WHEN PRESIDENT TRUMP last month threatened to punish one of his critics, former CIA director John Brennan, by taking away his security clearance, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) dismissed the threat with a wry smile. Mere “trolling,” he said, as if to suggest: Boys will be boys.
In fact, even as bluster, Mr. Trump’s words would not have been acceptable. But now the president has acted on them, stripping a career intelligence officer of his access to classified material, with no legitimate cause. Mr. Trump, in fact, made no secret of his illegitimate motive: In an interview published in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, he blamed Mr. Brennan for the special counsel’s investigation into possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. Revoking Mr. Brennan’s clearance is an act of petty vengeance.
The real victim here is not Mr. Brennan, who will get along fine without his security clearance, but the national security of the United States and its democratic norms. National security is harmed because administration officials and members of Congress benefit when they can draw upon the wisdom and experience of long-serving public servants such as Mr. Brennan. Mr. Trump has threatened eight other former officials, and even one current official, with similar treatment. Over time, that would make their advice less useful to officials who might otherwise benefit from it.
Democratic norms erode as the president, inventing insulting pretexts for his actions, uses his authority over access to classified information to bully and punish critics and would-be critics. Those who may be more vulnerable than Mr. Brennan, who rely on their security clearances for their employability in the private or public sector, may indeed be intimidated into silence.
Others will be stirred to resist. Also in the Opinions section today, we publish an open letter to the president from William H. McRaven, a retired admiral and former commander of U.S. Special Operations forces. “I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency,” he writes. “If you think for a moment that your McCarthy-era tactics will suppress the voices of criticism, you are sadly mistaken.”
In Mr. Trump’s America, every transition of power would result in the vilification, demotion and humiliation of those who served before, even civil servants who were honorably performing their duty. His conception of government denies the possibility of any motivation beyond partisan — or, in Mr. Trump’s case, personal — loyalty, at the expense of the principle that patriotic Americans can put the national interest above such considerations. It is pettiness distilled and more revealing of the president’s malformed sense of duty than that of his targets. This is the national debasement that Mr. Ryan and the rest of his party have enabled.