When President Donald Trump last month threatened to punish one of his critics, former CIA director John Brennan, by taking away his security clearance, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., dismissed the threat with a wry smile. Mere “trolling,” he said, as if to suggest: Boys will be boys.
In fact, even as bluster, Trump’s words would not have been acceptable.
But now the president has acted on them, stripping a career intelligence officer of his access to classified material, with no legitimate cause.
Trump, in fact, made no secret of his illegitimate motive: In an interview published in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, he blamed Brennan for the special counsel’s investigation into possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. Revoking Brennan’s clearance is an act of petty vengeance.
The real victim here is not Brennan, who will get along fine without his security clearance, but the national security of the United States and its democratic norms.
National security is harmed because administration officials and members of Congress benefit when they can draw upon the wisdom and experience of long-serving public servants such as Brennan.
In Trump’s America, every transition of power would result in the vilification, demotion and humiliation of those who served before, even civil servants who were honorably performing their duty.
His conception of government denies the possibility of any motivation beyond partisan - or, in Trump’s case, personal - loyalty, at the expense of the principle that patriotic Americans can put the national interest above such considerations. It is pettiness distilled and more revealing of the president’s malformed sense of duty than that of his targets. This is the national debasement that Ryan and the rest of his party have enabled.