President Trump’s decision to strip the security clearance of John Brennan, a former director of the C.I.A., qualifies as one of the least surprising moves from the White House this year. Mr. Brennan has been an outspoken critic of Mr. Trump, and the president’s skin is as thin as his regard for democratic norms. And despite the laughable rationalizations now being peddled by administration apologists, Mr. Brennan’s spanking is just the latest display of what has become standard operating procedure for this president: using the official levers of government to punish critics and to encourage other detractors to sit down and shut up.
Mr. Trump’s act of spite against Mr. Brennan is less ambitious and, frankly, less imaginative, than some of the other avenues of retribution he has explored. Aggrieved over what he considers insufficiently obsequious coverage by The Washington Post, Mr. Trump has repeatedly threatened to punish the paper’s owner, Jeff Bezos, by raising the postal rates paid by the online retail giant Amazon, of which Mr. Bezos is the founder and chief executive. Similarly, in the midst of his snit over the protests by National Football League players who have taken a knee during the national anthem, Mr. Trump instructed aides to brainstorm ideas for going after the league in last year’s tax-reform package.
Then there was the president’s failed attempt to block the merger between AT&T and Time Warner, which pretty much everyone recognized as part of his long-simmering animus toward the news media in general and CNN in particular. (The network is owned by Time Warner.) When the Department of Justice filed suit last November on antitrust grounds, the administration insisted that Mr. Trump had no part in the decision — a claim that would have been more credible if Mr. Trump had not vowed to block the merger more than a year earlier, when he was still a candidate. It also didn’t help Mr. Trump’s case that his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said that the president had “denied the merger.”
On a more intimate scale, the Trump White House has delighted in selectively barring journalists from official events. Just last month, Kaitlan Collins, a White House reporter for CNN, was called into the West Wing, scolded for having asked the president “inappropriate” questions earlier that day and then informed that she would not be attending Mr. Trump’s Rose Garden appearance with the head of the European Commission — an event open to the news media. Then again, at least Ms. Collins wasn’t shoved around and physically ejected from the premises, as happened in May to Ellen Knickmeyer, a reporter for The Associated Press who was trying to cover a speech by Scott Pruitt, at that time the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Faced with blowback, the administration insisted that the room had reached capacity.
After such episodes, Mr. Trump and his lackeys often feel moved to offer some type of official cover story for his petty thuggery. For instance, the president’s statement on Mr. Brennan, conveyed to reporters on Wednesday by the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, claimed that the former director’s clearance had been revoked because his “erratic conduct and behavior” and “increasingly frenzied commentary” posed a risk to national security. This excuse not only fails the laugh test, it differs from the rationale Ms. Sanders floated a couple of weeks ago, when she first announced that Mr. Trump was considering this action. At that time, she said that Mr. Brennan and other critics had “politicized, and in some cases monetized, their public service and security clearances.”
At other times, Mr. Trump is vastly more forthright, as when explaining in an interview later Wednesday that he took away Mr. Brennan’s security clearance in part because of the latter’s early role in the Russia inquiry. Raging about how “these people” had led the “rigged witch hunt,” Mr. Trump reasoned, “So I think it’s something that had to be done.” The revelation was a remarkable echo of the president’s admission to NBC’s Lester Holt last year that he had fired the F.B.I. director, James Comey, in part over “this Russia thing” rather than the ludicrous official line that he had done so because of Mr. Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
At this point, one might ask why the White House even bothers to invent cover stories that the president himself will inevitably contradict. Mr. Trump obviously cherishes — and actively cultivates — his reputation as someone who will work to crush those who dare defy him.
Following the Group of 7 summit in June, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada held a news conference in which he said that his country would respond in kind to any steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by the United States and he promised that Canadians “will not be pushed around.” Outraged, Mr. Trump vowed to make Mr. Trudeau and his entire country pay for such impudence. “That’s going to cost a lot of money for the people of Canada,” said Mr. Trump. “He learned. You can’t do that. You can’t do that.”
Politically palatable excuses aside, the president wants everyone to know that this is how he operates. It fuels his image as a tough guy. Where is the fun in punishing your enemies if you can’t rub their noses in it? More strategically, scaring one’s critics into submission won’t work if those critics don’t understand what’s happening.
In the president’s statement on Mr. Brennan, he reminded the public that nine other individuals are currently having their access to classified information reviewed. Some of the names on the list have been fierce critics of the president. Others have ties to the continuing Russia investigation that Mr. Trump has been working so tirelessly to discredit. Whatever the particulars, all have drawn the displeasure of the president and must be taught a lesson. Mr. Trump ominously warned, “Security clearances for those who still have them may be revoked, and those who have already lost their security clearance may not be able to have it reinstated.”
There’s a word for an approach to leadership that features treating the tax code, postal rates, antitrust laws and the First Amendment as weapons to settle one’s personal grudges. And that word is not “democratic.”