Even without the ability to mobilize vast public shifts, there are two ways the McRaven and group of 13 letters could matter. The first is that having figures like Petraeus and Gates speak out gives encouragement and cover to other would-be critics of the president, telling them they’re doing the right, and nonpolitical, thing.
The second is that it keeps Trump on the back foot, always playing defense against critics. The president views the security clearances as a useful tool for distraction. He first floated the idea in late July, amidst backlash to his disastrous meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. He then revoked Brennan’s clearance in the midst of another firestorm, over Manigault-Newman’s dishy book about the administration. When the White House first announced the Brennan move, they initially failed to scrub the date on the announcement: July 26, 2018. The revocations are entirely symbolic, too. Though there are several reasons former officials typically keep their clearances, Trump is not endangering the livelihood or careers of any of them. (A threat to revoke the clearance of the Justice Department official Bruce Ohr is different.)
If the goal was to distract, it didn’t work. The president’s war of choice against the intelligence community has spiraled out of his control, yet at the same time, Manigault-Newman stayed firmly lodged in the headlines. On Thursday, she released yet another clandestine recording, this one capturing the president’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump offering her a $15,000 a month job in return for silence. (Spies are not the only ones skilled in spycraft, it seems.)
Now Trump is fighting wars on several fronts—against Manigault-Newman; against practically the entire former leadership of the intelligence community; and, of course, against Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whose team rested its case against the former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort this week.
Trump remains remarkably resilient in the face of these troubles, which might have ended another presidency. This is in part because of his famously steadfast base. Yet that base is a small portion of the electorate, and, if anything, it is shrinking. Because Trump is perpetually on the defensive, he’s unable (or unwilling) to take any steps that might expand his appeal and his coalition. The president’s decision to launch his latest war of choice risks bogging him down in yet another unwinnable quagmire. It’s a danger that the intelligence chiefs, perhaps better than anyone else in the world, could have predicted.
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