse was to promote him rather than punish him.

But that's also the point. Trump isn't concerned about people making political statements; he's worried about them making the wrong ones. Most of the people on this list aren't partisans. They present problems precisely because they're mostly not, and yet they're still taking the highly unusual steps of speaking out. So the White House must make them into political actors. That's what Monday's spectacle was about.