President weakens US counterintelligence and promotes armed protests
Among President Trump’s daily avalanche of falsehoods, personal attacks, and erratic COVID-19 decisions, two recent actions stand out as particularly reckless.
The first is his war with the FBI and federal prosecutors over their investigation of Russia and the Trump presidential campaign. The second is his incitement of armed protesters — assault rifles in hand — to “liberate” Michigan and Minnesota from state pandemic restrictions.
Trump’s declaration that the FBI agents who investigated his campaign’s possible association with Russia are “human scum” is as much testament to his personal insecurity as an insult to the professionals who defend the nation and insure the rule of law.
If the president’s most vicious attacks target those he most fears, he is terrified of the FBI and federal prosecutors.
Attorney General William Barr has demonstrated extraordinary personal loyalty through his ongoing inquiry into the FBI’s original Russia counterintelligence investigation and elements of the Mueller probe. Barr’s recommendation to drop charges against Michael Flynn — who has pleaded guilty to lying to federal officers not once, but twice — generated calls from 2,000 former Justice Department professionals for Barr’s resignation over his “assault on the rule of law.”
Meanwhile, Trump is hinting at possibly firing FBI Director Christopher Wray, a crude effort at intimidation he has used on others he wanted to be compliant.
Subordinating the justice system, law enforcement officers and courts to the whims of the national leader is the common ploy of tyrants, and that makes the ongoing effort to remold the Justice Department, the FBI and the courts into Trump’s personal law enforcement agencies so dangerous to American democracy.
The decision on Trump’s immunity from investigation of alleged crimes and wrong doing is now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The multitude of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia have been well documented and repeatedly catalogued: Robert Mueller declared there was no evidence of a conspiracy.
So now Trump describes the FBI investigation as “treason,” and Barr calls authorized FBI counterintelligence investigation “spying” on the president. These characterizations serve Trump’s political insecurity, not U.S. national security interests.
Defending the U.S. from foreign intelligence operations and espionage is at the top of the FBI’s list of responsibilities, and there can be no higher U.S. counterintelligence priority than preventing Russian intelligence penetration of the White House.
Given the extensive evidence of Russia’s interest in Trump and their relationships with his associates, the FBI and the Attorney General would have been grossly negligent had they not investigated.
In a separate reckless — but illustrative — action, Trump encouraged right-wing protesters to “liberate” Minnesota and Michigan, a political call to arms that violated his own virus protection standards, but played well with those among his base in states he must win in November.
Trump’s declaration incited supporters — some with body armor and assault rifles — to show up in state legislatures as part of demonstrations demanding that the Democratic governors open the economy without consideration of the health consequences.
Trump is flirting with vigilantism and armed mobocracy. To what authority do these people report? What is their intention? What happens when opposition demonstrators come armed in the future?
The encouragement of these armed, right-wing agitators in a politically charged atmosphere is provocative and threatening — dangerous to unarmed demonstrators, to police, to bystanders and to themselves.
An American president promoting these types of protests to advance his agenda is unprecedented and wildly irresponsible. You know if one of these confrontations turns deadly, Trump will attempt to worm out of any responsibility.
The president is obsessed by the Russia investigation and overwhelmed by the current health crisis. Both threaten his reputation and his reelection. His authoritarian impulses, incompetence as a leader and personal insecurity are increasingly on display.
Trump at times seems trapped in his own make-believe reality, as he races two steps ahead of the difficult truth of the real world that threatens to consume his presidency. Unfortunately, his decisions have major consequences for tens of thousands of lives — and for the future of American democracy.
James W. Pardew is a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as deputy assistant secretary-general of NATO and is the author of “Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans.”