Lemon: Trump trying to manipulate news cycle

CNN's Don Lemon discusses President Trump's recent decision to revoke the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan.

Posted: Aug 16, 2018 10:00 PM
Updated: Aug 16, 2018 10:14 PM

Does anyone believe President Donald Trump's claim, issued via press secretary Sarah Sanders, that he wanted only to protect the country when he revoked former CIA director John Brennan's security clearance?

That claim was, in case you missed it, the official reason. "I have a unique responsibility to protect the nation's classified information," Trump said in a statement Sanders read on Wednesday.

But before the day was over, Trump had admitted what everyone already knew: that this was all about Brennan's piercing criticism and his role in launching the investigation into his campaign's possible involvement with the Russians in the 2016 election.

"I call it the rigged witch hunt," the President complained in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, "and these people [the intelligence community] led it." Therefore, "I think it's something that had to be done."

Once again, Trump has made a move affecting national security driven by what he thinks most benefits him.

We have seen that pattern over and over. He makes policy decisions based on what is good for Trump, what satisfies his ego, and what might protect him from legal jeopardy -- regardless of whether it's good for the country.

Trump's relentless attacks on the intelligence community -- from likening them to Nazis ahead of the election to repeatedly accusing them of engaging in a politically motivated witch-hunt and labeling them an untrustworthy "deep state" conspiring against him -- have caused long-lasting harm to America's credibility. Long after he is gone, US presidents will struggle to overcome Trump's slanderous behavior.

But that doesn't matter to him. In his presidency, decisions are based on what satisfies Trump. The practice is so pervasive that Trump doesn't even seem to understand that it amounts to presidential malpractice.

Former top-level officials usually keep their clearances because their wealth of experience is useful to the nation. Brennan served as CIA director for four years, and worked in intelligence for decades. It is telling that Trump did not consult the current director of national intelligence on the decision. In fact, this has never happened before.

No president, said several experts, has ever become personally involved in an individual's clearance. Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley called it "unprecedented," saying the closest instance he can remember is Nixon's effort to use the IRS against his enemies. Republican Sen. Bob Corker, exasperated, found it reminiscent of a "banana republic."

Brennan himself was even more piercing. He said he has seen "foreign tyrants and despots and autocrats" act this way, but "I never thought I would see it here in the United States."

Trump's unwinnable quest is to quiet his critics. And few, if any, have been more searing than the former CIA director.

After Trump's press conference alongside Putin last month, Brennan called Trump's performance "nothing short of treasonous." And if Trump thought depriving Brennan of clearance would quiet him, he clearly miscalculated. Within hours Brennan published an op-ed accusing Trump of collusion with Russia in 2016, when Brennan led the CIA.

"Mr. Trump's claims of no collusion are, in a word, hogwash," he wrote, adding, "The only questions that remain are whether the collusion that took place constituted criminally liable conspiracy ... and how many members of 'Trump Incorporated' attempted to defraud the government."

But the decision wasn't just about taking aim at John Brennan. In case there were doubts that this was about vindictiveness and intimidation, Sanders read a list of nine others -- nearly every one of them a Trump critic -- whose clearance may be revoked.

The timing of the decision was also highly suspicious. The statement was dated July 26, suggesting it was ready in advance for release at a time of maximum impact. The White House said that was simply an error, but it suggests this was being used as a distraction, aimed at diverting attention from the damaging accusations by former staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman and the shameful spectacle of Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's trial.

Perhaps it also was intended to steal the thunder of the editorials decrying Trump attacks on the press, which were known to be scheduled for the next morning in newspapers across the country.

Trump has an insatiable appetite for praise, an unquenchable thirst for flattery. Most people try to conceal that insecurity, but he does not seem to have enough self-awareness to realize how embarrassing it is to indulge that appetite publicly. In fact, it's more than unseemly. It is a danger to the country.

We've already seen cabinet members discarding self-respect and sinking to grotesque obsequiousness. But the risk is not just to the reputation of public servants. The danger is that Trump's hunger for adulation affects his behavior as president.

He admitted as much when he tweeted, apparently without shame, that he kept Omarosa on the taxpayer's payroll "because she says GREAT things about me." During his recent trip to the UK he caused an international incident when he insulted his host, Prime Minister Theresa May, saying her rival, Boris Johnson "would be a great prime minister." He explained that Johnson, "obviously likes me, and says very good things about me."

During the campaign he tried to explain his perplexing praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin in terms that to him seemed perfectly reasonable: "If he says great things about me," he said, "I'm going to say great things about him." It was all a mistranslation, as it turns out. Putin had called Trump "Yarkii" in Russian, a word that means bright, as in colorful, not smart. Trump heard the bright, brilliant, and announced, incorrectly, "Putin called me a genius!"

The flip side is his inability to tolerate criticism. It has made criticizing the president a risky proposition in a country where free expression is a sacrosanct right.

It's not all about Trump's fragile ego, of course. The Russia probe is a serious threat to Trump's presidency. And Brennan's words highlighted that fact.

The decision to rip away Brennan's clearance encapsulates Trump's imperious, insecure personalization of policy, his propensity to lie to justify his transgressions, and his flailing efforts to quiet his critics -- efforts that, as we have already seen, are doomed to fail.

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