This week, beset by bad news about Omarosa Manigault-Newman, President Donald Trump decided to launch a war of choice. The White House announced Wednesday that he had revoked security clearance for John Brennan, who was the CIA director under Barack Obama and has since become a leading Trump critic. Trump also threatened to take clearance away from a slew of other critics.
But wars, once started, don’t always unfold the way you intend. In Trump’s case, a host of prominent retired military and intelligence leaders have entered the fray opposing him. First, retired Navy Admiral William McRaven wrote an open letter to the president in The Washington Post on Thursday criticizing the revocation of Brennan’s clearance and asking to join him: “I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.”
Later on Thursday, another 13 former generals and spy chiefs signed a letter in support of Brennan. Some of them have already been visible Trump critics, including the former NSA chief Michael Hayden and the former CIA deputy chief John McLaughlin, but others have been less outspoken, such as Porter Goss, the CIA director under George W. Bush. The real surprises are Robert Gates, a former CIA director and defense secretary, and David Petraeus, who also led the CIA.
McRaven’s column is notable because he is a bona fide war hero—the man who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden—and has not served in a politically appointed position.
Yet Gates and Petraeus are likely more important. Gates was the CIA director under George H. W. Bush, then defense secretary under George W. Bush. He then stayed on into the Obama administration. Gates is the consummate Republican public servant: a widely respected leader with a reputation for sobriety and truth telling, but also strong identification with the GOP. He endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016, calling Trump “unqualified and unfit to be commander in chief.” But he has not joined figures like Brennan, Hayden, and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in their persistent criticism of the president. (Gates also helped urge Trump to choose former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, an experiment that ended poorly.)
Petraeus was also a war hero, leading U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan before becoming the CIA director. He was eventually forced to step down for sharing classified information with a woman with whom he was having an affair, but he’s retained a sheen of respect and credibility in national-security circles. He has gone out of his way to avoid criticizing the president, and was considered as secretary of state at the outset of the Trump administration.
For Gates and Petraeus to move off the sidelines—and in Petraeus’s case, to likely slam shut the door to an administration job that he has diligently kept open for so long—shows how Trump’s attack on Brennan could backfire. (Petraeus might say it’s an example of how insurgencies grow.) Perhaps Trump thought that by starting his clearance purge with Brennan, he might avoid too much flak: Brennan has plenty of detractors, on both the left and the right. Instead, Brennan’s former colleagues have closed ranks, while even some of his critics have taken issue with Trump’s move.
As usual, the question with any Trump-related headline is: Does it matter? For one thing, nothing seems to significantly shift the political needle. Beyond that, Trump has gone after war heroes, most notably Senator John McCain, in the past and survived. McRaven, Gates, and Petraeus aren’t household names outside of Washington. Besides, the trouble with a reputation for being above the fray is that you only have one or two chances to intervene in messy political fights before you lose the reputation. (Part of Trump’s political genius has been his ability to make everyone else fight like him—dirty—thus tarnishing them as well.) Michael Morrell, a former deputy director of the CIA, has lamented the way critics within the intelligence community have eroded its reputation for independence and made it a political player; nonetheless, Morrell signed Thursday’s letter in support of Brennan.
Even without the ability to mobilize vast public shifts, there are two ways the McRaven and group of 13 letters could matter. The first is that having figures like Petraeus and Gates speak out gives encouragement and cover to other would-be critics of the president, telling them they’re doing the right, and nonpolitical, thing.
The second is that it keeps Trump on the back foot, always playing defense against critics. The president views the security clearances as a useful tool for distraction. He first floated the idea in late July, amidst backlash to his disastrous meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. He then revoked Brennan’s clearance in the midst of another firestorm, over Manigault-Newman’s dishy book about the administration. When the White House first announced the Brennan move, they initially failed to scrub the date on the announcement: July 26, 2018. The revocations are entirely symbolic, too. Though there are several reasons former officials typically keep their clearances, Trump is not endangering the livelihood or careers of any of them. (A threat to revoke the clearance of the Justice Department official Bruce Ohr is different.)
If the goal was to distract, it didn’t work. The president’s war of choice against the intelligence community has spiraled out of his control, yet at the same time, Manigault-Newman stayed firmly lodged in the headlines. On Thursday, she released yet another clandestine recording, this one capturing the president’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump offering her a $15,000 a month job in return for silence. (Spies are not the only ones skilled in spycraft, it seems.)
Now Trump is fighting wars on several fronts—against Manigault-Newman; against practically the entire former leadership of the intelligence community; and, of course, against Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whose team rested its case against the former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort this week.
Trump remains remarkably resilient in the face of these troubles, which might have ended another presidency. This is in part because of his famously steadfast base. Yet that base is a small portion of the electorate, and, if anything, it is shrinking. Because Trump is perpetually on the defensive, he’s unable (or unwilling) to take any steps that might expand his appeal and his coalition. The president’s decision to launch his latest war of choice risks bogging him down in yet another unwinnable quagmire. It’s a danger that the intelligence chiefs, perhaps better than anyone else in the world, could have predicted.