In a humiliating real-life re-run of “The Apprentice,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will go to the White House on Thursday to find out if he’s been fired. Eager to boost the ratings, President Trump coyly allows he’s open to keeping Rosenstein, maybe until after the midterms. Don’t believe him? Tune in to find out.
The faux suspense cannot obscure “the slow-motion Saturday Night massacre,”the continuing purge of the Justice Department. The intent: killing, or at least defanging, the special prosecutor’s investigation of the president’s family and entourage. The weapon: public humiliation of civil servants who place the rule of law over loyalty to the president.
Deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe and senior FBI agent Peter Strzok have gotten this treatment. Rosenstein will get it Thursday. Bruce Ohr, leader of the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russian organized crime, has become a target and can expect more soon.
Key to this strategy is the weaponization of the idea of transparency, instrumental to the rule of law, in service of undermining the rule of law. It’s a familiar tactic of the Trumpian backlash, like deploying the First Amendment provocateurs to sabotage free speech on campus or complaining the big internet platforms discriminate against conservative ideas.
Who can oppose transparency? Not supporters of an open society or executives of internet platforms. Transparency in government is essential to accountability, which enables the rule of law. Transparency in the platform business is essential to keeping market share. Only by disclosing their actions can governments (and internet platforms) gain the consent of the citizenry (or user audience).
By invoking liberal ideas to justify hate speech and humiliation, Trump seeks to force his opposition to compromise their principles (and expose themselves as hypocrites) or to stick to their principles — and legitimize bogus claims of victimization that will mobilize followers.
This tactic is especially effective with government agencies that rely on secrecy. Since the FBI and CIA have abused their secret powers to disrupt domestic dissent and attack democratic forces abroad, they no longer enjoy the benefit of the doubt from the general public.
The same goes for the internet platforms that played fast and loose with users’ data without disclosing their actions. The discourse of the Deep State, grounded in national security realities and shrouded in partisan conspiracy theory, thrives in the culture of secrecy.
The ritualized humiliation of Rosenstein (which the victim seems weirdly willing to participate in) began with Trump’s threat to declassify memoranda and text messages of top FBI officials about the Russia investigation, as well as the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants for the wiretapping of minor Trump aide Carter Page.
Even people who don’t much like the president welcomed the prospect. Glenn Greenwald rightly scoffed at the idea that release of the information would compromise “national security,” as a top former CIA official claimed in the Washington Post.
Declassification of the Page warrant was obviously “politically motivated,”said Reason magazine, “but more transparency is still good.” And the president’s supporters at the Weekly Standard crowed, “Why Is the New York Times Suddenly Opposed to Declassifying the FISA Documents?”
After mounting a pseudo-spectacle of attacking secrecy, Trump then backed off his plan, saying that foreign governments had expressed concern. That suggested that the president had consulted with Secretary of State (and former CIA director) Mike Pompeo. Trump tweeted the inspector general of the Justice Department would “review these documents on an expedited basis,” adding, “I can declassify at any time.”
Not coincidentally, someone immediately leaked the substance of some of the FBI memos to the New York Times. Anonymous officials “briefed either on the events themselves or on memos written by F.B.I. officials”described a meeting in which Rosenstein commented on the chaos in the White House and offered, in jest or not, to wear a wire when talking to Trump.
While it is hard to fault the Times for running the story, the resulting coverage fed “the Trumpian narrative”that top officials are plotting against him and that more “transparency” is necessary. Trump’s opponents in the press thus helped him set the stage for Thursday’s reality TV episode in the Oval Office.
Whether Rosenstein keeps his job until after the midterm elections is almost beside the point. Trump’s campaign to purge the disloyal has been normalized and justified.
Trump weaponizes transparency because “it works,” data researcher Danah Boyd noted in a speech to the Online News Association earlier this month. Boyd documented how reactionary groups sell conspiracy theories online with a three-step cycle: the mounting of a public spectacle, a frame for followers to interpret the spectacle, and the use of “digital martyrdom” to mobilize followers:
“Over the last two years, both social media and news media organizations have desperately tried to prove that they aren’t biased. What’s at stake is not whether these organizations are restricting discussions concerning free-market economics or failing to allow conservative perspectives to be heard. What’s at stake is how fringe groups can pervert the logics of media to spread conspiratorial and hateful messages under their false flag of conservatism.”
What Boyd didn’t say is that the fringe group is in the White House.