Yesterday’s bizarre speech by Donald Trump at CIA headquarters, on his first full day as President of the United States, has set off all kinds of alarm bells about the new president. By turns rambling, detached from reality, and self-aggrandizing, Trump spent much of the 15-minute speech complaining about crowd estimates at his inauguration. His use as a photo backdrop of the CIA’s near-sacred wall of black stars – its memorial to intelligence officers killed in the line of duty – was, probably inadvertently, deeply offensive to the spy community that he had only a week ago essentially called Nazis. Meanwhile, millions marched in the streets against him.
As a new Commander-in-Chief, Trump’s performance should be alarming to everyone, whether you’re a fan of the CIA and the government’s other instruments of power or not. This morning, that – along with all those marchers – is what’s getting all the attention.
But outfits like the CIA don’t generally take getting repeatedly slapped in the face by an idiot passively. Outgoing CIA Director John Brennan is a five-star war criminal who served both Barack Obama and George W. Bush in Deep State leadership positions. Last night, Brennan’s chief of staff publicly quoted him as saying of Trump’s speech that he [Brennan] was “deeply saddened and angered at Donald Trump’s despicable display of self-aggrandizement in front of C.I.A.’s Memorial Wall of Agency heroes…Trump should be ashamed of himself.”
Brennan managed to serve Cabinet-level positions for both Republican and Democratic presidents by being very politic. Launching this sort of angry public attack is unprecedented. And other Agency allies last night were similarly scathing in their responses, as was corporate media coverage.
People like Brennan are politic, but they’re also intensely political. There has always been overlap and rivalry both within and between the government’s instruments of power. Military service agencies have been rivals for centuries, both operationally and for budget money. The same is true for clandestine agencies and for law enforcement agencies.
Since 9-11, with the vast expansion of spending on the American security state, the overlaps have only increased. The Bush/Cheney White House responded to intelligence on Iraq it didn’t like by hugely expanding the size and role of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Pentagon’s in-house intelligence force. The CIA, in turn, became much more militarized and much more operational, de-emphasizing human intelligence-gathering in favor of overseas operations that overlap with military special forces. And electronic intelligence? One of 2016’s most under-reported stories was the official confirmation that the National Security Agency now routinely monitors the electronic communications of all Americans – a practice that not only makes a joke of the 4th Amendment, but that overlaps extensively with the missions of the FBI and with newly militarized local law enforcement agencies.
Everyone wants the same missions and the same dollars, and now you’ve got a new president who, remarkably, has not only no record because he’s never held elected office before, but has also never in his life served in the military or any other public agency. For the first time in U.S. history, America’s national security institutions are facing a completely blank slate from an incoming Commander-in-Chief – moreover, a Commander-in-Chief who literally by the day is alarming the most reality-based of people with his capricious, conspiratorial, and just plain reality-challenged words and actions.
I promise you that none of these agencies are waiting to see what happens. And that, just as much as Trump himself, should scare the hell out of everyone who cares about democratic institutions in this country.
Trump has already been playing favorites, of course. He famously pandered to law enforcement during his campaign, and law enforcement trade groups returned the favor. He nominated Jefferson Beauregard Sessions as U.S. Attorney General, a man rejected 30 years ago for the federal judiciary because even then, as now, he was such a bizarre relic of an outdated version of Southern racism. That pick was not just a middle finger to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but a signal in general that under Sessions, local and federal law enforcement agencies need no longer worry about Department of Justice investigations of excessive force practices. The gloves are off, a message underscored by Friday’s instant disappearance on the WhiteHouse.gov web site of its pages on civil rights.
Similarly, Trump’s Cabinet nominations showed much favor to the military, naming no less than four retired generals to security state leadership positions and in the process badly eroding this country’s tradition of civilian leadership of the military. But the actual people Trump has nominated are very much fringe figures within the military itself. Among them, they have records of hyper-aggressiveness, belief in conspiracy theories, poor management records, disturbing financial conflicts of interest, and even more disturbing ties to Russia. The tug-of-war for power between Trump’s political hires and the far more sober military brass will be ferocious.
Trump has made it clear he wants to give all of these agencies more money – a lot more. The Republican-controlled Congress feels the same way. But who gets what is still very much up for grabs; the erratic nature of Trump’s picks to lead these agencies compounded matters; and now the erratic, hallucinatory performance of Trump himself at the CIA yesterday, on Day One of his administration, has to have everyone scrambling. As a further variable, below the Cabinet level, Trump’s team hasn’t even nominated yet most of the 690 positions requiring Senate confirmation, including scores in the security state.
If there’s one thing people who’ve spent their lives in hierarchical institutions hate, it’s unpredictability. This is the mother of all unpredictable scenarios. If you’re a senior CIA official, for example, you don’t know whether Trump is going to give you a huge new area of responsibility next week, with money and resources to match, or whether he’ll abolish the agency entirely. Or both. And now you’re probably worried that he doesn’t know, either.
Trump is already eroding civilian control of the military. But what about the reverse? Nobody knows. These kinds of unpredictable, fluid power vacuums are exactly how coups happen, how assassinations happen, and how dictatorships emerge.
The millions of people marching yesterday were a huge and inspiring development. Trump’s CIA speech, and the security state’s response to it, was a less visible, slower moving story, but it’s just as important. And diametrically opposed to the kind of free democratic expression we saw on the streets yesterday.
These are raw battles between at least three very different kinds of power. People power can win these battles, but – as we saw with Arab Spring – it can also lose them very badly. The security state maneuvering undoubtedly going on behind the scenes, this weekend and beyond, is happening rapidly and very far above the heads of yesterday’s marchers. We have the raw numbers. We’d better get organized.