There is a strategy behind Trump's madness -- and it's already much later than you think
The news that Donald Trump is openly feeding classified information to Devin Nunes should be upsetting. It not only represents a complete upending of the standard relationship between the executive branch and the legislative branch, but it’s just one aspect of a threat that Trump has set down brick by brick, until it has America poised on the edge of a cliff that many don’t even seem to realize is looming: the absolute inability to get at the truth due to a gross disparity in the availability of information. That may sound technical. Or even picayune. It’s not.
In any conflict, there is one factor that is certain to destroy any possibility of a fair resolution: asymmetrical information. Asymmetrical information is just what it sounds like, It's when one side of a conflict has more or better information than the other. That information gives that side an advantage in both tactics and strategy. Now look at what Trump and Attorney General William Barr are doing, and have been doing, step by step, for months.
Trump hasn't voluntarily provided a witness to Congress since Democrats took control of the House in January. He hasn’t turned over one page of documentation. Instead, Trump has ordered witnesses not to obey requests. Then to ignore congressional subpoenas. Then to ignore contempt citations. He has even extended this denial to former members of his staff, to members and former members of other areas of the executive branch far removed from direct contact with his office, and to members of his transition team.
In addition to denying Congress witnesses, or documents subpoenaed along with those witnesses, Trump has sued Congress to prevent the release of his personal information. He has continued to challenge the outcomes of those lawsuits. And he has ordered members of his Cabinet and their staff to ignore plain law in refusing to hand over information.
Should the situation ever reach the point where the Supreme Court orders Trump to produce the information, there is little doubt about what he will do. After all, this week has been a vivid reminder that, according to the Department of Justice, Donald Trump cannot be indicted. So why should he listen to any court? Should any of the witnesses Congress is seeking to interview ever be found in contempt, Trump has an answer for that. He can pardon them, just as he has his other friends and political supporters. Or Barr can claim privilege. In any case … no one is talking.
At the same time, Barr has expanded on Trump's already expansive view of executive privilege. That's included throwing a blanket over all source materials for the Mueller report, and even over the sort of ordinary data from agencies that was previously given to Congress as a matter of course.
The net result is that Congress is absolutely starved for information. Does the House seem indecisive and confused? Is there a frustrating schism within the Democratic Party? Yes. That’s because they are walking around in the dark, absolutely unable to get the information that usually fuels their decisions. Cautious representatives, used to checking every box in triplicate before making a move, feel suffocated by the lack of data, and frightened by the willingness of others to jump forward. In short, they’re afraid it’s all a trap. And it could be—both because they don’t have the information they want, and because Barr can create any information he wants.
Trump has authorized Barr to look at all classified information, no matter the context. And to selectively share that information with whomever he pleases. Trump explicitly included sharing information with Republicans in Congress, such as Devin Nunes.
Because Barr is authorized to release only what he wants, he can select the bits and pieces that support Trump, leaving any information that might be harmful to Trump hidden. Because he can share it with whomever he wants, the result is a massive imbalance of information.
Not only do Trump and Barr hold all the cards, but they own the places where the cards are printed. The ability to selectively release any information out of context is indistinguishable from the ability to simply make things up. Trump, Barr, or anyone they are feeding information to can make any claim without being disputed. Against anyone.
If Barr were to announce tomorrow that the DOJ inspector general’s report found that James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, and others were involved in a “deep state” conspiracy against Trump ... how could it be disputed? Where would anyone turn for the truth?
If Nunes were to hold a press conference and say he had information connecting the Democratic campaign in 2018 straight to the Kremlin ... how could it be countered? Would the House issue subpoenas? Would the DOJ take action?
This asymmetrical information war has already proceeded very nearly to the point where the truth is whatever Nunes says it is. Which is whatever Barr says it is. Which is whatever Trump says it is. Because they've completely isolated any source of information that might counter their claims.
And anyone thinking that a legal appeal might finally get some White House staffer's butt into a seat after a contempt charge might want to consider this: Fully one-quarter of all appeals court judges were selected by Trump. How did Trump select 24% of all appellate court judges in the space of less than three years? It's almost as if Mitch McConnell had been sitting on all the nominations for years before the 2016 election, so that Trump could quickly grab control of the courts. It’s almost as if that’s true because it’s true.
And, of course, should any court rule that someone from Trump’s team has to appear, they can still be pardoned, or still claim privilege. Because … why not? Trump has made it increasingly clear that, as far as he is concerned, Article 2 means he can “do whatever I like.”
The result of Trump's actions, in concert with Barr and McConnell, is that the United States is extraordinary vulnerable to misinformation, propaganda, and plain old lies. Because the sources of truth are off the table.
It leaves impeachment as the only possible option. But it also means that any impeachment inquiry is also likely to face a repeat of the stonewall. There seems to be no force left that can move Barr to take any step to help in such a proceeding, and no threat from the judiciary that they can’t simply shrug off.
How an autocrat in absolute control of the sources of information and the ability to mete out justice is dislodged is anyone’s guess.