Last month, President Trump first threatened to revoke the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan, who has criticized him harshly. A reporter asked Paul Ryan if he believed it was “dangerous” for the president to use this tool to punish critics. “I think he’s trolling people, honestly,” replied the House Speaker, with a forced laugh. Get it?
The punchline to the joke is that Trump is indeed revoking Brennan’s security clearance. The White House also announced that it is reviewing clearances for James Clapper, James Comey, Michael Hayden, Sally Yates, Susan Rice, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, and Lisa Page — all former security officials who have criticized or otherwise offended Trump.
Press Secretary Sarah Sanders managed to maintain a straight face when she announced that the grounds for Brennan’s disqualification was “the risks posed by his erratic conduct and behavior.” Trump himself has of course behaved erratically throughout the course of his presidency, posing innumerable risks to American security, up to and including the potential for triggering a nuclear war, which he has threatened to do on his Twitter feed. In one documented instance, Trump literally handed over classified, highly sensitive national security secrets to Russia.
Trump may or may not possess the legal authority to make his plans stick. (Lawyer Bradley Moss has a good summary of the legal issues.) Regardless of whether it is ultimately upheld as law, as a matter of custom, Trump’s behavior is without precedent. Presidents have not previously used security clearances as a partisan club with which to discredit their political opposition. Of course, neither has any previous president posed the kind of security risk Trump presents, with his murky finances and long trail of ties to Russia.
Trump may be trolling people, but the notion that trolling represents for Trump a category of action that is distinct from official government policy is obviously fallacious.