By Andrew Harnik/AP Photo.
Donald Trump’s vision of ideal leadership is incredibly specific. Over and over again, the president has lavished praise on certain heads of state, speaking admiringly of Kim Jong Un’s show of force at such a young age, congratulating Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for his successful consolidation of power, and admiring Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem” (i.e. gunning down suspects, no questions asked). Of course, these leaders all share a crucial trait: they exercise relatively unfettered control over the people they govern, drawing the deference that Trump is used to demanding as the head of an international corporation. As president, Trump’s efforts to expand his presidential power haven’t necessarily outstripped those of his predecessors, though they have been distinct in other ways. (“He certainly uses presidential power for personal purposes . . . to protect himself, to protect his inner circle,” Princeton professor Julian Zelizer told The Atlantic.) But this week, Trump seemed to discover another area over which he has unilateral control: his ability to revoke security clearances.
On Wednesday, via Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the president announced that he was revoking the security clearance of John Brennan, former C.I.A. director-turned-harsh critic of the administration. It seemed that the move was deployed to seize attention from the Omarosa Manigault Newman news cycle—the initial statement announcing the revocation was dated three weeks ago—but the implications resonated nonetheless. And that fear deepened when The Washington Post reported Friday that Trump was chomping at the bit to strip other critics of their security clearances, former director of national intelligence James Clapper being highest on the list.
Trump, of course, is a political neophyte who came into office knowing almost nothing of the presidency’s powers (see: “lock her up”), and therefore none of the restraint of his predecessors—either for concrete reasons, or out of respect for tradition—in using them. Each time he discovers a new one, he’s made a flashy show of exercising it, signing as many executive orders as possible in the early days of his presidency. (Though as the Intercept recently found, only few have been acted upon.) He began a pardoning spree shortly after learning he could forgive convicted felons, with the apparent goal of seeding as many favors as possible: his pardons of “concentration-camp”-happy former sheriff Joe Arpaio and right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza elated his conservative allies, while his commuting the life sentence of Alice Johnson, a 63-year-old great-grandmother convicted of drug trafficking, came at Kim Kardashian’s behest. “What he enjoys most about this job is finding things he has absolute power over,” one source who’s worked closely with Trump told Axios, echoing other sources who told Mike Allen that Trump was all about instant gratification. “He got a kick out of pardons, that he could pardon anybody he wants and people would come to him to court him and beg him.”
He’s reportedly gone a similar route with security clearances—a recourse that, ironically, was recommended to him by small-government proponent Rand Paul—using their revocation as a weapon against his perceived political enemies:
Trump grew increasingly agitated about Brennan and others earlier in the summer, believing they were exploiting their credentials as former national security officials to make money, aides said. The president mentioned the Russia investigation when discussing the matter in private and drafted a list of officials who have angered him for Sanders to read at the lectern in the White House briefing room, the aides said.
Although advisers cautioned the president that some people on the list—including [James] Comey and [Andrew] McCabe—had already lost their security clearances when they were fired, Trump insisted that they be included anyway, the senior officials said.
Some have gone so far as to suggest that Trump could revoke the security clearance of Robert Mueller, effectively preventing him from carrying out his investigation into the Trump campaign. But a source close to the president told Axios that this eventuality was somewhat unlikely: “If there’s a power he’s been given, you can bet every penny you own that he’s going to use it—and perhaps use it in new ways or with greater frequency than ever before,” this person said. “[But] I don’t believe Trump is inclined to do anything that erodes separation of powers—at least, nothing that exceeds the historical rate at which executive power has expanded.”
That said, it’s evident that Trump will happily explore these options, and will likely jump over the line if his attack on Brennan, a convenient Deep State avatar, is well received. So far, the base is in rapture, reveling in the mainstream media’s panic and praising Trump’s strong retaliation. “[A]s America’s former chief spy, Brennan probably has all kinds of Deep State ties, methods, and contacts at his disposal,” John Nolte wrote in a popular Breitbart article, dinging his “Twitter feed [filled] with angry tweets lashing out at Trump and Republicans in general.” Whether these accolades further pique Trump’s authoritarian tendencies remains to be seen.