Extremely Dangerous Ground

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as he participates in a listening session with the Retail Industry Leaders Association and member company chief executive officers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washin... U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as he participates in a listening session with the Retail Industry Leaders Association and member company chief executive officers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. Questions about ties between Trump's team and Russian intelligence agents mounted Wednesday after new reports of extensive contacts between the two, which are sure to fuel Republican calls for a deeper look at Trump's links to the country. Credit: Andrew Harrer / Pool via CNP - NO'WIRE'SERVICE - Photo by: Andrew Harrer/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images MORE LESS
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I want to take a moment to discuss two articles which have been published in recent days which focus on the idea that Michael Flynn was run out of office by a cabal of enemies in the intelligence and law enforcement establishment which actually has as its goal driving President Trump from office.

The first is by Eli Lake, an erstwhile friend who received the unique plaudit of being called out by President Trump himself in a tweet for his piece. It seems Trump likely saw it discussed on TV rather than read it. But same difference. Eli’s piece “The Political Assassination of Michael Flynn” argues that whatever we may think of Donald Trump, we would normally and rightly be aghast to see the national security and intelligence establishment using its unique access to and awesome power of the surveillance state to target elected leaders and the people they appoint to high positions in government. It is only people’s opposition to Trump, Eli argues, that is blinding them to this fact. He further argues that the issue with Flynn isn’t his norm-busting conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. It’s that Flynn is a “reformer” in the intelligence world who “was working to reform the intelligence-industrial complex, something that threatened the bureaucratic prerogatives of his rivals.”

Next is John Podhoretz’s piece in Commentary. Podhoretz argues that political elites and particularly liberal political elites’ inability to accept or even comprehend the fact that Trump is President is leading them to indulge fantasies of an end to the Trump presidency – probably through impeachment but possibly through resignation – only 26 days into his first term. Podhoretz seems open-minded or ambivalent about whether this might or should happen. But he seems to fear or predict what amounts to a ‘stab in the back’ myth about a ‘coup d’etat’ against Trump. He even says there’s a serious chance of civil violence between Trump supporters and opponents. The key part of his argument is that possible impeachment is “an incredibly dangerous thing for people to be speculating about openly.”

I wanted to discuss these two articles because even though I mainly disagree with both, they both point to an issue I think is incredibly important and I’ve been concerned about for weeks. The prospect of the country’s intelligence apparatus working against rather than for an elected President is an incredibly dangerous one. We even have a report from the Wall Street Journal from last night which says that the Intelligence Community is withholding some information from the President and his top aides for fear it might be leaked to hostile powers. It’s important to note some of the conversation around this article which notes that the bright line of sharing and not sharing isn’t necessarily that bright. Some level of detail about sources and methods may necessarily be cleaved aside simply with the request that something like the President’s Daily Brief be limited to a single page with no more than 9 bullet points. But, the point here is clear: at least according to this article, people at high levels of the intelligence community suspect the President might be compromised, either knowingly or not, by agents of a hostile foreign power. That belief is dangerous whether the underlying fact is true or not, just dangerous in different ways. Acting on that belief, true or not, edges us close to a constitutional crisis, albeit one that may lurk in the background.

The idea that the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies may be taking it upon themselves to overturn or disrupt the results of a national election cuts to the heart of the legitimacy and existence of our government. In early January, there were reports out of Israel that US intelligence officials had warned their Israeli counterparts against sharing certain intelligence with the United States under President Trump for fear the information could be passed on to Russia and from Russia on to Iran. This is extremely dangerous ground. As a purely constitutional matter, as unfortunate as it may be, if the President decides he wants to share information with Russia, that is a call which his election gives him the power and authority to make. Of course, Presidents can also be impeached. But the President also doesn’t have to tell anyone what he’s done, certainly no one who would have the power to impeach him. As you can see, there are some situations which our constitutional structure doesn’t provide easy remedies for.

I scarcely have to remind people how outraged – rightly outraged – Democrats were at James Comey and the FBI for breaking with precedent and longstanding DOJ policies by injecting himself into the presidential campaign in its final week with highly damaging and ultimately totally inconsequential and even bogus claims. I think it is not at all difficult to argue that Comey and the folks in the FBI’s New York office cost Clinton the election. We hear a lot of blasé remarks about don’t piss off the intelligence community, they can make more trouble for you than you can handle. But actually, that’s not funny.

But let’s come back to reality for a moment.

There’s no evidence whatsoever, to start with, that anybody is conspiring against Donald Trump to drive him from office or do anything else. News about criminal investigations routinely leak to the press. It is basically the norm. But beyond that, you can’t really have any serious discussion of this question without recognizing that while these are extraordinary and in most cases unacceptable remedies, we are in an extraordinary situation. A hostile foreign power used its intelligence services to commit statutory crimes in the United States with the aim and quite possibly the effect of changing the outcome of a national election. The beneficiary’s aides and advisors were in what appears to have been active and ongoing communication with agents of that foreign power when this campaign to manipulate our elections was going on. The President has numerous financial dealings with people in and around Russia: but most of the most basic information about his finances, financials dealings and more, he refuses to disclose. The beneficiary, the President, has routinely and consistently made floridly glowing comments about the leader of the hostile foreign power and in a few specific cases taken specific actions which shift US policy to assist his country. This is not a normal situation. Even what we know is all but incomprehensible and the issue is what we don’t know.

Let us also go on to a basic, practical point: the Intelligence Community, though far more diverse than it once was, is disproportionately white and male. It is certainly no monolith. But like people in national security work, people in this world tend toward more conservative political views. Finally, the ‘Intelligence Community’ is to a very large degree made up of current and former members of the military. Not all of course. But the overlap is heavy. Almost half the sixteen agencies which make up the ‘Intelligence Community’ are various military intelligence agencies – Air Force Intelligence, Army Intelligence, DIA, et al. All of this is to say that the idea that the people in this world are liberals or inclined to be anti-Trump for partisan reasons is laughable. What is especially worrisome is that the people in this world seem to have more specific concerns about Trump’s ties to foreign governments than observers on the outside. That’s worrisome because they have access to information we do not.

What all of this comes down to is that the specter of a shadow government working against the elected government cuts to the heart of the constitutional order. But we have no real evidence that that is happening. And just as importantly, we cannot properly evaluate what might be extraordinary and unacceptable actions without the context that we are in an extraordinary and unprecedented situation. The reality is extraordinary, long before the leaking started.

And that brings us to the most important part of this whole drama. The things that are being leaked are specific facts that are highly newsworthy and highly disturbing. They’re not stories of sexual peccadillos or things that are politically damaging but not fundamentally relevant to the work of government. They’re not vague subjective judgments about ‘the military’ or ‘the intelligence community’ not believing the president is up to the job or loyal. They’re also specific. They are things which clearly should be investigated and which the public should know about. Indeed, the leaks seem to be driven by the leakers’ belief that these issues should be investigated and mainly are not.

One of the rejoinders here, one of the most sophisticated arguments, about these leaks is that Trump is shaking up the government’s old ways. And right or wrong you’d expect the bureaucracies in place to resist that. Indeed, one of the mysteries of that Eli Lake piece I mentioned above is this. Lake is generally associated with the people who back in the aughts we called “neo-conservatives.” Today though most of those people are either Trump skeptics or vociferously anti-Trump. So why is Lake portraying Flynn as an intelligence “reformer” who “threatened the bureaucratic prerogatives of his rivals.”

What’s that about? Here’s my take. On its face it seems like a strange place for Lake to be. But look at the book Flynn published last year: The Field of Fight. He coauthored it with Michael Ledeen. Ledeen has always rightly been associated with the neoconservative movement. But he’s actually a variant strain of that world on the farthest right, with the most conspiratorial, renegade mindset. Ledeen also has a longstanding devotion to and focus on the philosophical movements around and underpinnings of Italian fascism. Ledeen and his collaborators are at the far fringe of the people who literally got the country into the Iran/Contra scandal and pushed hardest to manufacture and imagine tales of ties between Iraq and al Qaida, imminent threats from Iraqi nuclear weapons and all manner of other catastrophe-inducing folly.

Lets remember, Flynn among many, many other things, seriously entertained the idea that Hillary Clinton and her top aides was running a child sex ring out of a pizza shop in Washington, DC. He is not a reformer. He is someone prone to conspiracy theories and craziness. There’s been a lot of discussion of what happened to Flynn. Many people who worked with him as recently as half a dozen years ago talk about him as being a different person than the one they’ve spoken to or seen speak in the last year or two.

Regardless, the salient point is this. Like every bureaucracy, the intelligence world has its inertia, blindspots and shortcomings. People from the Ledeen/Flynn world have wanted to ‘shake it up’ and ‘reform’ it for decades. They’ve gotten several chances. Each has led to unmitigated disasters. Yes, it’s really that clear-cut. You don’t have to have rosy-eyed views about the intelligence world to know from the vast track record that introducing the ideas and machinations of these men into that world or giving them power is comparable to injecting strep or some lethal fungus into a human body. It’s that bad. Eli has always had great sympathy for Ledeen and his thinking, though he’s not unaware of the far-fetched and odd nature of some of his ideas. I suspect this is the root of defining Flynn as a “reformer.”

In any case, this is dangerous ground, on every front. We are on numerous fronts in an unprecedented and perilous situation. No government likes leaks. Sometimes leaks are illegal. This is something that can be addressed on its own. The key here is the substance of what we’re learning. It speaks for itself. That’s why it’s been so damaging. Even Republicans, who have been remarkably willing to give Trump a pass on virtually anything as long as he will sign key legislation, have been unable to ignore this. This is no ‘political assassination’. That is a ridiculous and preposterous claim. The facts we are learning speak for themselves. When leaks are this damaging and this tied to the fundamental operations of government, it’s not about the leaks or the motives. It’s about what we’re learning and what we need to know.

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