President Trump is in a rage again. This time the target is director of national intelligence Daniel Coats, who recently had the temerity to offer an accurate depiction to Congress as to what intelligence assessments have concluded regarding threats to the United States. You see, these assessments undercut Trump’s own public statements, making him look foolish.
The Post reports that, as a result, Trump is considering removing Coats. One adviser claims Trump is still “enraged” at Coats and views him as “not loyal” and “not on the team.”
It’s true that Coats is not on Team Trump. Instead, he’s on Team Reality. What Trump is really enraged over is his inability to shape reality to his liking.
This is evident in the Coats affair but also in another big event in the news right now: the raft of new lawsuits against Trump’s declaration of a national emergency.
It’s important to drill down on what, precisely, angered Trump about Coats’s conduct. To be clear, we should of course show serious skepticism about what the intelligence services tell us, and Trump is certainly entitled to disagree with their conclusions. We want elected civilian leaders to show healthy skepticism.
But that’s not anything like what we’re seeing here.
Last month, Coats and other intelligence leaders testified to Congress about their annual assessment of global threats. What set Trump off into a fury is that they disagreed with him about multiple matters, particularly when they said the Islamic State has not yet been fully defeated and that Iran is currently complying with the international nuclear deal, both of which Trump desperately wants not to be true.
Trump then did damage control by claiming the “fake news” media had falsified their testimony and that, in fact, intelligence leaders agreed with him. That didn’t actually happen, but regardless, The Post now reports that Trump’s effort to change the reality of what they said hasn’t even convinced Trump himself. He knows they actually did publicly contradict him, which is why he’s raging over Coats again.
Thus, the problem here isn’t that our intelligence services are necessarily right or that Trump is disagreeing with them. Rather, it’s that Trump is enraged at Coats for accurately depicting the intel community’s genuinely arrived-upon views. Needless to say, there’s no sense whatsoever that Trump might want to take those assessments into account while making complex and difficult decisions. It’s the very public existence of those views, and the fact that they made Trump look bad, that has him enraged. Trump could not turn them into fake news through sheer force of tweet.
Lawsuits attack Trump’s ability to alter reality
Trump is also angry over the multiple lawsuits being filed to challenge his declaration of a national emergency to build his wall. Here again, what’s at stake is Trump’s ability to falsify reality.
The American Civil Liberties Union just filed one of these lawsuits, on behalf of a coalition of border communities and environmentalists. It challenges Trump on multiple grounds, but one crucial one claims he fabricated a national emergency on entirely false pretenses.
Under the law, Trump has great discretion to declare something a national emergency, even if it isn’t one (as is the case at the border). But Trump must also specify which other statute he’s relying on for congressional authorization to employ the particular emergency power in question, in this case wall spending. Trump is citing a statute that, in the event of an emergency that “requires use of the armed forces,” allows otherwise unauthorized “military construction projects” that are “necessary to support” this use of the armed forces.
But as the ACLU’s lawsuit argues, not only is there no national emergency; there is no such emergency that has required use of the armed forces. Trump’s emergency declaration cites asylum-seeking families as evidence of a worsening crisis that required military intervention. But the military isn’t actually repelling them, because they are largely turning themselves in to seek asylum.
“To call that an emergency that requires use of the armed forces is beyond bad faith, and I think courts will see it for what it is,” Dror Ladin, staff attorney with the ACLU’s national security project, told me.
That this is a massive fabrication is not in question. It has been established through reporting that Trump’s aides hit on it as a way to build the wall to sate Trump’s rage over his failure to fulfill a campaign promise. The courts’ ultimate resolution will turn on complex statutory technicalities, but more broadly what’s at stake is how much discretion Trump has to legally execute this fabrication — to invent the existence of a crisis and the alleged need of the military to address it.
Trump’s war on reality on other fronts
My Post colleague Dana Milbank recently tallied up multiple ways in which “government officials continue to use federal resources in vain attempts to turn the president’s lies into truth.”
This has included everything from the formation of a presidential commission to substantiate his lies about voter fraud, to the use of an official Department of Homeland Security briefing to mislead members of Congress about threats at the border, to the active encouragement of congressional Republicans who have weaponized “oversight” to harass a legitimate investigation into Trump campaign misconduct.
Similarly, the original act now at the center of the lawsuits Trump faces over his national emergency — his decision to send in the military — represented an extraordinary marshaling of government resources for naked campaign purposes to make a lie (the fake security crisis) come true.
That fake crisis is now the justification for his declared emergency. When Trump announced it the other day, he bristled with visible anger at the very idea that it would face lawsuits. And no wonder. After all, this means his ability to fabricate this crisis — and, by extension, any other ones — will be subject to institutional, fact-based scrutiny and challenge.