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Democrats Are Trapped in Trump’s “Deep State” War

Their agenda should not be to restore the national security status quo but to overhaul it.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The ongoing contretemps between President Donald Trump and the intelligence community forces a dismal and daunting question: Whose side must be taken in a power struggle between a legion of professional liars and a consummate bullshit artist? 

Both the president and the spy agencies have mastered the arts of misrepresentation, self-righteousness, and Twitter (but perhaps I repeat myself). Both have extensive records of public statements that are demonstrably false, thoroughly misleading, or artfully deceptive. Both have the power to inflict violence on others, though as far as we know, Trump has not killed or tortured anyone. The CIA on the other hand….

To say the two dogs in this fight have credibility problems is unfair to the canine community and rather too polite for the rest of us. Trump and the intelligence community are credibility problems. It may, then, fall to a Democratic president to put this house in order. Should a Democrat succeed in supplanting Trump, that new commander-in-chief will face the overdue chore of steering the nation’s national security apparatus on to a new path. First, however, Democrats will have to beat back Trump’s attempt to wrest control of that apparatus. 

The president and the spy agencies both entertain the Washington press corps by actively distrusting and demonizing the other. CNN reported this week that, in 2017, the CIA exfiltrated one of its most productive spies from Moscow out of concern about Trump’s handling of classified information. The leak of the story, based on classified information, was arguably just as criminal as anything convicted NSA whistleblower Reality Winner did, but the law didn’t deter the leaker(s) from spreading a story that highlighted the intelligence community’s mistrust of the commander-in-chief.

Meanwhile, the chief weapon in Trump’s arsenal is his bluster. In May of last year, he tweeted, “Look how things have turned around on the Criminal Deep State. they go after Phony Collusion with Russia, a made up Scam, and end up getting caught in a major SPY scandal the likes of which this country may never have seen before!” That alleged scandal, since forgotten, was the unsurprising revelation that the FBI deployed an undercover informant in its investigation of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians during the 2016 campaign.

But the spymasters who have jousted with Trump have no claim to purity. In March of 2013, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate, falsely, that the NSA did not collect intelligence on hundreds of millions of Americans. Does that mean Clapper is wrong when he says Trump lives in a “no-fact zone reality bubble?” Not necessarily.

The CIA, under the directorship of John Brennan, fed false information about the agency’s torture program to the Senate Intelligence Committee investigators and, when the investigators discovered it was false, sought to charge them with a crime. (The story resonates in the forthcoming true-life Hollywood thriller, The Report, starring Adam Driver.) Does that mean Brennan is right to say Trump’s talk of a CIA coup is “sociopathic rambling”? Not quite.

Naturally, Trump’s lies are of a different order. He’s told many more of them, from his insistence that he’d drawn the largest inaugural crowd in history, to that Trump Tower meeting about Russian adoptions, to “I had no dealings with Russia,” to  “the noise [from windmills] causes cancer.” Does that mean Trump is wrong when he says he’s the target of a “deep state coup effort”? It means there is no reason to take him seriously.

The difference, of course, is that Trump prevaricates constantly, whereas Clapper and Brennan lie selectively, as required (or so they contend) by their job descriptions. Trump lies in the service of his family business, the interests of the power factions that support him (e.g. evangelicals, extractive industries, arms contractors, AIPAC), and his own fragile ego (e.g. Sharpie-gate). The former spy chiefs lie in the service of their well-burnished media brands and in the name of national security agencies they once led.

The falsehoods of the latter are more respectable than Trump’s, and perhaps defensible as a necessary evil in a dangerous world. The problem is that the CIA has a long history of treating American democracy as the enemy. In the 1960s, the CIA deceived the Warren Commission about the events leading to the assassination of President Kennedy. In the 1960s and ’70s, the CIA spied on the civil rights and antiwar movements. In the 1980s, senior CIA officials helped organize the Iran-contra conspiracy, a large-scale covert operation aimed at disempowering the U.S. Congress. In the 2000s, the agency’s lies about the torture program were aimed, not at America’s enemies, but at the Senate Intelligence Committee. Clapper’s whopper about the NSA mass surveillance program was delivered not to Osama bin Laden, but rather to Senator Ron Wyden.

Not surprisingly, tens of millions of voters have concluded that the proclamations of the national security barons amount to little more than self-serving rhetoric. So while Brennan and Clapper’s criticisms of Trump are cogent, Trump has weaponized the intelligence community’s lack of credibility and turned it on his critics, with a fair amount of success. The CIA, the FBI, and the Justice Department, once revered by conservatives as bulwarks of American power, are now viewed, absurdly, as hotbeds of vicious liberalism, by a significant minority of voters.

This is down to the fact that the intelligence agencies are not bulwarks of Trump’s power. To the contrary, the CIA, NSA, and FBI concluded before Trump was even elected that he had benefited from the covert help of a foreign power. They have deployed their resources—and their media allies—in an effort to hold the president accountable. Not unreasonably, Trump finds their actions threatening. The intelligence community and law enforcement agencies have developed a vast body of evidence that could potentially drive him from office and possibly send him and his family to jail. 

After years of combat between these unlikable combatants, neutrality is tempting but facile. To say Trump and the spy chiefs who criticize him are morally equivalent is to abstain from one of the crucial questions convulsing the very stressed American political system: Who will control the secret agencies? 

The 17 U.S. intelligence agencies have combined budgets of about $80 billion a year. Created in 1947 by the National Security Act, they now operate largely beyond the control of the Congress and the view of the public. They effectively constitute a fourth branch of government, independent of the three branches created by the Founding Fathers. These so-called “deep state” agencies wield awesome powers of surveillance, secrecy, propaganda, and violence, which in turn, shape American politics. The CIA’s subterranean clashes with Presidents Kennedy, Nixon, and Carter are central to the history of those presidencies. 

So it is with President Trump. Stripped of national security bromides and conspiracy theories, the conflict between Trump and the intelligence community is a power struggle between the presidency and the secret branch of the U.S. government. The president spins a “deep state” narrative. The agencies focus on the Trump-Russia relationship. What do the Democrats have to say? Thus far, they’ve kept a quiet counsel.

Trump, like Nixon before him, wants to get control of the national security apparatus, so that it cannot constrain his power. That was the unmistakable meaning of Trump’s attempt to replace Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats with John Ratcliffe, a Texas congressman of minimal experience.   

Ratcliffe was picked because he called (on Fox News) for the prosecution of the source of a January 2017 Washington Post column written by David Ignatius. In that piece, Ignatius revealed that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn had spoken privately with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak, something Flynn had denied. (Flynn was subsequently forced to resign.) Ratcliffe claimed that the leak came from someone with access to super-sensitive NSA intercepts, which is possible. His nomination crashed and burned when it became apparent that Senate Republicans might not vote to confirm him. But his selection signaled Trump’s intentions to use the intelligence agencies to prosecute his critics and the press.

The national security agencies want to recapture the presidency with any Democrat or Republican who will return to the national security status quo. A Mike Pence presidency would be acceptable because he would probably be a more traditional U.S. president. But this outcome isn’t in the cards. Among the Democratic contenders Joe Biden is by far the preferred candidates among CIA formers who I have spoken too. They want a rapid return to the normalcy of the pre-Trump era.

As the Democrats winnow their presidential field, Trump is searching for a new DNI who can serve his desire to hold on to power before and after November 2020. The social media left routinely scorns the spymasters of the past, such as Brennan and Clapper, but Democratic presidential candidates don’t have the luxury of neutrality in Trump’s feud with the intelligence community. While intelligence issues did not surface in the September 12 debate, the Democratic field needs to understand that Trump’s control of the intelligence community is just as big a threat to the integrity of the 2020 election as the Russian interference—maybe bigger. The senators among the leading contenders, who will vote on the next DNI, need to highlight the imperative of an independent director who will not enable Trump’s ambitions to use the intelligence agencies to get re-elected. 

When it comes to Trump and the intelligence community, the Democrats’ agenda should not be to restore the national security status quo but to overhaul it. Democratic timidity on foreign policy, exemplified by the failed career of Richard Holbrooke, is no longer affordable. The party’s engrained fear of being portrayed as “weak” by Republicans is an utter anachronism in the age of Trump. The post-9/11 hysteria about the real but non-existential threat of jihadist terrorism has subsided as the threat of white nationalist terror at home has grown. The public has never been more ready to end the era of endless wars.

Settling too quickly for the narrow range of policy options generated by “the Blob”—the artful designation of Washington’s foreign policy elite and the leaders of the national security agencies—will only hamstring the next Democratic president. The bipartisan embrace of “free trade” benefited the wealthy and hastened the hollowing out of the middle class around the same time that the endless wars of the Bush-Obama era were reaching their apogees of fiscal bloat and strategic failure.

A new Democratic foreign policy needs to align the use of power with the interests of the American people, something that senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have argued in considerable detail.

The Democrats’ goal should not be to kickstart a second Cold War with Russia, defend the interests of multinational capital, or wage Israel’s wars in the Middle East. Instead, they should fix their focus on generating a broad-based prosperity in a rules-based international system. The next president and Congress need to reorient the military and intelligence agencies away from the exhausted “national security” regime and toward a more practical agenda of “democratic security” that protects the American people from authoritarian forces at home and abroad.