Last week, President Trump revoked former CIA Director John Brennan's security clearance. It's yet another presidential feud designed to force the public to take sides: Are you with Trump or against him? It's a late-summer matchup that brings to mind the eternally useful tagline from another ugly showdown, Aliens vs. Predator: Whoever wins, we lose.
The decision to strip Brennan's clearance prompted howls of outrage from the media. Brennan is one of Trump's most prominent and aggressive critics; Trump's move, the argument went, was intended to punish and silence him as political payback.
A White House spokesperson initially said that Brennan's clearance was revoked for making "wild outbursts on the internet and television" about the current administration, but Trump himself later indicated that the decision was related to Brennan's early role in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal about Brennan, Trump said, "I call it the rigged witch hunt, [it] is a sham. And these people led it! So I think it's something that had to be done."
Trump's critics, in other words, had at least a partial point: The president himself all but confirmed that he targeted Brennan as an act of political retribution.
Defenders of the president's move, in response, argued that security clearances for ex-government officials were profitable status markers, and that Brennan, in particular, was a loose cannon whose criticism of the president had grown increasingly erratic and over the top.
They, too, had a point: When criticizing the president, Brennan sometimes alluded to his security clearance, bolstering the impression that he was speaking with an insider's knowledge. In a piece for The New York Times last week, for example, Brennan wrote, "While I had deep insight into Russian activities during the 2016 election, I now am aware—thanks to the reporting of an open and free press—of many more of the highly suspicious dalliances of some American citizens with people affiliated with the Russian intelligence services." The clear intent of the line is to leave the impression that, because of special access, he knows more than he can say.
Yet by his own admission, Brennan's accusations against the president were exaggerated. Following Trump's appearance with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Brennan called the the president's actions "nothing short of treasonous."
You might assume that when Brennan, a former high ranking intelligence community official, described a president's behavior as "treasonous" he meant that it was treason. Not so. As Brennan awkwardly explained on Rachel Maddow last week, what he really meant was…something else.
…For Mr. Trump to so cavalierly so dismiss that, yes, sometimes my Irish comes out and in my tweets. And I did say that it rises to and exceeds the level of high crimes and misdemeanors and nothing short of treasonous, because he had the opportunity there to be able to say to the world that this is something that happened. And that's why I said it was nothing short of treasonous. I didn't mean that he committed treason.
It is possible to believe that President Trump targeted Brennan for political reasons, and also that Brennan is unhinged and unreliable, relying partly on his security clearance to bolster his credibility as a critic of the president. (As Reason's Scott Shackford wrote last week, there is both good news and bad news in this story.)
But it is harder to see Trump's gambit as, in Brennan's words, "an attempt to scare into silence" others who might challenge the president. Or at the very least, if that's what it is, it's an attempt that isn't likely to be very successful. As Bloomberg's Eli Lake wrote, it's better understood as a move to elevate Brennan into a useful foil. After all, following the loss of his clearance, Brennan made the argument that Trump was engaged in a silencing effort in The New York Times.
This is a typical play for Trump, who likes to single out individuals in order to turn them into enemies: Think of his relentless and polarizing Twitter attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel or Khizr Khan. Here his choice of antagonist is far less sympathetic, but it's the same essential dynamic at work. Trump thrives on personal feuds and polarizing vendettas, especially those that entice critics into exaggerated attacks, which inspire greater devotion from loyalists in response, and so on and so forth. Trump has turned national politics into an unending series of petty tabloid feuds. He isn't really interested in a nuanced debate about security clearance status markers or profiting off of working in government; he just wants to perpetuate the cycle of squabbling, forever forcing people to choose one side or the other. Are you Team Trump? Are you Team Resistance? Aliens or predator? In this case, it's truly a shame they can't both lose.