Donald Trump's war on his enemies: His last, best hope of escape?

Revoking John Brennan's security clearance was only the first stage. Trump's counterattack could get much darker

Published August 20, 2018 1:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump; John Brennan (Getty/Salon)
Donald Trump; John Brennan (Getty/Salon)

We should probably prepare ourselves for the possibility that Donald Trump will successfully wiggle out of all this, even if there's only a minuscule chance. Based on Trump’s latest escalation in his personal war against the rule of law, the president is on a path toward eliminating everyone even tangentially involved with investigating his lengthening roster of crimes. It doesn’t look like the impotent congressional Republicans will ever step up and finally put the good of the nation ahead of backstopping this utterly destructive clown-dictator.

With the firings of Sally Yates, James Comey, Andrew McCabe and Peter Strzok as prologue, Trump’s next move is to begin revoking security clearances from any federal officials (past, present or future) linked to the investigation into his 2016 campaign's apparent collusion with the Russians. Trump has a new toy and he’s ready to abuse the hell out of it.

Former CIA Director John Brennan happened to be the first in line from Trump’s “enemies list.” Trump said this in a personally drafted statement, dated July 26: “Mr. Brennan’s lying and recent conduct, characterized by increasingly frenzied commentary, is wholly inconsistent with access to the nation’s most closely held secrets and facilitates the aim of our adversaries, which is to sow division and chaos.”

Replace “Brennan” with “Trump” and it makes sense. Here we are with a president who’s easily the most erratic, the most incompetent, the most compromised, the most damaging to national security of any president in recent memory. Yet he’s actively punishing other officials because, he says, they’re lying and behaving erratically. That’s rich.

The next victim of the Mad King’s wrath will likely be Justice Department prosecutor Bruce Ohr, whose wife Nellie worked for Fusion GPS, the firm that hired Christopher Steele to look into Trump’s links to the Kremlin.

Regarding Ohr, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told the House Intelligence Committee that Ohr had not worked on the Russia investigation but that he was reassigned anyway due to his spouse’s work for Fusion GPS. It’s important to note, however, that Ohr’s thin connection to the firm, and hence to Steele, is only hinky in the eyes of the easily misled Red Hat cult who believe Steele’s dossier is fiction. It’s not. Indeed, the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee has successfully reconstructed the dossier “up to a point,” and exactly none of its information has been debunked. We also know that despite Trump’s lies, the dossier was not the original basis for the FBI’s Russia investigation

Nevertheless, the first thing Trump’s enemies list accomplishes (if you’re the president) is to silence his critics, including Brennan, along with former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director Michael Hayden, former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and various others. The very fact that such a list exists serves as intimidation, not to mention a massive abuse of power -- gratuitous executive coercion -- against anyone who might step out of line.

As we’ve all witnessed, the president doesn’t like it when people are mean to him on Twitter. A federal judge actually had to order Trump to stop blocking people like the tiny, emotionally brittle coward he is. This goes beyond ironic, given how Trump spent part of this past weekend whining about alleged social media censorship, calling it “a very dangerous thing and absolutely impossible to police.” Of course, Trump is hoping no one notices that he’s abusing his powers to silence his critics.

Trump also invoked the “McCarthyism” trope over the weekend. The man-behind-the-curtain in this bit of Trump obfuscation is, naturally, Trump’s legal hero and personal adviser Roy Cohn, who was Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s enforcer during the Red Scare of the 1950s. I wouldn’t be shocked if Trump thinks McCarthy is still alive, perhaps debating Frederick Douglass on cable news.

Seriously, though, while Trump has occasionally criticized Turkey's repressive government, he’s actually borrowing heavily from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who began arresting officials following an attempted coup in 2016. The difference is that the Turkey coup actually happened (whatever one makes of that nation's complicated circumstances), while the “deep state coup” alleged by Trump and his allies is a conspiracy theory with no grounding in objective reality. It’s not unlike being pulled over for speeding and telling the patrol officer that you weren’t speeding and that the officer is stealing your money.

Trump is using these wild claims about the “deep state” as a pretext for consolidating his power. It will start with firings and other small-scale trespasses, like revoking more former officials' clearances. Then, when that doesn’t fully shield Trump from accountability and, y’know, the law, he’ll start arresting people.

If you think that sounds far-fetched, consider the news last week that Trump considered asking Jeff Sessions to arrest Omarosa Manigault Newman to thwart the publication of her book. Because Trump hates censorship, right?

Once the security clearance thing dries up, it would be perfectly within Trump's character to begin ordering arrests of Justice Department officials and to expand his reach to the CIA, and perhaps eventually to journalists. Trump knows that in America, you have to ease into dictatorship to mitigate any outrage, so he’s taking the boiled-frog approach. Call it baby steps toward despotism. Before we know it, Trump will have dispatched an entire roster of enemies, further emulating his hero and benefactor, Vladimir Putin.

Even if you disagree with the presidents who appointed them or the policies they implemented while serving in government, every human being on Trump’s enemies list has acted as a respectable, patriotic public servant with a sense of priorities, traits that Donald Trump could never possess if he tried. Their only crimes have been to speak poorly of this dangerous president. Think about that. If Trump is willing to go this far, will this administration think twice about locking up ordinary citizens who, he’ll decide on a whim, are also “erratic” threats to national security?

One of the worst aspects of the coming Trump purge, and with it the end of American democracy, is the sad reality that he will surely be cheered and rewarded by upwards of 40 percent of American voters, who have been completely suckered by the vast propaganda campaign spread by the Kremlin-Trump-Fox News axis.

READ MORE: Why this Watergate anniversary says so much about Donald Trump

The president has serially deceived his supporters into believing that he’s justified in slowly suffocating the Russia investigation because, as Trump has repeatedly said, the “villains” on his list are all guilty of inventing and perpetrating a hoax, even as Russia apparently continues its attacks against American sovereignty and our democratic institutions by targeting the forthcoming midterm elections. To the Red Hats, the enemies list is a necessary and welcome development, even though back here on Earth One it looks more like a cynical Nixonian power grab orchestrated by a gangster dilettante to criminally obstruct justice.

Some of Trump’s overzealous loyalists have actually bought into the lies so thoroughly that they’re now lionizing Putin, without realizing, of course, that Russia censors the internet -- “a very dangerous thing,” according to Trump himself. Will he condemn Putin’s censorship, too? Not a chance in hell.

Between Trump’s unwavering fanboy support and the lack of accountability from congressional Republicans, Trump’s on a path toward escaping the entire scandal. Add into the mix his pardon powers and it makes a Democratic landslide in November even more crucial to defending the rule of law, defending the integrity of the United States on the world stage and, more than anything else, defending ourselves from the increasingly lawless actions of the man in the Oval Office.

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By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.