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Why Is Trump Obsessed With Revoking Security Clearances?

Our Large Adult President has his hands on a new toy

President Donald Trump listens during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, in Washington. Trump is the phantom of U.S. District Courtroom 900. His name has rarely been uttered during the trial of his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. Trump's absence from the first major courtroom test of the special counsel's Russia investigation is strictly intentional. All sides have feared that too much Trump could prejudice the jury somehow in a case that has little to do with the most polarizing figure in American politics

President Trump

Andrew Harnik/AP/REX/Shutterstock

It’s hard to tell when an action taken by President Trump or the White House is intended to distract from unfavorable news coverage. But it was pretty clear when Trump revoked the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan last week. The announcement, coming at the height of former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman’s decidedly anti-Trump press tour, was dated July 26th, a sign the White House had been waiting for an opportune time to assume control of the news cycle. A senior White House official later confirmed to the Washington Post that the revocation was indeed meant to distract from the media’s wall-to-wall coverage of the book.

Trump appeared so enamored with this newfound ability to punish those who speak out against him that he has since continued to hammer the security clearance issue, while threatening to strip credentials from many others. This has proven especially true when “disobedient” officials are privy to sensitive information regarding the Russia investigation. On Friday, Trump said he intends to “very quickly” revoke the clearance of Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, a frequent target of the president’s Witch Hunt wrath. After Brennan’s clearance was revoked last week, Trump told the Wall Street Journal he did it explicitly because “something had to be done” about the “rigged” Russia investigation.

Another Obama-era official with access to information regarding the Russia investigation is Obama himself. On Monday, the New Yorker reported that in 2017 Trump’s allies in the White House floated the idea of revoking the former president’s clearance, but that Trump ultimately decided against it at the insistence of then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. On Tuesday morning, the president roped the “very tired” New Yorker into the Fake News corral, referencing the story.

The tweet came just an hour after he implied that frequent Trump critic and former national intelligence director James Clapper’s concern about Brennan’s behavior was a ploy to retain his security clearance. The previous night, Trump attacked former intelligence official Philip Mudd for defending Brennan on CNN. The tweet concluded with the president claiming that the “unglued and weird” Mudd is “in no mental condition” to have a security clearance. “Should be REVOKED?” Trump asked, before tagging Sean Hannity.

Mudd is far from the only former intelligence official to defend Brennan. On Monday, 177 of them signed a letter expressing concern that “the country will be weakened if there is a political litmus test applied before seasoned experts are allowed to share their views.” Also springing to Brennan’s defense was William McRaven, the admiral who oversaw the 2011 raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. “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,” McRaven wrote in an op-ed for the Post.

Trump tweeted on Monday that he believes McRaven and the other intelligence officials defending Brennan are only doing so because they’re worried about their own security clearances, which the president views as high-value tokens he controls. This of course isn’t the case, but the more weight Trump ascribes to security clearances, the more power he perceives himself to wield over these officials. Trump has fashioned his administration into a reality show full of loyalty, back-stabbing, winners and losers, a drama that plays out at the expense of the American people. Under Trump, security credentials are not a tool to gather intelligence insight that can serve the interests of the nation, but as something to be leveraged for status and monetary gain. (He appears to feel the same way about the presidency.)

If Trump’s latest abhorrent abuse of power that is bringing the United States yet another step closer to outright banana-republic authoritarianism seems familiar, it’s because this is pretty much exactly how his infatuation with his pardon power played out earlier this summer. Instead of punishing those who spoke out against him, Trump discovered he was able to reward convicted criminals who were willing to profess their allegiance. He’d already pardoned “Sheriff Joe” Arpaio last year, and after excusing conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza in June, Trump asked the White House to draft a list of people he could let off the hook. Last week, the Post reported that the White House had compiled a similar list of critical former intelligence officials whose credentials Trump could revoke, and that the president intends to sign “most if not all” of them. The White House communications team has reportedly “discussed the optimum times to release them as a distraction during unfavorable news cycles.”

As was the case with presidential pardons, Trump could grow bored of his ability to revoke security clearances. Regardless, it is dangerous for such an unglued and weird president to possess this power, especially as the Russia investigation continues to close in around him. The man leading that investigation is himself a former intelligence official, and on Monday Trump tweeted without any basis that Special Counsel Mueller, a distinguished war hero and lifetime public servant who is as close to universally respected as is possible in Washington, is “disgraced and discredited.” Later that day, Reuters published an interview with the president in which he was asked if he would consider revoking Mueller’s security clearance. “I haven’t given it a lot of thought,” was all he could manage.

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