By Victor Davis Hanson
Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan
Many retired high-ranking military officers have gone beyond legitimately articulating why President Trump may be wrong on foreign policy, and now feel free to smear him personally or speak openly of removing their commander-in-chief from office. And the media and the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment are with them every step of the way.
Much has been written about the so-called Resistance of disgruntled Clinton, Obama, and progressive activists who have pledged to stop Donald Trump’s agenda. The choice of the noun “Resistance,” of course, conjures up not mere “opposition,” but is meant to evoke the French “resistance” of World War II—in the melodramatic sense of current loyal progressive patriots doing their best to thwart by almost any means necessary the Nazi-like Trump.
We know from a variety of disinterested watchdog institutions and foundations that the media has offered 90 percent negative coverage of the Trump Administration. CNN in its anti-Trump zeal has ruined its brand by serial fabrications and firings of its marquee biased reporters.
An entire array of CNN journalists and analysts either has resigned, been fired, retired, forced to offer retractions, or been disgraced either for peddling ad hominem crude attacks on Trump, displaying unprofessional behavior, concocting or repeating false stories, engaging in obscene commentary, or being refuted.
Including are: Reza Aslan, Carl Bernstein, Donna Brazile, James Clapper, Marshall Cohen, Candy Crowley, Kathy Griffin, Julie Joffe, Michael Hayden, Suzanne Malveaux, Manu Raju, Jim Sciutto, Julian Zelizer, and teams such as Thomas Frank, Eric Lichtblau, and Lex Harris, and Gloria Borger, Jake Tapper, and Brian Rokus.
About every month or so, a Hollywood or entertainment personage offers a new assassination scenario of shooting, torching, stabbing, beating, blowing up, caging, or lynching the elected president.
Likewise, the country witnesses about every six weeks a new “turning point,” “bombshell,” “walls are closing in” effort to subvert the Trump presidency.
And the list of such futile and fabricated attempts to abort Trump is indeed now quite monotonous: the efforts to sue three states on false charges of tampered voting machines, the attempt to subvert the voting of the Electoral College, the invocation of the ossified Logan Act, the melodramas concerning the emoluments clause and 25th Amendment, the Mueller’s Dream Team and all-star 22-month failed effort to find collusion and obstruction, the personal psychodramas of Stormy Daniels, Michael Cohen, Michael Avenatti, and the Trump tax returns, the desperate efforts to tar Trump as a “white supremacist,” followed by cries of “Recession! Recession!,” and now, of course, “Ukraine! Ukraine!”
Perhaps these efforts were best summed up by an anonymous New York Times op-ed writer who on September 5, 2018, outlined how officials within the Trump Administration took it upon themselves in the midst of the Mueller investigation to obstruct and impede the workings of the seemingly oblivious cuckold Trump: “The dilemma—which he [Trump] does not fully grasp — is that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations . . . I would know. I am one of them.”
The Normalization of the Coup?
Yet far more disturbing have been the furor of lame-duck and retired intelligence and military officers.
In unprecedented fashion, some have not just disagreed with the commander in chief, but have declared that he is unfit for office and by implication thus should be obstructed and perhaps even removed. Efforts such as these were recently praised by former acting CIA Director John McLaughlin, who announced to a gathering of former intelligence bureaucrats, “Thank God for the deep state.”
Donald Trump had been in office less than a month when the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. intelligence agencies had decided on their own to withhold information from the recently inaugurated president of the United States: “In some of these cases of withheld information, officials have decided not to show Mr. Trump the sources and methods that the intelligence agencies use to collect information, the current and former officials said.”
What would one call that? Obstruction? A coup? A conspiracy?
Most of the major intelligence heads in the Obama Administration—James Comey, John Brennan, and James Clapper—either leaked classified information aimed at harming candidate and then President Trump, later declared him a veritable traitor and Russian asset, or earlier took measures to monitor his campaign or administration’s communications.
In the coming months, the investigations of Michael Horowitz, the inspector general at the Justice Department, and the department’s own criminal investigations by U.S. Attorney John Durham, may well detail one of the most extensive efforts in our history by the American intelligence agencies and their enablers in the executive branch to subvert a campaign, disrupt a presidential transition, and to abort a presidency.
Just 10 days after Trump was inaugurated, Washington insider lawyer Rosa Brooks—a former adviser in the Obama Administration to Assistant Secretary of State Harold Koh and a former special counsel to the president at George Soros’s Open Society Institute—in Foreign Policy offered formal advice about removing Trump in an article titled, “3 Ways to Get Rid of President Trump Before 2020.”
Brooks needed just over a week to conclude that the elected president had to go by means other than an election. After rejecting the first option of the usual constitutional remedy of waiting until the 2020 election (“But after such a catastrophic first week, four years seems like a long time to wait.”), Brooks offered her three fallback strategies to depose Trump:
1) Immediate impeachment. “If impeachment seems like a fine solution to you, the good news is that Congress doesn’t need evidence of actual treason or murder to move forward with an impeachment,” she wrote. “Practically anything can be considered a ‘high crime or misdemeanor.’”). Brooks did not elaborate on what “anything” might be.
2) Declaring Trump mentally unfit under the 25th Amendment. “In these dark days, some around the globe are finding solace in the 25th Amendment to the Constitution,” she wrote. Brooks did not mention that what non-U.S. citizens abroad may feel about removing Trump as mentally unfit is of no constitutional importance. Yet she was also prescient—given the later McCabe-Rosenstein comical aborted palace coup of ridding the country of a supposedly “sick” Trump.
3) A military coup, which Brooks wrote, “is one that until recently I would have said was unthinkable in the United States of America.” If not a “coup,” then “at least a refusal by military leaders to obey certain orders.” Notice the cheap praeteritio: claim that such an idea should have been previously “unthinkable” as a means to demonstrate just how thinkable it now should be.
In the months and years that followed, Brooks again proved either vatic or had foreknowledge of the sort of “resistance” that would follow.
So it is now the decision of many ex-intelligence heads and flag officers to change the rules of the game. They will live to rue the ensuing harm to the reputations both of the intelligence services and the military at large.
In early March 2017, Evelyn Farkas, an outgoing Obama-appointed deputy assistant secretary of defense, detailed in a weird revelation on MSNBC how departing Obama Administration officials scrambled to leak and undermine the six-week-old Trump Administration. “I was urging my former colleagues and, frankly speaking, the people on the Hill . . .‘Get as much information as you can. Get as much intelligence as you can before President Obama leaves the administration . . . The Trump folks, if they found out how we knew what we knew about the Trump staff’s dealing with Russians, [they] would try to compromise those sources and methods, meaning we would no longer have access to that intelligence . . . That’s why you have the leaking.”
In other words, a Pentagon official was illegally leaking documents, apparently classified, in order both to defame the president as a Russian asset and to thwart any investigation of such internal and likely illegal resistance.
At various times, an entire pantheon of retired generals and intelligence directors has gone to Twitter or progressive cable channels like CNN and MSNBC to declare the president of the United States either a Russian asset and thus a traitor, or unfit for office, or in some other way to call for his removal before the election of 2020—for some, seemingly in violation of the code of military conduct that forbids even retired officers from defaming the commander-in-chief. None cited any felonious conduct on Trump’s part; all were infuriated either by presidential comportment and tone or policies with which they disagreed.
Retired four-star general Barry McCaffrey for the past three years has leveled a number of ad hominem charges against the elected president. He essentially called the president a threat to American national security on grounds that his loyalties were more to Vladimir Putin than to his own country. McCaffrey later called the president “stupid” and “cruel” for recalibrating the presence of trip-wire troops in-between Kurdish and Turkish forces. He recently equated Trump’s cancellation of the White House subscriptions of the New York Times and the Washington Post to the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (“This is Mussolini”).
When a retired military officer decides and announces that the current president is the equivalent of a fascist, mass-murdering dictator who seized power and defied constitutional norms, then what is the signal conveyed to other military officers?
Retired General Stanley McChrystal—removed from command by the Obama Administration for inter alia allegedly referring to the vice president as “Bite Me”—called the president “immoral and dishonest.”
Former CIA director Michael Hayden—a four-star Air Force general formerly smeared by the Left for defending supposed “torture” at Guantanamo—compared Trump’s policies to Nazism, when he tweeted a picture of Birkenau to illustrate the administration’s use of detention facilities at the border—a plan inaugurated by the Obama Administration—to deal with tens of thousands of illegal entrants.
One can disagree with Trump’s decision to pull a small contingent of tripwire troops back from the frontlines in Syria as Kurds (our current friends, but not our long-standing legal allies) and Turks (our long-standing legal allies, but not our current friends) fight each other, or see the logic of not putting even small numbers of U.S. troops in the middle of a Syrian quagmire.
The choice is a bad/worse dilemma, one that involves the likelihood either of not defending de facto allies or getting into a shooting scenario against de jure allies. So why would retired General John Allen instead attack the commander-in-chief in moral terms rather than merely criticize the president’s strategic or operational judgment: “There is blood on Trump’s hands for abandoning our Kurdish allies”?
Again, when our best and brightest former generals and admirals inform the nation that the current elected president, with whom they disagree on both Middle East and border security policies, is “immoral” and “cruel” or deserves bloodguilt, or is the equivalent of a fascist dictator or similar to those who set up Nazi death camps, is not the obvious inference that someone must put an end to the supposed fascistic/Nazi takeover of the government?
In the eeriest series of comments, retired Admiral William McRaven has all but declared Trump a subversive traitor. Apparently in reference to fellow military also working in resistance to the president, Raven remarked, “The America that they believed in was under attack, not from without, but from within.”
In a New York Times op-ed, the decorated retired admiral went further, mostly due to his own disagreements with Trump’s foreign policy, especially toward the Turkish-Kurd standoff in Syria, and his dislike of the president’s style and behavior. Indeed, McRaven seemed to call for Trump to be removed before the 2020 election, “[I]t is time for a new person in the Oval Office—Republican, Democrat or independent—the sooner, the better. The fate of our Republic depends upon it.” (Emphasis added.)
Let us be clear about what McRaven wrote. We are just one year away from a constitutionally mandated election. Yet McRaven now wants a “new person” in the Oval Office and he wants it “the sooner, the better.” And he insists our collective fate as a constitutional republic depends on Trump’s preferable “sooner” removal.
What exactly is the admiral referring to? Impeachment? Invocation of the 25th Amendment? Or the last of Rosa Brooks’ proposals: a forced removal by the military?
Note again, the common thread in all these complaints is not demonstrable high crimes and misdemeanors but rather sharp policy disagreements with the president about the Middle East, or the president’s own retaliatory and sometimes crass pushbacks, usually against prior ad hominem attacks both from serving and retired military officers, or false claims that Trump was a veritable asset, something refuted by Robert Mueller’s 22-month, $35-million-dollar investigation of “collusion.”
Mondadori via Getty Images
An Honorable “Seven Days in May”?
Note that the Left seems either amused or supportive of the current furor of our retired officers and intelligence heads (in a way they were not with General Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor)—a phenomenon that began during the Iraq War when an array of retired officers was canonized by the media and past Pentagon critics for declaring the Bush Iraq War variously stupid, immoral, or doomed to failure.
Apparently, an ascendant progressive view is that our armed forces, CIA, FBI, and NSA are protectors of civil liberties and progressive values, and therefore are to be lauded for almost any rhetorical attacks on the president deemed necessary to remind the country of the danger that Trump supposedly poses.
Gone are the old days when Hollywood’s “Dr. Strangelove” warned us of supposed Curtis LeMay-reactionaries, or the 1964 political melodrama, “Seven Days in May,” that envisioned a future right-wing military coup against an idealistic president in the mold of Adlai Stevenson.
Instead, the military in the present age—or at least its Beltway incarnation—has been recalibrated by the Left as a kindred progressive Washington institution, perhaps because of its necessary ability to enact change by fiat, whether in regard to issues regarding diversity, feminism, global warming, or transgenderism—all without the mess, delay, and acrimony of legislative and executive bickering.
In the past, when retired generals rarely and inappropriately weighed in on the allegedly improper, stupid, or immoral drift of a contemporary progressive president, they were met by a progressive firestorm as potential insurrectionaries. General Douglas MacArthur was roundly hated by the Left for his often boisterous and improper attacks on President Truman’s decision not to expand the war in Korea.
Again, today there has arisen a quite different—and far more dangerous—calculus in which the media canonizes rather than audits retired officers who compare the commander-in-chief to a fascist, declare him unfit, or dream of his “sooner the better” removal.
Had any of the current generals said anything similar about President Obama in the fashion they now routinely attack Trump, their public careers would have been ruined. There would have been Adam Schiff-like progressive congressional inquiries about the current status of the code of military conduct as it pertains, not to quite legitimate political editorialization, but rather to “contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Governor or legislature of any State . . . ”
Attacking Trump in “contemptuous” fashion is not speaking truth to power but a confirmation of the existing status quo of the media, progressive orthodoxy, and the general Washington bipartisan bureaucracy.
The result is that many retired high-ranking officers have made the necessary adjustments. Many have gone well beyond legitimately articulating why Trump may be wrong on foreign policy, and now feel free to malign, insult, and even dream of removing their commander-in-chief, on the grounds that Trump is sui generis, that the media will applaud their efforts, and that the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment will canonize their deep-state bravery.
But the danger is that half the country will conclude that too many retired generals and admirals are going the way of past CIA and FBI directors—no longer just esteemed professionals, op-ed writers, and astute analysts, but political activists who feel entitled to challenge the very legitimacy of an elected president—a development that is ruinous both for the reputation of a hallowed military and of the country in general.
So it is now the decision of many ex-intelligence heads and flag officers, as retirees, analysts, and businesspeople, to change the rules of the game. Again fine. But they will live to rue the ensuing harm to the reputations both of the intelligence services and the military at large.
Indeed, the damage is well underway.