What would the intelligence community's 'insurance policy' against Trump look like?

Let’s begin in the realm of the fanciful.
Assume, for the sake of argument, that powerful, connected people in the intelligence community and in politics worried that a wildcard Trump presidency, unlike another Clinton or Bush, might expose a decade-plus of questionable practices. Disrupt long-established money channels. Reveal secret machinations that could arguably land some people in prison.

What exactly might an “insurance policy” against Donald Trump look like?


He would have to be marginalized at every turn. Strategies would encompass politics, the courts, opposition research and the media. He’d have to become mired in lawsuits, distracted by allegations, riddled with calls for impeachment, hounded by investigations. His election must be portrayed as the illegitimate result of a criminal or un-American conspiracy.

To accomplish this, bad actors in the intel community could step up use of surveillance tools as a weapon to look for dirt on Trump before his inauguration. They could rely on dubious political opposition research to secretly argue for wiretaps, plant one or more spies in the Trump campaign, then leak to the press a mix of true and false stories to create a sense of chaos.

Once Trump is in office, a good insurance policy would call for neutralizing the advisers seen as most threatening, including his attorney general. The reigning FBI director could privately send the implicit message that as long as Trump minds his own business, he won’t be named as a target. When the president asks the FBI director to lift the cloud and tell the public their president isn’t under investigation, the FBI director could demur and allow a storm of innuendo to build. Idle chatter benefits the plot. There would be rampant media leaks, both true and false, but none of them would benefit Trump.

All would be well unless the president removes the FBI director. Then, a rider on the insurance policy would kick in. After months of assuring Trump he’s not under investigation, he must now become a focus to keep him away from the Justice Department and the FBI; once an investigation opens, all of Trump’s attempts to affect policy or to dig into allegations against the intelligence community could be portrayed as obstruction of justice.

How to open an investigation after all these months? Appoint a special counsel. (Easy to get the right one, with Trump’s attorney general out of the way.) How to get public and congressional support for a special counsel? Through a partnership between the fired FBI director and the media; he could secretly leak to The New York Times anti-Trump versions of memos he wrote, inventing the pretext for a special counsel probe. The chosen special counsel should be an insider with his own legacy to protect. Anti-Trump FBI officials who secretly vowed to “stop” Trump could be assigned to the investigation.

As crazy as it all sounds, it becomes slightly more plausible when we examine the record and find self-described conspiracies to develop “insurance policies.”

On Aug. 15, 2016, after FBI counterespionage chief Peter Strzok and his FBI girlfriend Lisa Page met with Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, Strzok texted Page that they couldn’t take the risk of Trump getting elected without having “an insurance policy” in place.

Another figure, Benjamin Wittes, chose the same phrase. In October 2016, in his Lawfare blog, Wittes wrote: “What if Trump wins? We need an insurance policy against the unthinkable: Donald Trump’s actually winning the Presidency.” 

As it happens, Wittes has acknowledged being a good friend of fired FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien Comey'Fox News Sunday' to mark 25 years on air Showtime developing limited series about Jan. 6 Capitol riot Wray says FBI not systemically racist MORE. It’s not hard to imagine that the two men share some beliefs, and even discussed some of the issues involved. In fact, Wittes spoke to a New York Times reporter about Comey's interactions with President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump's Facebook ban to stay in place, board rules Trump allies launching nonprofit focused on voter fraud DOJ asks for outside lawyer to review Giuliani evidence MORE, right after Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump MORE's appointment as special counsel. 

So, in his 2016 blog post, Wittes wrote that his vision of an “insurance policy” against Trump would rely on a “Coalition of All Democratic Forces” to challenge and obstruct Trump, using the courts as a “tool” and Congress as “a partner or tool.” He even mentioned impeachment — two weeks before Trump was elected.

If this far-fetched idea of an insurance policy were actually true, it also could include tactics memorialized in a memo, written in 2009 by a Democratic strategist working at the time for the liberal smear group Media Matters. It described how to fight a “well funded, presidential-style campaign to discredit and embarrass” targets. Private eyes would probe into their personal lives, courts would be used for lawsuits. “Massive demonstrations” would be organized, Michael Moore would make a negative documentary and “a team of trackers” would stake out targets at events. “Opposition research” would be collected. The targets would be attacked on social media, yard signs posted in their neighborhoods, and a “mole” placed inside their organization.

If there really were an insurance policy against Trump, it might include having ex-intel officials getting hired at national news outlets where they’d monitor and influence news organizations, and be invited to give daily spin on controversies surrounding their own actions. Figures such as former Director of National Intelligence James ClapperJames Robert ClapperWill Biden provide strategic clarity or further ambiguity on Taiwan? 140 national security leaders call for 9/11-style panel to review Jan. 6 attack The biggest example of media malfeasance in 2020 is... MORE, former Comey aide Josh Campbell and others could get hired by CNN; former CIA Director John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanOvernight Defense: Capitol Police may ask National Guard to stay | Biden's Pentagon policy nominee faces criticism | Naval Academy midshipmen moved to hotels Republicans blast Pentagon policy nominee over tweets, Iran nuclear deal Online and frighteningly real: 'A Taste of Armageddon' MORE and ex-Mueller/Comey aide Chuck Rosenberg could get hired by NBC and MSNBC.

But all that would never really happen. Or if it did, it’s downright silly to think of it as part of an organized insurance policy. 

Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times bestsellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program, “Full Measure.”