“There is nobody who feels stronger about the intelligence community and the CIA than Donald Trump,” Donald Trump said Saturday, in his first working event as President of the United States.
Against the backdrop the CIA Memorial Wall, which many in the intelligence community see as hallowed ground, Il Donalde rambled and ranted — about the dishonest media, ISIS, the popularity of his political and military people, and the size of his inaugural crowd (though, thankfully, not the size of his hands) — for about thirteen minutes. If CIA agents and analysts came in over the weekend to hear out their new president, who recently compared their (alleged, alleged!) behavior to that of Nazi Germany’s nefarious security services, those not on Trump’s “wavelength” must have been wondering what the hell was going on.
Hopefully, a few of them left with a sense of the deeper dangers Trump revealed in both the style and substance of his speech.
“I am so behind you,” Trump began, decently enough. “And I know maybe sometimes you haven’t gotten the backing that you wanted, and you’re going to get so much backing. Maybe you’re going to say ‘please don’t give us so much backing. Mr. President, please, we don’t need that much backing.’”
“We have to get rid of ISIS,” he continued. “We have no choice. Radical Islamic terrorism has to be eradicated… just… off the face of the earth.” Although he seemed to be grasping for words, Trump came out with a clear statement of policy: he will seek to defeat, as opposed to merely disrupt and deter, the amorphous global threat he and his advisers would describe as “radical Islamic terrorism.” Fair enough…
But then Trump went off the rails, perhaps trying to pander to an American intelligence establishment that must bear the burden of keeping our nation safe (or just folks on his “wavelength”). “This is evil. This is evil … This is something nobody can even understand. This is a level of evil that we haven’t seen.” (That’s simply not true, but more on that later.)
In any event, Trump explained — or, tried to explain — that CIA will be in good hands: those of Mike Pompeo, “who is extraordinary… You know for the different positions, of Secretary of This and Secretary of That, and all these great positions — I’d see five, six, seven, eight people… and we had a great transition and we had an amazing team of talent. And, by the way General Flynn is here. Put up your hand, Mike. What a great guy… And Reince and my whole group. You know Reince… They don’t care about Reince… He’s a political guy that turned out to be a superstar, right? We don’t have to talk about Reince. But, we did — we had such a tremendous, tremendous success. So, when I’m interviewing all of these candidates that Reince and his whole group is putting in front, it went very, very quickly and, in this case, went so quickly. Because I would see six, seven eight for Secretary of Agriculture, who we just named the other day — Sonny Perdue, former Govenor of Georgia, fantastic guy. But I’d see six, seven, eight people for a certain position. Everybody wanted it. But I met Mike Pompeo, and he was the only guy I met. I didn’t want to meet anybody else. I said cancel everybody else. Cancel. Now, he was approved, essentially, but they’re doing little political games with me. You know he was one of the three. Now, last night, as you know, General Mattis — fantastic guy — and General Kelly got approved. And Mike Pompeo was supposed to be in that group. It was gonna be the three of them. Can you imagine? All of these guys. People, you know, they respect that military… sense. All my political people, they’re not doing so well. The political people aren’t doing so well, but [Reince]. We’re gonna get them all through, but some will take a little bit longer than others. But Mike was, literally, I had a group of, what, we had nine different people.... Now, I must say, I didn’t mind cancelling eight appointments; that wasn’t the worst thing in the world. But I met him and I said, ‘he is so good’… Number 1 in his class at West Point. Now, I know a lot about West Point — took me one year… I’m a person who very strongly believes in academics. In fact, every time I say I had an uncle who was a great professor at MIT for 35 years, who did a fantastic job in so many different ways, academically. He was an academic genius. And then they say, ‘Is Donald Trump and intellectual?’ Trust me. I’m, like, a smart person. And I recognized immediately… so, he was Number 1 at West Point and he was also, essentially, Number 1 at Harvard Law School and then he decided to go into the military and he ran for Congress — and everything he has done has been a home run…”
Whiskey Trump Foxtrot was he on? Put the President in front of a teleprompter, please…
Anyway, the President was right. He doesn’t have to “talk about Reince” — or any of the tangential issues that have arisen during this tumultuous transition — when he’s ostensibly trying to introduce the next CIA Director. Nor does the President, against a backdrop of selfless service — one that commemorates America’s anonymous dead intelligence professionals — have to talk about himself so damn much. How smart. “I’m, like, a smart person.” How young(-spirited). “You know, when I was young — of course, I feel young. I feel like I’m thirty…” How high-energy. “You know I was stopping, when we were in the final month of that campaign, five stops, seven stops, speeches, speeches.” Nor does the President have to lie — that’s right, lie, not “present alternative facts” — about inaugural crowd sizes, the media, intelligence briefings, and all that…
Trump wasn’t merely inappropriate or ineloquent. He also revealed the deeper dangers of his still-nascent presidency. He’s ignorant of the basic tools now at his disposal, as he demonstrated by repeatedly conflating the intelligence services with the military. (Perhaps he thought he was in the Petagon. Virginia… right?) He’s a threat-hyping alarmist, who not only overstated the terrorist threat but ignored a host of “evils” that have plagued the world over the past century and continue to plague it today: for instance, the Syrian regime and its allies in Russia and Iran, who’ve unleashed a killing machine like those once wielded by the Young Turks, Nazis, Stalinist Soviets, Hutu Power adherents, and the like. Authoritarian, militaristic, and energetic, he demonstrated a showed off a self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing, and charismatic style that fueled the cult of personality once cultivated by fascism’s fathers. And he betrayed a deep sort of insecurity that masquerades as supreme, smarmy confidence — the sort of insecurity that, because it can only be masked by momentum, may lead him to lurch from one conquest to another.
Striding onto yet another star-spangled stage, this one meant to commemorate anonymous Americans who’ve died protecting the republic from foreign threats, the President once again revealed himself to be a more dangerous sort of threat: a proto-fascist, like the sort our Greatest Generation ultimately ended up warred within Europe, sitting squarely in the highest office of our land. Here’s hoping that the state will tame, rather than submit to, the man who now sits atop it — the man who, perhaps inevitably, sees it the state as an extension of himself.
(This post initially appeared on Medium.)