the national interest

Trump Is Still Treating the Federal Government Like He Owns It

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

One of the most alarming and historically distinctive traits Donald Trump has displayed since he assumed the presidency is his belief that the U.S. government should be run more or less the same way as the Trump Organization. He has used his office to enrich himself, talked about “my generals,” and fired officials who failed to affirm personal loyalty to him at the expense of their official roles in office. Whatever superficial aspects of “normalizing” his performance John Kelly may have undertaken, Trump has not ceased to abuse his power this way.

In  an interview yesterday, CIA Director Mike Pompeo asserted, “The intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election.” That is unambiguously false. The intelligence community pointedly declined to wade into whether Russian interference was decisive.  A January report by the CIA and the National Security Agency stated, “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election. The US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion.”

It is completely obvious that the intelligence community could not decide this one way or another. Russia aimed to help Trump by spreading anti-Clinton memes on social media, by hacking Democratic emails and using their contents to spread unflattering stories about Hillary Clinton, and to inflame supporters of Bernie Sanders against her. It’s impossible to say whether the news stories generated by this campaign moved enough votes to decide the election, because it’s impossible to prove a counterfactual.

Trump considers it especially important to deny that Russian involvement played any role in his victory, which is why he lies about the subject so frequently. It is also no doubt the reason why Pompeo lied on his behalf. Pompeo conjuring up an imaginary conclusion by U.S. intelligence is hardly the first, or even the worst, political abuse of the agency. But it is not a normal act for a CIA official.

Meanwhile, Trump continues to personally interview candidates for U.S. Attorney positions. This is not illegal. But it also veers far from a tradition in which such posts were held by people operating independently from the administration. The president could nominate them, and would obviously scrutinize their biography. But a personal interview plays a different function. It can — and is, indeed, clearly designed to — identify not only whether a candidate is qualified in the abstract, but how that person feels about Trump in particular.

Trump has been treating putatively independent figures this way from the outset. He courted, and then fired, Preet Bharara (the New York Southern District U.S. Attorney whose investigations have peeved, among others, the Russian government) and then James Comey. The account given by Comey of his meetings with Trump clearly reveals that the president’s main interest was to satisfy his belief that Comey would give him personal loyalty.

Republicans have blithely dismissed Trump’s decision to continue such behavior with U.S. attorneys. “He’s the president of the United States who picks these people, so he’s going to get blamed (by Democrats) no matter what he does. So I think it’s a good thing that he’s willing to interview these people,” Senator Orrin Hatch tells CNN. “It’s kind of an extension of The Apprentice, I guess,” adds a chipper Senator Lindsey Graham.

Well, yes, it is like an extension of The Apprentice. But The Apprentice depicted Trump as the all-knowing and all-powerful head of an organization designed to serve his own needs. It did not depict the give-and-take of a republican form of government premised on the consent of the people. Maybe Republicans ought to consider the possibility that a president who acts this way is bad, and they should stop him.

Trump Still Treating the Federal Government Like He Owns It