Trump's Deep State Strategy Is to Conquer by Dividing

President Trump is taking action against his so-called deep state critics, a sign of the intensifying power struggle in Washington between an authoritarian president and an unnerved and alarmed national security establishment.


On Monday the White House announced Trump is considering revoking the security clearances of former CIA directors John Brennan and Michael Hayden, former director of national intelligence James Clapper, former national security adviser Susan Rice, and former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe.

Clapper was quick to say that the move was “petty,” but it nonetheless marked an real escalation of Trump’s war on his critics in the national security establishment. The White House announcement that it is looking for a “mechanism” to revoke the clearances marks the first time that Trump has sought to take concrete action against his critics, as opposed to just denouncing them via Twitter.

The guidelines for eligibility clearances are set forth in a federal regulation promulgated in its current form by the Bush administration in 2005 and revised by the Obama administration in 2016.

"There is nothing in the guidelines about political speech, which is why this could set a terrible precedent," said Mark Zaid, a Washington attorney with many clients in the intelligence community. 

Normally, agencies would follow their own procedures for revoking a clearance, which give employees the right to appeal any such decision.

"But the power to grant acess to classified information emanates from the presidency," Zaid said, "so Trump could just state that his critics had no 'need to know' classified information and revoke their clearances without due process," a move Trump has not taken.

The  Choice

Trump's gambit, if carried out, will force a choice on the whole intelligence community and on DNI Dan Coats, NSA director Mike Rogers, CIA director Gina Haspel, and FBI director Christopher Wray in particular. Are you with the president? Or with his enemies?  

Not coincidentally, Trump’s trial balloon followed hard on his disastrous performance in Helsinki. The president harmed himself when he sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin against the U.S. intelligence on the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election, then reversed himself and endorsed the CIA-NSA-FBI finding of interference, and then reversed himself again by calling the finding “a hoax.”  

Trump’s flip-flopping did not cost him support among his loyal base, nor did it unduly disturb the quiescent Republican majority in Congress. But it did reflect the reality that coddling a dictator and adversary did not go over well with his inner circle of advisers. His contradictory claims showed him eager to appease the intelligence community while pursuing his undisclosed agreements with Putin.

What Trump has to fear after Helsinki is the belief among his followers that he is not a “serious president,” meaning he does not abide by the rules of national security policymaking that have prevailed over the last 70 years, and that he may even be a Russian agent. As former CIA officer Rolf Mowatt-Larssen put it last week, “he is as much an advocate for Russia’s interests... [as]if he were indeed recruited by Russian intelligence and formally responding to Russian tasking.”

Mowatt-Larssen’s prescription for U.S. intelligence is Trump’s nightmare:

“The US intelligence community can no longer trust the President’s judgment after he clearly sided with Russia in the Mueller investigation and the underlying intelligence information that formed the basis of the indictments of twelve Russian military intelligence officers. If I were still an active CIA officer at the senior leadership level, I would seriously have to consider resigning on principle, rather than serve positions that our president has espoused at the side of the Russian president.”

The possibility of defections from his inner circle and the national security leadership is a much greater threat to Trump’s embattled presidency than the fury of his opponents. To stem the possible spread of such sentiments in the deep state agencies, Trump needs a loyalty test, and security clearances could provide one. It’s true that some former senior intelligence officers have broken with Trump, but current officials have not. If forced to make a choice between Trump and his critics, Gina Haspel and Dan Coats and other senior intelligence managers may well conclude that, like most Republican congressmen, their job security depends on not crossing the president.  

Trump's Advantage

And therein lies Trump’s advantage. While Trump is vehement in his denunciations of “the criminal deep state,” his hostility is mostly rhetorical. The president does not actually seek to curb the budgets, operations or prerogatives of U.S. secret intelligence agencies. Quite the contrary. On policy issues, Trump has a few substantive differences with the CIA, NSA, or FBI. He only seeks to curb the independent power of these agencies to investigate his furtive, and possibly criminal, dealings with Putin and the Russians.

Those like Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson (“God bless the deep state”) who look to the national security agencies to check an authoritarian president may overestimate their institutional ability to resist.

The so-called “deep state,” notes Michael Glennon, professor of international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, is a function of the “double government” that has prevailed in the United States since the passage of the National Security Act of 1947. The fear of the “deep state” across the political spectrum reflects the reality that the CIA, NSA and other secret agencies created since 1947 have drifted beyond the control of Congress and the president, and now pursue policies largely of their own making. Hence the remarkable degree of continuity between the national security policies of presidents as different as George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

But the national security apparatus was designed to serve whoever occupied the Oval Office, Glennon notes. In an interview last year, he cautioned against optimism that the national security agencies might serve as bulwark against Trump’s authoritarianism.

“The playbook for dismembering a disliked bureaucracy is widely known to organizational theorists, and it’s only a matter of time before Trump will be able to employ those methods to get control of these agencies,” he said.  “Factions within them will align with Trump to do his bidding and ultimately will come to dominate rival, opposing factions.”

That time has come. By seeking to deprive his most vocal and credible critics of security clearances, Trump is seeking to consolidate a faction in the U.S. intelligence community that that is more loyal to his future, than their institutional history. He is seeking to conquer the deep state by dividing it.

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