Back before he enfeebled the House speakership so that President Donald Trump could run a historically corrupt administration without facing pesky oversight inquiries from Congress, Paul Ryan pretended to feel so strongly about the integrity of U.S. government secrets that he would intervene in executive branch affairs to protect it.
“Today I am writing to formally request that you refrain from providing any classified information to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the duration of her candidacy for president,” Ryan wrote last July to James Clapper, who was then the director of national intelligence, after then-FBI Director James Comey described Clinton’s handling of classified information as “extremely careless.”
“I firmly believe,” Ryan added, that “this is necessary to reassure the public that our nation’s secrets are secure.”
At the time, intelligence professionals professed far more alarm at the thought of Trump—erratic, impulsive, lacking any government experience—receiving classified briefings than Clinton. But Ryan inveighed against her rather than him.
Those concerns about Trump have been vindicated by recent events, and Ryan’s bad faith laid completely bare by his sudden indifference to massive security breaches at the highest levels of government. His hypocrisy is a perfect symbol of the broader, corrupt bargain the Republican Party has made with Trump, but the implications of that hypocrisy go far beyond the way they reflect on partisan politics in America. Ryan and other GOP leaders may be the key actors assuring that the global crisis of the Trump presidency will far outlast his term in office.
When Trump compromised the safety of an Israeli ISIS infiltrator by divulging the intelligence he provided, and the city where he obtained it, to senior Russian officials in the White House, Ryan’s spokesman conveyed the speaker’s minimal concern. Ryan, we learned, “ha[d] no way to know what was said,” but “hope[d] for a full explanation of the facts from the administration.” Whether Ryan ever received that information in a secure briefing or not hardly matters, because Trump went to Israel shortly after the disclosure and indirectly confessed to the accuracy of the reporting with cameras rolling.
As president, Trump doesn’t need an approved clearance, so if Ryan were inclined to penalize Trump for such a reckless violation, there’d be no clearance to revoke. But we know he wouldn’t be so inclined, because he is similarly indifferent to the fact that Trump’s closest official adviser—his son-in-law Jared Kushner—has promiscuously compromised personnel and information security, and Ryan doesn’t seem to care at all.
This weekend, Representative Adam Schiff, the vice chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, called for a review of Kushner’s security clearance in light of a devastating new report that Kushner during the transition sought to use secure Russian facilities in the U.S. to communicate with Moscow as a kind of end-run around the U.S. government, of which he was not yet a part. “If these allegations are true and he had discussions with the Russians about establishing a backchannel and didn’t reveal that, that’s a real problem in terms of whether he should maintain that kind of a security clearance,” Schiff said.
Schiff’s implied basis for revoking Kushner’s clearance is the fact that Kushner apparently did not disclose multiple contacts with the Russian ambassador on his SF-86 clearance application—a potential crime.
But the complete argument for revoking Kushner’s clearance is actually much broader.
Kushner and the White House would have had little credibility if they’d denied the claims in the Washington Post and Reuters reports, but the fact that they haven’t seriously challenged them should be read as confirmation. If Kushner had not requested illegal access to secure Russian communication facilities he would have every interest in refuting reporting to the contrary. That he has not done so suggests an awareness that such an explicit denial might ultimately be contradicted by evidence—a secret recording of the meeting, or the testimony of ousted National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who is the target of an FBI investigation.
So the intelligence end-run reporting is almost certainly true, and it is thus also almost certainly true that Kushner lied on his clearance form. That these contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak didn’t simply slip his mind. And that, knowing all this, he nevertheless encouraged his father-in-law to fire the FBI director.
The threat to security is at least twofold. First, by seeking the channel in this way, Kushner implicitly revealed that there are things he was happy telling the Russian government that he didn’t want the U.S. government, then under Barack Obama’s control, knowing. Nobody with such motives, if they were known to the government, would ever have received a clearance. Second, by telling lies to the U.S. government that the Russian government may have had the capacity to expose, Kushner—just like Flynn—was vulnerable to blackmail.
Again, Paul Ryan seems not to care about any of this, much as he and other leading Republicans, like Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, don’t care that Trump went to Europe and vandalized the Western alliance. This kind of enabling behavior defines the Republican Party today, and is often and correctly interpreted as part of the endless collateral damage Republicans will tolerate in pursuit of tax cuts. But the focus on Ryan’s motives, rather than his actions, reduces his abdication of duty to a partisan or ideological calculation. Something appropriately left in the realm of politics.
But it’s much more severe than that. Trump’s election was a catastrophically destabilizing event in and of itself, and people like Ryan were complicit in it. But to an under-appreciated extent, the amount of damage Trump would ultimately be capable of inflicting was a question for Congress as much as Trump himself. America can’t unelect Trump, or annul his presidency, but it would be straightforward for the country’s other political branch of government to signal to the world that it would never allow a U.S. president to permanently upend the foundation of trust underlying the post-war global order without good reason. If a president’s advisers have malign intent with state secrets—in many cases secrets shared between nations—nothing says Congress has to tolerate it. If the president himself is reckless with those secrets, or with his foreign policy in general, nothing in the Constitution says Congress must sit on its hands. Quite the contrary.
Instead, Trump returned to the U.S. in a wake of outraged howls from allied countries, and amid news reports that his top adviser tried to subvert U.S. intelligence agencies with the help of a Russian spy, and the top Republican foreign policy guy in Congress said the president’s first trip abroad was “executed to near perfection,” while GOP leaders shrugged off Kushner’s mind-boggling improprieties.
What they’re telling the world is that if another figure like Trump emerges promising to upend U.S. alliances and run a rogue, untrustworthy administration, one of America’s two political parties will welcome him, and help him get away with it.