To hear President Trump tell it, America’s national security is facing threats from far beyond the usual list of enemies.
Immigrants? Refugees? Transgender soldiers? All must be curtailed in the name of protecting the country.
Separating children from migrant parents detained at the border? A needed national security step.
Imported steel and aluminum? They “threaten to impair the national security.” That new Mercedes-Benz? May also be a security risk, but he’ll decide later.
Revoking security clearances retained by former senior government officials who happen to be critics of the president? A needed step to protect classified information from former officials whose television commentary the president deems “unglued.”
Propping up ailing coal and nuclear power plants? “Essential to support the Nation’s defense facilities.”
“In times of war, in times of conflict, you can blow up those windmills. They fall down real quick,” Trump said Tuesday evening during a campaign rally in West Virginia. “You can blow up those pipelines. They go like this, and you’re not going to fix them too fast. You could do a lot of things to those solar panels, but you know what you can’t hurt? Coal. You can do whatever you want to coal.”
The Trump administration is increasingly using national security as the public or legal justification for controversial policies and decisions by the president — even when there seems to be little connection between the issue at hand and threats to the nation.
“It’s patently obvious that the president is using national security as a cloak to hide his domestic political agenda,” said Ned Price, a national security spokesman for President Barack Obama and a career CIA officer who resigned from the agency last year in protest of Trump’s policies.
Price and other Trump critics say that by lumping in political priorities far afield from wartime concerns, he is cheapening claims that presidents must act to shield the nation from threats.
“All presidents are attracted to the idea of putting policies under the aegis of national security, because it’s the one place where executive authority is almost unarguable,” said Thomas M. Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College who spoke in his personal capacity and not on behalf of the military school. “The difference with this president is that he is using it to shift the debate, and the danger is that the public eventually gets numb to the term ‘national security.’ ”
The term “national security” has been in common use only since World War II, but it carries a weighty Cold War resonance made modern by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
President George W. Bush used national security as justification for post-9/11 counterterrorism tactics that raised concerns about the privacy of American citizens. Obama cited national security imperatives for conducting the risky raid inside Pakistan — without Pakistan’s permission — that killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.
Trump appears to use the term and its implication of patriotism and strength as a symbol to his political base — statistically older, whiter and poorer — that he will champion their economic and social priorities as well as their safety.
Trump built his campaign partly on the claim that he could confront threats to the country’s standing and sovereignty where other presidents — most notably Obama — had been too timid.
Trump’s emphasis on securing national borders and rolling back immigration was always wrapped in the argument that the nation would be safer — from crime, drugs and low-wage-job stealers.
But in office, Trump has carried the notion further than his campaign rhetoric and further than other presidents, said Philip Zelikow, a government and history professor at the University of Virginia who served in five administrations.
Like other recent presidents, Trump is often acting in the vacuum created by a Congress that has removed itself from many major decisions, such as whether to declare war, Zelikow said.
“The big thing here, the big phenomenon, is the persistent growth of presidential power because of Congress’s inability or unwillingness to act on its latent power” to set priorities or constrain the White House, Zelikow said.
And under Trump, that trend has expanded further, he said, “to trade, which is the constitutional prerogative of Congress. That is new.”
The administration moved this spring to impose stiff tariffs on imported metals, including from Canada and Europe, based on a Commerce Department investigation that determined the present quantities of steel imports threatened to impair U.S. national security.
Trump’s claim that close allies such as Canada pose a risk to U.S. national security because of products they export to the United States is an object of discomfort for many congressional Republicans, although efforts to confront the president legislatively have gone nowhere.
“Tariffs are taxes on American consumers,” Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) said in a June statement. “They hurt American workers, families, and employers. Imposing them under the false pretense of ‘national security’ weakens our economy, our credibility with other nations, and invites retaliation.”
That Republicans have not more directly confronted Trump over his rejection of GOP free-trade orthodoxy helps Trump fuzz up the difference between a real national threat and political expediency, Nichols said.
The blurred lines complicate the debate over whether Trump was justified last week when he revoked the security clearance held by former CIA director and frequent Trump critic John Brennan.
Trump has not directly accused Brennan of compromising classified material or of risky or illegal conduct that would automatically imperil his clearance. But Trump has implied a national security risk by saying that Brennan acted recklessly and out of personal malice toward Trump.
“Has anyone looked at the mistakes that John Brennan made while serving as CIA Director?” Trump tweeted Saturday. “He will go down as easily the WORST in history & since getting out, he has become nothing less than a loudmouth, partisan, political hack who cannot be trusted with the secrets to our country!”
The president acknowledged in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that he had moved against Brennan in part because of his role in the beginning of the investigation into whether Trump’s campaign conspired with the Russian government. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is now leading that inquiry.
Trump is deliberately conflating the protection of national secrets or national security with the idea that it is improper for former government officials to criticize his behavior as commander in chief, Price said.
“He didn’t even try” to say Brennan had committed an offense that another president would have deemed serious enough to yank a security clearance, Price said.
“This is just red meat for his political base,” he said.
Trump threatened Monday to revoke the security clearance of another former U.S. intelligence official, in this case after watching him in a heated debate on cable television.
In a tweet, Trump said former CIA and FBI official Philip Mudd was “totally unglued and weird” during a CNN appearance Friday night. “Mudd is in no mental condition to have such a Clearance. Should be REVOKED?”
What’s next? Trump’s critics have some ideas.
“Is agriculture national security? Well, soldiers have to eat,” Nichols joked.