One of the strangest warnings issued to President-elect Donald Trump following his 2016 presidential election victory was do not mess with the intelligence community. It came just as the election shock was wearing off and Trump’s opponents began alleging that Russia “hacked” the elections.
“Let me tell you: You take on the intelligence community — they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you. So, even for a practical, supposedly hard-nosed businessman, he’s being really dumb to do this,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said in early January, in reaction to Trump’s criticism of the intelligence community’s initial effort to brief him on alleged Russian hacking.
Schumer’s was just one of many similar warnings directed at the president-elect regarding the intel community. And as history shows, Schumer was right.
Many shrugged off the warnings, including Trump. It was a new day, an unconventional presidency and Jeff Sessions would soon be in charge of the so-called intelligence community.
Sessions was a conservative populist folk hero — at least that was the perception. Let the firings begin! No longer would unelected elitist bureaucrats dictate the direction of the country.
As it turns out, that’s not the way the things work in Washington. And it was probably naïve to think otherwise.
The bar was set way too high for Sessions. While he is and was the godfather of the populist movement that elevated Trump to the White House — having spent years articulating the case for Trumplike policies on immigration, welfare and trade — he was not the kind of radical executive who could transform the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Sessions’ respectful and high-minded DOJ management style was ineffective in a highly politicized environment. After a flurry of media pressure, Sessions was immediately marginalized by his recusal and the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel.
There were no deliberations. It happened almost immediately without Trump’s say. The reverberations from Sessions’ recusal continue to haunt the presidency.
Are/were there bad actors associated with this president? Perhaps, but elections have consequences. There are ways to deal with those consequences: Supreme Court rulings, congressional funding, impeachment and elections.
But now, when the vast, unelected bureaucracy — which, by the way, knows a lot more than you, silly rubes — does not like its new elected boss, it can easily frustrate the will of the people simply by exercising its “duties.”
Trump could end the Mueller investigation any time he wants. He could fire Mueller personally. The attorney general is not the only executive official who can fire DOJ employees. What is the worst that could happen? Might they challenge it in court? Who has standing? If it were Mueller, would he sue? And would the Supreme Court even hear the case?
None of this will happen, of course. At least it probably won’t happen during this administration.
What about future administrations? If the so-called deep state collects a scalp, how might that embolden it?
“We did it with Trump. Why can’t we do it with [insert future Democratic/Republican president here]?”
A precedent will have been set.
Ideologically, federal employees tend to align more with Democrats. It seems less likely they would get crossways with a Democratic president than a Republican like Trump.
Still, Democrats may not be immune to receiving this treatment. There are Democrats, especially among those lining up for a run in the 2020 presidential election, who oppose a lot of the things your federal government does. Notably, they are outspoken against a lot of what the U.S. military does. Democrats also tend to dislike the surveillance state (with exceptions for Trump’s election campaign).
There are foreseeable reasons the deep state could do what it has done to Trump to a Democratic president.
Then what happens? The on-again, off-again love affair the media and other left-of-center institutions have with the FBI would be on a downswing. That might make things a little more difficult, but can it generate enough public backlash to stop this similar situation from playing out during a Democratic presidency?
The shoe-on-the-other-foot scenario might be what is required to get meaningful reform of our intelligence agencies and the Justice Department. If you burn enough people on both sides, they will come together to agree that the use of an apparent extra-constitutional apparatus with unlimited resources and only oversight in theory from an already-marginalized president might not end well.
If a special counsel-type probe takes out a guy from each side, then the enemy of the enemy becomes a friend.
Not to mention, what I have described — and what is happening — is scarily similar to Third World banana republics where elections are only a façade. This is scary stuff.
While Trump sometimes has good instincts, being a neophyte in the ways of Washington really put him at a disadvantage. It was obvious from the get-go that when a government machine that operates at glacier speed on almost everything can appoint a limitless special counsel in a matter of days, something was up.
Call it a teachable moment. However, for now, the deep state is winning, and the people are losing.