Trump be­gin­ning to see re­al­ity’s re­venge

Tulsa World - - OPINION - Michael Ger­son Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group

WASH­ING­TON — In midJan­uary, af­ter the ap­pear­ance of some em­bar­rass­ing ma­te­rial or an­other (it is hard to keep track), Pres­i­dent-elect Trump tweeted: “In­tel­li­gence agen­cies should never have al­lowed this fake news to ‘ leak’ into the pub­lic. One last shot at me. Are we liv­ing in Nazi Ger­many?”

That charge has made es­ca­la­tion of the Trump/in­tel­li­gence con­flict dif­fi­cult. What is the next step af­ter the Nazi card?

More re­cently, Pres­i­dent Trump has called leaks from the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity “un-Amer­i­can” and “just like Rus­sia.” It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a set of at­tacks more likely to be galling to in­tel­li­gence pro­fes­sion­als, some of whom risk their lives with no prospect of credit; one of the purer forms of pa­tri­o­tism.

Now Trump ap­pears ut­terly shocked that he does not hold the copy­right on coun­ter­punch­ing. And the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity is par­tic­u­larly good at it. Dur­ing my time in the Ge­orge W. Bush White House, there were also some dam­ag­ing in­tel­li­gence leaks. I have no in­ten­tion of ex­cus­ing them. I only point out that it is daunt­ing to ar­gue with peo­ple who weaponize in­for­ma­tion for a liv­ing — like chal­leng­ing a Navy SEAL to a fight.

There is a cer­tain kind of New Yorker who re­ally be­lieves Frank Si­na­tra: “If I can make it there, I can make it any­where.” The world of Man­hat­tan real es­tate must have seemed to Trump like the big leagues. It wasn’t. And the tech­niques that suc­ceeded in his lit­tle world — the taunt­ing, the ex­ag­ger­a­tions, the blus­ter, the threats, the bul­ly­ing — do not trans­late well in deal­ing with real pro­fes­sion­als. The ones who fight Rus­sian in­flu­ence. With less than a month in of­fice, Trump is be­gin­ning to see re­al­ity’s re­venge. His over­all strat­egy seems dis­turbingly am­bi­tious. Gen. Michael Hay­den, who di­rected both the CIA and the NSA, de­scribes it this way in an in­ter­view: “A sys­tem­atic ef­fort to in­val­i­date and dele­git­imize all the in­sti­tu­tions, gov­ern­men­tal and non­govern­men­tal, that cre­ate the fac­tual ba­sis for ac­tion

... so they won’t push back against ar­bi­trary moves.”

That is, well, ter­ri­fy­ing. But Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tions, it turns out, are pretty durable, at least so far. The checks have checked. The bal­ances have bal­anced. In this sce­nario, it is good news that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has been so in­ept, at least in con­flicts with other in­sti­tu­tions. We should be thank­ful that Trump is a fig­ure much smaller than his schemes.

It must have seemed to him tough and bold to at­tack fed­eral judges and ac­cuse them of plac­ing the nation at risk (by block­ing im­ple­men­ta­tion of his im­mi­gra­tion ex­ec­u­tive or­der). Dur­ing his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, such meth­ods were rou­tine and rel­a­tively cost­less. But declar­ing war on the ju­di­ciary — and I imag­ine that nearly ev­ery judge in Amer­ica re­sents it when their col­leagues are pre-blamed for ter­ror­ist mur­ders — is not cost­less. It cre­ates an at­mos­phere in which fu­ture ex­ec­u­tive or­ders and ac­tions will be ex­am­ined by a co­equal branch of gov­ern­ment.

It must have seemed to Trump tough and bold to use his in­au­gu­ral ad­dress to vi­ciously at­tack mem­bers of Congress, Democrats and Repub­li­cans — not only cri­tiquing their per­for­mance but im­pugn­ing their mo­tives. Sur­rounded by the po­lit­i­cal elite, Trump said that the po­lit­i­cal elite has “reaped the re­wards,” and “pros­pered” and “pro­tected it­self” and “cel­e­brated” as Amer­i­cans have suf­fered.

So far, the re­ac­tion to Trump’s at­tacks on in­sti­tu­tions have ranged from muted to supine among con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans (save for some ad­mirable dis­sent in the Se­nate). But on Capi­tol Hill, Trump is drain­ing, not the swamp, but the reser­voir of good­will. There was a spark of re­sis­tance in the forced with­drawal of An­drew Puzder’s nom­i­na­tion for la­bor sec­re­tary. Even­tu­ally Trump will be down po­lit­i­cally — re­ally down in the polls, down in a scan­dal, down in morale. What GOP leader would take up his de­fense with gen­uine en­thu­si­asm? What se­ri­ous Repub­li­can would not, if he or she are hon­est, af­ter three drinks, pre­fer Mike Pence as pres­i­dent? Prob­a­bly some. But I sus­pect not many.

All this rep­re­sents a fun­da­men­tal mis­un­der­stand­ing of Amer­i­can pop­ulism. In Venezue­lan pop­ulism, for ex­am­ple, it worked to re­move all in­sti­tu­tions be­tween the dear leader and the peo­ple. In the United States, pop­ulists have a more dif­fi­cult but more con­struc­tive task: They must per­suade in­sti­tu­tions to re­form them­selves. This can in­volve hard­ball pol­i­tics (see Franklin Roo­sevelt). But real and last­ing re­form comes through the con­sent of strong in­sti­tu­tions — in­clud­ing the co­op­er­a­tion of in­tel­li­gence ser­vices, the agree­ment of courts and the ap­proval of Congress. Amer­i­can life will not be trans­formed through bul­ly­ing.

And why is that? Says Hay­den: “We are not Venezuela.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.