Friday, August 17, 2018

Brennan Security Clearance Revocation Spotlights Trump's Peculiar Mixture of Shameless Truth Telling and Bald-Faced Lying

by Michael Dorf

Does President Trump really have the power to revoke the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan based on Trump's peeve at Brennan's harsh criticism of Trump's statements, actions, and character rather than any indication that Brennan leaked or otherwise misused classified information? I'm not an expert in national security law, so I'll set aside any statutory or regulatory limits that Trump may or may not have violated. I do think there is a First Amendment problem here, however.

When he was serving on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. famously wrote that a police officer who was fired by the mayor in response to his political canvassing and vote solicitation "may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman." Yet modern case law in both the employee speech context and in the broader context of so-called unconstitutional conditions doctrine makes clear that the government's greater power to deny someone a benefit--such as continuing in a job or retaining a thing of value such as a security clearance--does not necessarily entail the lesser power to condition that benefit on refraining from exercise a constitutional right. Thus, even if Trump had the power to revoke Brennan's security clearance based on a discretionary judgment that Brennan no longer needed the clearance, he did not necessarily have the power to revoke it based on Brennan's political speech.

I won't venture a guess whether a lawsuit by Brennan would succeed; numerous doctrines insulate government officials and especially the president from liability for unconstitutional actions; hence, it is possible that Trump's revocation of the security clearance in retaliation for Brennan's speech was unconstitutional but that no judicial remedy is available.

Yet we are still left to marvel at the brazenness of Trump's explanation. Presumably Trump or one of his spokespeople could have given some anodyne explanation. Here's one: Former government officials retain their security clearances in order to facilitate their consultation with current government officials on sensitive national security matters. It was determined, however, that Mr. Brennan is not engaged in such consultation, thus leading to the termination of his clearance.

The official statement (oddly, dated July 26) the administration released did include some language like the foregoing, but it went way beyond that to call out Brennan and warn of additional revocations coming for other former government officials critical of Trump and his administration. Here's what I regard as the key paragraph:
Mr. Brennan has recently leveraged his status as a former high-ranking official with access to highly sensitive information to make a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations – wild outbursts on the internet and television – about this Administration. 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 very aim of our adversaries, which is to sow division and chaos.
Unfounded and outrageous allegations. Wild outbursts on the internet and television. Lying. Facilitating the very aim of our adversaries. Sowing division and chaos. These charges are best read as an exercise in what psychologists would call projection.

Meanwhile, note the slipperiness of that first sentence quoted above. The statement does not say that Brennan has in any way misused the classified information to which he has access or used it for political purposes. It says that Brennan has "leveraged his status, as a former high-ranking official" which, of course, is something he could do just as easily without a security clearance. So Trump is going out of his way to highlight the fact that he is revoking Brennan's security clearance as a punishment for pointed and personal criticism. To similar effect, Trump then told the Wall Street Journal that he revoked the security clearance because of Brennan's role in the "rigged witch hunt," i.e., the Russia investigation.

One almost has to admire the honesty here. Indeed, this level of honesty fits a pattern of what Trevor Noah has called "Truth Trump," a side of Trump's character that occasionally comes out to admit his bad motives. Another recent example is Trump's tweeted claim that he kept Omarosa Manigault Newman on his staff as long as he did despite his perception that she was doing a bad job because "she only said GREAT things about me," as though sycophancy were a qualification that outweighs all flaws. A potentially more consequential example was Trump's admission to Lester Holt in May 2017 that his real reason for firing FBI Director James Comey was the "Russia thing."

Truth Trump presents a puzzle. Trump lies or misleads more than half a dozen times per day, every day, so why would he ever admit facts that place him in a negative light? Let's consider a few factors.

(1) Dementia. Managault Newman apparently contends in her book that Trump has suffered a cognitive decline. That is consistent with the observations of some others, and it may well be right, but it is at best a partial explanation, taken in light of other longstanding character traits of Trump, especially . . .

(2) Narcissism. One can imagine a narcissist who realizes that narcissism is generally regarded as a negative character trait and thus feigns modesty. However, that's not Trump, whose relentless branding of himself and his name over the course of decades shows not even a hint of even false modesty. Thus, when Trump says that he kept Managault Newman on staff simply because she praised him, he apparently does not realize that this looks bad to most normal people.

(3) Dominance. Trump's world view is essentially zero sum. Countries "win" at trade by amassing favorable balances with their trading partners. Others have noted that this is bad economics leading to bad policy. I agree, but that's not my point here. I want to emphasize instead that Trump's tendency to view all relationships in transactional terms and to look for win-lose rather than win-win solutions stems from a deeper character trait: what we might call his will to power.

Josh Marshall, the founder of Talking Points Memo, has written numerous insightful articles explaining Trump through the lens of his will to dominate. Whatever the damage, Trump can sometimes display his dominance over others by accurately describing how he exercised power over them simply to exact revenge or out of spite. That explains the otherwise inexplicable admission to Holt, and it explains his acknowledgment that he revoked Brennan's clearance to punish him. Indeed, we should not properly call these statements admissions or acknowledgments. Seen through the lens of dominance, they are actually boasts.


Marty Lederman said...

It's so transparently unlawful that the real question isn't how Trump could do it--we know the answer to that--but how McGahn, as well as Coats/Haspel/Wray, can justify remaining silent.

Shag from Brookline said...

Query: Does the president automatically get security clearance? Is there no vetting process for the president beyond his election? How is the president monitored regarding potential misuse of security clearance, including by Congress? (Keep in mind Trump's one-on-one session with Putin.) What does the Constitution provide in this regard besides impeachment?

Has anyone else noted that Omarosa speaks more coherently than Trump does?

Today's NYTimes editorial "Donald Trump, the Payback President" lays out Trump's animus on revoking Brennan's security clearance and threats of revoking such of other named critics.

Post-Trump, what will truth look like? Also post-Trump, what will humor look like? While I look forward to post-Trump as I soon home to enter my 89th year, will the truth and humor survive? Or must I move to Oregon?

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

The “will to power” in Trump’s case is perfectly consistent with, indeed, I would argues is symptomatic expression of, his pathological narcissism , the adjective being rather important, as Trump’s narcissism is not run-of-the-mill variety captured in Heinz Kohut’s notion of “normal narcissism” (which depends on the ‘structural integrity of the self’), nor is it the sort of narcissism we all are, in varying degrees, periodically prone to in the course of our lives (which, I think, should not be accorded the appellation ‘normal’ insofar as it is not conducive to the developmental processes of individuation and self-realization), but is rather what Kohut and psychologists and psychiatrists term “pathological narcissism” (which, it is hoped, is amenable to psychoanalytic therapy) and categorized as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

Bearing in mind the trenchant psychological and philosophical critiques of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the DSM* remains a source of qualified guidance for clinical judgment. As Alex Morris explains in his Rolling Stone article, “Why Trump Is Not Mentally Fit to Be President” (25 April 2017), the latest “iteration of the DSM classifies narcissistic personality disorder as: ‘A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts.’ A diagnosis would also require five or more of the following traits:”

1. has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements) [e.g., ‘Nobody builds walls better than me’; ‘There’s nobody that respects women more than I do’; ‘There’s nobody who’s done so much for equality as I have’]
2. is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love [e.g., ‘I alone can fix it’; ‘It’s very hard for them to attack me on looks, because I’m so good-looking’]
3. believes that he or she is ‘special’ and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or [e.g., ‘Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich’]
4. requires excessive admiration [e.g., ‘They said it was the biggest standing ovation since Peyton Manning had won the Super Bowl’]
5. has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations [e.g., ‘When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy’]
6. is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
7. lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others [e.g., ‘He’s not a war hero . . . he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured’]
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her [e.g., ‘I’m the president, and you’re not’]
9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes [e.g., ‘I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters’].”
Please note: the bracketed examples are provided by Morris, although one can think of quite a few others in addition to those provided.

* I don’t have the latest, fifth edition, at hand, but the fourth edition appears to have the exact same diagnostic criteria for NPD (301.81: 714-717).

I think it’s clear that “Trump’s tendency to view all relationships in transactional terms and to look for win-lose” is symptomatic of NPD, as is the “will to power” more generally as the endeavor to realize the corresponding fantasy of same (see ‘2’ above).

Please see my essay on this:

Shag from Brookline said...

Patrick's comment suggests that we have a "SPACED OUT C-i-C" in Trump. Might this suggest that Trump's base consists of lemmings?

Joe said...

The proposed statement is so obviously fictional -- including the totally ad hoc nature of the action -- that it is pretty hard to take seriously with a straight face. If we are playing "let's pretend," I would at least try to make something up that explains targeting him in particular. It would be some "b.s." but figure we have seen them do that by now, including with the help of someone who commented here and then joined the Trump Administration.

As to admitting facts, he won (in some fashion) by being himself. Why stop now?

JS said...

There is also a significance to Trump citing Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution to grant himself the power to punish his critics. He's setting the ground to fire Mueller.

Sessions won't UN-recuse himself, Rosenstein apparently won't take the hint, so he's going to have to do it himself. The only question in my mind is whether his staff will be able to convince him to wait until after the mid-term elections.