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The US government’s subversion of Trump, 2016-2020

A new movie pulls together a complex and disturbing story in 90 minutes

In September 2018, The New York Times published a claim by an anonymized political appointee that “many Trump appointees have vowed to … thwart Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.” He described himself as part of “the resistance.” In 2019, the same person followed up with a book. At the end of October this year, he revealed himself as Miles Taylor – an appointee to the Department of Homeland Security from 2017 to 2019 (when he was Chief of Staff).

Incredibly, Taylor characterizes his behaviour as “criticism” and “truth,” but not “subversive.” He urges everybody to speak “truth” and to “remove” Trump, otherwise, he implies, we face another civil war.

His final prescriptions are platitudinous (perhaps in keeping with Google, his current employer, or the Joe Biden campaign, which he endorsed in August): “We must return to our founding principles. We must rediscover our better angels. And we must reconcile with each other, repairing the bonds of affection that make us fellow Americans.”

Shouldn’t Taylor have tempered his hyperbole by promising to accept any free and fair re-election of Trump? Shouldn’t he have at least condemned political violence? His only reference to democracy is Trump’s past damage to “democratic institutions.”

This is hypocritical and disturbing, even if you disagree with Trump. Since 2018, Taylor’s message has been that a president you don’t agree with should be subverted. He wasn’t prepared to wait for the next opportunity to elect a president. The president’s democratic mandate doesn’t enter his writing.

You don’t need to be a Trump supporter to find the media’s performance disturbing

Taylor’s message is curiously weak in intellectual justification but strong in popular culture. In the main, the media celebrated him, instead of questioning his subversion. Long before Trump ran for President, the media had switched from investigative reporting to partisan influencing. By 2016, it habitually compared Trump to Hitler, ignored his policies, laughed at his concerns about voter fraud, and ignored the evidence for voter fraud during Obama’s election. Again, you don’t need to be a Trump supporter to find the media’s performance disturbing.

More disturbing is that fact, as we now know it, that officials within federal government were colluding with the media and Hillary Clinton’s campaign to smear Trump’s campaign. The exemplar is the partisan judicial investigation into the Trump campaign’s links with Russia.

If America hadn’t chosen to elect Trump anyway, and to re-elect certain key Republican senators and representatives, we likely wouldn’t know about the impropriety of that investigation. It was based on hearsay from the Democratic Party. Officials misrepresented this hearsay and its source in order to obtain court warrants. They spied on a few campaigners in the hope of discovering dirt on Trump. These officials were approved by appointees who carried over from the Obama administration into the Trump administration. The most notable was FBI Director James Comey, who is selectively amnesic about the operation (Crossfire Hurricane).

The revelations have taken years to come out. Two Republicans are most responsible: Lindsey Graham, the chair of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, which has investigated the Department of Justice’s impropriety; and Devin Nunes, the chair (until 2019) of the House Intelligence Committee, which has investigated the intelligence community’s complicity.

The public received little proof of what they were claiming until they got a huge quantity of intelligence and testimony declassified in May 2020. Witnesses are still being called. The criminal investigation won’t complete until next year.

The subversion was so complex, so long-term, that making sense of it to the general public seems overwhelming. The decline of journalism hasn’t helped. Investigating the subversion of Trump has become almost impossible without mainstream media (let alone social media) dismissing the investigator as a conspiracy theorist or an apologist for fascism.

The intelligence community was grateful to Barack Obama for not investigating torture

In October 2019, a book was released, The Plot Against the President, attempting to draw some of this complexity together. A new movie, with the same title, attempts to distil the book into 90 minutes of visual information. Both the book and the movie focus on Nunes and thence the intelligence scandal. Still, the movie is often breathless. I often felt glad that in teaching a course on intelligence I could make sense of it all.

Have no doubt: this is a partisan movie. The director (Amanda Milius) left Hollywood to join the Trump administration before making the movie in recent months. She was already friends with the book’s author (Lee Smith), who was a long-time journalist at the conservative magazine Weekly Standard, until it folded in December 2018.

The film often strays into the hyperbole it identifies in the opposition, particularly in its repeated description of a “coup,” which implies to me a military take-over. The movie should have left this term to the interviewees and stuck with the titular “plot.” Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York, talks of a “conspiracy.” Many interviewees talk of a “scandal.” The book’s subtitle was: “The Biggest Political Scandal in US History.”

The narrative is almost incredible: Obama’s appointees, while still in office, gathered intelligence on opponents of their favoured presidential candidate (Hillary Clinton). The movie’s interviewees talk of discovering, in January 2017, a stack of disclosed identities as thick as a phone book, covering just the last six months of Obama’s presidency.

The appointees were aided by civil servants. Their motivations? In some cases, their partisanship was personal, but the movie focuses on their bureaucratic self-interests. The intelligence community was grateful to Barack Obama for not investigating torture (“enhanced interrogation”), its collection of metadata on private communications, legacy intelligence failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and new failures in Syria and Libya.

Those at the top of the community feared disruption by a commander-in-chief (Trump) who had consistently criticized its failures (although he supported enhanced interrogation) and who wanted to end America’s wars.

Plot, conspiracy, scandal, or coup – whatever you call it, it wasn’t good for democracy

The exception amongst Obama’s directors in the intelligence community was General Michael Flynn, head of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) from 2012 to 2014. He had been commissioned into US Army intelligence in 1981. From 2001, he commanded ever more extensive intelligence responsibilities in Afghanistan and (from 2004) Iraq too. In 2009, he and two staff authored an effective inquiry into failings in counter-insurgent and counter-terrorist intelligence. A think-tank published this in January 2010. He pointed to the gap between the excellent intelligence in the field at lower echelons, despite under-resourcing, and the intuitive thinking at home, despite over-resourcing. He complained that policymakers were availability-biased to the fuzzy perceptions at home, thereby dooming foreign ventures, at least those of any length or complexity.

Within months of his publication in 2010, the CIA was relegated behind the DIA, in combatant areas, at least. Flynn still wanted to turn the intelligence community on its head. He got to do some of that at DIA from 2012.

His downfall, according to the movie, was his decision to break with the other directors by being honest to Congress about the failure to control the Islamic State. Obama wanted him out. He resigned in 2014, just after Islamic State exploded across most of Syria and Iraq and declared a global caliphate.

Flynn is a registered Democrat, but he joined the Trump campaign in 2016. Obama’s Department of Justice (DOJ) tapped his phone while he was working as the presumptive National Security Adviser, during the administration’s transition. Like anybody else in that position, he consulted foreign governments and ambassadors. After taking office, he was accused of treason by prosecutors. The charges were reduced eventually to misleading two FBI agents about advice to the Russian Ambassador in December 2016 not to retaliate against US sanctions.

By agreeing to meet privately with the agents, Flynn had at least proven himself naïve and uncoordinated with his own administration. He soon resigned, on the grounds of breaching the President’s trust.

Both the DOJ and the FBI were still directed by Obama’s appointees, who have since made clear their partisanship. The movie includes footage of Comey bragging on stage to an interviewer, in front of a sniggering audience, about sending the two agents into the White House to go fishing for dirt, without warrant or disclosure, expecting the Trump administration to be less organized than any other.

Those agents did not record any audio, but they used their notes as evidence. The transcript of Flynn’s conversation with the Ambassador reveals nothing improper, but this was not released until much later, given demands by Nunes. In the meantime, Flynn was persuaded to plead guilty in order to avoid a threat to criminalize his son too. Three years later, he still hasn’t been sentenced, given legal challenges to the improprieties of the investigation.

At the time, investigators were leaking almost everything to the media, while hiding from the administration. Officials were feeding downright lies too. Even before Flynn resigned, the CIA denied a top-secret clearance to the National Security Council’s senior director for Africa (Robin Townley). Leakers hinted at the subject’s unreliability.

The day after Flynn resigned, The New York Times was ready to claim that signals intelligence proved members of the Trump campaign had contacted Russian intelligence officials in 2016. The day after, both the NYT and the Wall Street Journal reported that the intelligence community was withholding intelligence from Trump in case he leaked it to Russia, and that Trump’s plans to reform the community were just vengeful.

The NYT compensated the next day with some honest reporting from the other side: “A wave of leaks from government officials has hobbled the Trump administration, leading some to draw comparisons to countries like Egypt, Turkey, and Pakistan, where shadowy networks within government bureaucracies, often referred to as ‘deep states,’ undermine and coerce elected governments.”

From 2017 to 2018, the House Intelligence Committee subpoenaed nearly 60 intelligence and justice officials, to ask whether they had any evidence of Trump’s collusion abroad. None did, but some kept implying otherwise in public. Lying to a federal investigator is a crime but lying to the public is not. Revealing classified intelligence is a crime but pretending that classified intelligence exists is not.

Obama’s last Director of National Intelligence (Jim Clapper) denied any evidence when interviewed on television in March 2017 and by the Committee a few months later. Nevertheless, he kept going on CNN to allege Trump’s continued collusion with Russia (most recently in 2019). Similarly, the ranking Democrat member of the Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, kept telling the media that he had no doubt Trump is guilty, given intelligence he can’t reveal.

Schiff took over the chair in January 2019, following the midterm elections. His Intelligence Committee took until May 2020 to publish all the transcripts, running to thousands of pages (although he blamed the Trump administration for interfering). In every case, the interviewee denied any evidence for Trump’s collusion.

More documents have been declassified since then, at the request of the Judiciary Committee, which is still chaired by a Republican.

For me, the most disturbing of the recent declassifications concerns Obama’s last Director of the CIA (John Brennan). He wrote in August this year that in 2016 he told Obama that Russian intelligence was trying to hurt Clinton’s campaign. By contrast, declassifications reveal that he briefed Obama about the Clinton campaign’s plan to link the Trump campaign with Russia’s hack of the Democratic National Committee.

More declassifications are pending into next year, which means this issue will straddle three Presidential terms. Its progress will depend on which Party controls the White House and the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.

Plot, conspiracy, scandal, or coup – whatever you call it, it wasn’t good for democracy, irrespective of whether Trump was good for democracy. At one point in the film, Nunes sums it up best: “The thing that they were investigating the Trump campaign for, was what they themselves were doing.”

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