In mid-January, after the appearance of some embarrassing material or another (it is hard to keep track), President-elect Donald Trump tweeted: “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
That charge has made escalation of the Trump/intelligence conflict difficult. What is the next step after the Nazi card?
More recently, President Trump has called leaks from the intelligence community “un-American” and “just like Russia.” It is difficult to imagine a set of attacks more likely to be galling to intelligence professionals, some of whom risk their lives with no prospect of credit; one of the purer forms of patriotism.
Now Trump appears utterly shocked that he does not hold the copyright on counterpunching. And the intelligence community is particularly good at it. During my time in the George W. Bush White House, there were also some damaging intelligence leaks. I have no intention of excusing them. I only point out that it is daunting to argue with people who weaponize information for a living – like challenging a Navy SEAL to a fight.
There is a certain kind of New Yorker who really believes Frank Sinatra: “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.” The world of Manhattan real estate must have seemed to Trump like the big leagues. It wasn’t. And the techniques that succeeded in his little world – the taunting, the exaggerations, the bluster, the threats, the bullying – do not translate well in dealing with real professionals. The ones who fight Russian influence.
With less than a month in office, Trump is beginning to see reality’s revenge. His overall strategy seems disturbingly ambitious. Gen. Michael Hayden, who directed both the CIA and the NSA, describes it this way in an interview: “A systematic effort to invalidate and delegitimize all the institutions, governmental and non-governmental, that create the factual basis for action … so they won’t push back against arbitrary moves.”
That is, well, terrifying. But American institutions, it turns out, are pretty durable, at least so far. The checks have checked. The balances have balanced. In this scenario, it is good news that the Trump administration has been so inept, at least in conflicts with other institutions. We should be thankful that Trump is a figure much smaller than his schemes.
It must have seemed to him tough and bold to attack federal judges and accuse them of placing the nation at risk (by blocking implementation of his immigration executive order). During his presidential campaign, such methods were routine and relatively costless. But declaring war on the judiciary – and I imagine that nearly every judge in America resents it when their colleagues are pre-blamed for terrorist murders – is not costless. It creates an atmosphere in which future executive orders and actions will be examined by a coequal branch of government.
It must have seemed to Trump tough and bold to use his inaugural address to viciously attack members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans – not only critiquing their performance but impugning their motives. Surrounded by the political elite, Trump said that the political elite has “reaped the rewards,” and “prospered” and “protected itself” and “celebrated” as Americans have suffered.
So far, the reaction to Trump’s attacks on institutions have ranged from muted to supine among congressional Republicans (save for some admirable dissent in the Senate). But on Capitol Hill, Trump is draining, not the swamp, but the reservoir of goodwill. There was a spark of resistance in the forced withdrawal of Andrew Puzder’s nomination for labor secretary. Eventually Trump will be down politically – really down in the polls, down in a scandal, down in morale. What GOP leader would take up his defense with genuine enthusiasm? What serious Republican would not, if he or she are honest, after three drinks, prefer Mike Pence as president? Probably some. But I suspect not many.
All this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of American populism. In Venezuelan populism, for example, it worked to remove all institutions between the dear leader and the people. In the United States, populists have a more difficult but more constructive task: They must persuade institutions to reform themselves. This can involve hardball politics (see Franklin Roosevelt). But real and lasting reform comes through the consent of strong institutions – including the cooperation of intelligence services, the agreement of courts and the approval of Congress. American life will not be transformed through bullying.
And why is that? Says Hayden: “We are not Venezuela.”
Michael Gerson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.