This week we have been forcefully reminded that Donald Trump was, and is, a national security risk unlike any the United States has ever faced.
The FBI search of Trump’s Florida retreat, Mar-a-Lago, and the revelations of details of his war with America’s generals as detailed in a preview of a new book from the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser and New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker, underscored yet again that Trump, as president, posed a unique threat. The flaws in his character, his ignorance of and contempt for our laws and institutions, and his dubious loyalties made him the most dangerous and powerful man in the world.
And that threat remains, as he seems likely to run for president for a third time. In many ways, it’s even more grave as Trump and his supporters grow increasingly brazen in their embrace of ideas that could render the nation unable to protect itself against him in the future.
Republican howls of protest in the wake of the FBI’s search of Trump’s Florida residence were as loud as they were cynical, hypocritical, and irresponsible.
They knew full well that Trump had illegally removed classified documents from the White House—because not only was it acknowledged, but some of the documents were returned. They knew that to conduct such an operation, the FBI had to obtain a warrant from a judge, demonstrate that there was probable cause that a crime was committed, and almost certainly clear a higher bar than usual both within the Department of Justice and in the court because the target of the search was a former president. They were also aware that there was a clear pattern of destruction of records within the Trump administration in its final days and that credible reports suggested that Trump on a regular basis destroyed documents that he by law should have preserved, sometimes by flushing them down the toilet.
They knew all this but they complained nonetheless because their playbook in such situations is to deflect and project. Facts be damned. Hence, we had statements like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy warning Attorney General Garland to “preserve documents” and prepare for an investigation into how he had politicized the Department of Justice—an exquisite twofer of simultaneous projection and deflection.
Similarly, the hue and cry about politicization of the FBI and the Department of Justice was equal parts cynicism and hypocrisy. Trump ran for office, after all, calling for FBI investigations into the handling of classified information on the part of his opponent, Hillary Clinton. (The “lock her up” chant was a mainstay of Trump’s 2016 campaign rallies.) And as president, Trump sought to blackmail a foreign power by improperly using the resources of the U.S. government to dig up dirt on his next opponent, Joe Biden, and Biden’s family. In other words, Trump and his party were the ones guilty of politicizing the administration of justice by pursuing largely baseless investigations.
Perhaps most significant is the gross irresponsibility of the GOP defenses of Trump—their complete renunciation of any claim they once had on being a party that stood for strong U.S. national security.
Trump has been a multi-faceted national security threat since he arrived on the national stage.
It is an indisputable fact that he reached out to a foreign enemy to help him win the 2016 election. He compromised U.S. national security by naming a national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, about whose foreign ties he had been warned, and who would last only days in office and would later lie to the FBI. Trump again compromised our security when he provided classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador during an infamous spring 2017 Oval Office meeting. He did so again by pushing through clearances for members of his family, including his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared, who career officials said should not receive them. Then there were Trump’s off-the-record discussions with Vladimir Putin, and his casual discussion of classified information at parties at Mar-a-Lago—which made it a target of foreign spy operations. And he appointed unqualified political hacks, sometimes illegally, to top national security positions including atop the intelligence community.
Further, as Glasser and Baker’s reporting again confirms, Trump’s relationship with military leaders was fraught—because his ideas were so dangerous to U.S. interests.
While the revelation that he condemned generals for not being as loyal to him as Hitler’s generals were to the Nazi leader has garnered the most headlines, Trump’s problems with military leadership ran much deeper.
The New Yorker article details how General Mark Milley—a man who regularly battled with Trump over his desire to use the military to achieve domestic political objectives—nearly resigned rather than continue to deal with an unhinged president. But other reports—such as those found in former Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s book, and those gathered while I was researching my upcoming book American Resistance—note that the national security risks included dangerous ideas like promising to leave NATO during his second term, contemplating launching missile attacks against approaching “caravans” in Mexico, coming close to war with North Korea, and considering the use of the military to seize election machines during his coup attempt.
Fortunately, as Glasser and Baker note, “Trump’s generals” rejected his dangerous ideas as resolutely as they dismissed his emulation of the Third Reich.
Once again, just as national archives officials triggered the investigation into Trump’s mishandling of classified information, the career professionals in the U.S. government served as the public’s last line of defense against a rogue president. They put the law and their oath to the Constitution first. That is why Trump and other GOP leaders are so committed to a plan to make it easier to fire such officials should they reclaim power.
Why? Precisely because their goal is to politicize the entire government, to place party loyalty ahead of loyalty to the country, to do exactly what they are dishonestly arguing is happening today.
This is a step toward authoritarianism, and a step away from a system of government in which no one is above the law—our current system, which we saw in action in Florida this week. But it is even worse when those who would lead such an eviscerated autocratic state are known to pose, as Trump does, the gravest sort of national security risk. It would be bad enough to see democracy fall. But if it falls to Trump, an inevitable consequence would be that the U.S. would become weaker, our enemies stronger, and the danger to each and every American would grow both from home and from abroad.
For precisely that reason, we should tune out the cheap political theatrics of the GOP. And we must hope that this week’s lawful search at Mar-a-Lago is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to efforts to reveal his crimes and hold him accountable for them.