Government in the Shadows

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Goodbye to the peaceful transfer of power.

The frenetic opposition to Donald Trump by the Washington establishment, the new progressive, hard-left Democratic party, and in particular the veterans of the Obama administration has led to the ruination of a number of hallowed protocols and customs.

Impeachment has been redefined as a mere vote of no confidence and will become a rank political ploy for years to come once an opposition party gains a majority in the House. It is taking on the flavor of a preemptory device, a vaccination, rather than a medicine, as if to prevent future hypothetical crimes in the absence of current impeachable offenses.

Whistleblowers are now mere political operatives, who work with the opposition party to disseminate second- and third-hand rumor to prompt impeachment frenzies.

The FISA court has been disgraced. It was revealed to be either incompetent or actively partisan in its failure to question the Steele dossier’s legitimacy, in ignoring the warnings of Devin Nunes’s memo, and in the court’s selection of hard-core anti-Trump partisan David Kris to monitor FBI compliance with the recommendations of the Horowitz report. At this point, the existing FISA courts should probably be dismissed and the laws authorizing their creation rewritten.

In addition, the anti-Trump mob has now ended any idea that prior administrations should step aside, mostly stay quiet, and allow successors to fail or succeed on their merits.

During the Reagan years, a frustrated emeritus president Jimmy Carter more or less kept still. True, a sometimes-exasperating Carter chose to travel abroad and dabble publicly in foreign policy. But for the most part, he did not offer play-by-play, negative criticism of Ronald Reagan or his successors.

Reagan’s team kept a low profile during the presidency of George H. W. Bush, as is usually the case when a president is succeeded by his own vice president or a member of his own party.

In turn, a reticent elder Bush was especially magnanimous during the Clinton years — despite occasional nastiness directed at him from Clintonites.

Clinton himself was not vocal during George W. Bush’s first term, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. When Bush’s polls tanked and the Iraq War was at its most unpopular moment in 2006 and 2007, Clinton opportunistically began to attack Bush. Nonetheless, he was not an active Bush hater.

Bush himself was idealistically silent during the Obama years, despite the Obama administration’s turns to the hard left on immigration, health care, the Iran Deal, and foreign policy — and Obama’s constant negative references to Bush himself.

All those Marquess of Queensberry Rules of post-presidential decorum abruptly ended in 2017. What superseded them was, at best, a kind of British-style, European shadow government, in which mostly ex-Obama officials became nonstop activist critics of almost everything Trump has done.

At worst, the endless opposition turned into a slow-motion sort of coup in which progressive, life-tenured bureaucrats leaked, obstructed, and connived to stop the daily operations of the administration — as they often proudly admitted to the media. The subtext was that the Obama-progressive-media complex would create enough momentum to abort Trump’s first term. Or was it that Trump represented such an existential danger to the administrative-state way of doing business that any means necessary were justified to end his presidency?

The locus classicus was Ben Rhodes, the former deputy national-security adviser, and Jack Sullivan, who had been Obama’s White House deputy assistant. Together, they formed the National Security Action organization in early 2018. The two promised that they would offer an “effective, strategic, relentless, and national response to this administration’s dangerous approach to national security.” Translated, that meant that Rhodes and Sullivan would aggregate former Obama officials and progressive analysts to launch nonstop attacks on all of Trump’s foreign-policy efforts. And they have.

More ironic was Hillary Clinton’s announcement in May 2017 that she had officially joined the “Resistance” by forming Onward Together to “stand up” to Trump.

“Resistance” was not meant to denote principled and traditional opposition to the incumbent party. Instead, the noun was intended to invoke the guerrilla-warfare campaigns of the French Maquis who fought as rural bands against the Nazi occupation of France. The metaphor was clear: Trump administration = a fascist foreign military occupation; Trump = Hitler; Democrats = courageous anti-Nazi guerrillas.

Since her defeat in November 2016, Clinton has become a tedious bore in her frequent insistence that “the Russians” stole the election in cahoots with Donald Trump, despite the fact that neither the Mueller nor Horowitz investigations found any evidence for her conspiracies. The culpable incompetence of her campaign is a matter of record.

The irony, of course, is that Clinton herself hired foreign national Christopher Steele to find (or create) dirt on opponent Trump, hid her payments through three firewalls, and unleashed Steele to coax and cajole mostly lying Russian sources to slander her opponent. Those facts prompt the question: Did Russian “collusion” begin as an elaborate hoax to disguise the wrongdoing of the Obama administration, the FBI, the CIA, the DOJ, and the Clinton campaign in the face of the unexpected Trump victory?

Former Obama officials were sometimes even more active in their ongoing efforts to derail Trump’s foreign policy. Former CIA head John Brennan kept his security clearance, went to work for MSNBC, and, with a wink-and-nod smugness, relentlessly told his viewers that he knew really important but undisclosed things about Trump’s supposed crimes. Brennan reached a nadir when he began to exonerate his own behavior that was increasingly revealed to be central to a number of ongoing scandals, and when he predicted, based on his “sources,” that Mueller’s team would indict Trump and company for collusion — a prediction that proved spectacularly wrong.

James Clapper, Obama’s director of National Intelligence, xeroxed Brennan’s career on CNN to the tee: He too began analyzing scandals in which he himself had been knee-deep while accusing the president of being a virtual traitor in service to Vladimir Putin. Previously the emeritus heads of these agencies had not been considered overtly political. It was almost unheard-of for former CIA and NSA officials to wade into politics and issue on-air attacks on the current president.

The FBI soon followed suit. Little more need now be said of former and now disgraced FBI director James Comey, who still has a rendezvous with an accounting for his past behavior. He was the most political and least successful director in FBI history. He soon found himself, in passive-aggressive fashion, trying to run investigations of the Trump campaign, transition, and presidency that included everything from lying to the president, leaking confidential meetings of White House meetings to the press, and deluding a FISA court into granting writs to surveil an American citizen. The past three years of Comey’s life have been devoted to destroying Donald Trump as a way of dealing with his own self-ruination.

Obama himself, in contrast to George W. Bush, did not retire to his home. Instead, he stayed on in his principle residence in Washington — in a fashion that no ex-president had done since Woodrow Wilson. Obama’s chief lieutenants have unleashed nonstop invective against their successors, whether it’s Eric Holder attacking Attorney General Bill Barr, or Susan Rice going after the Trump national-security team.

The most egregious shadow official has been former secretary of state John Kerry. During the controversies over Trump’s cancellation of the Iran Deal, private citizen Kerry met with his former counterpart, the foreign minister of Iran, Javad Zarif, and he lobbied EU officials to oppose the cancellation and tried to line up congressional opposition to Trump. After the recent killing of Qasem Soleimani, Kerry hit the airwaves blasting U.S. policy; at times he bordered on offering lamentations for the loss of the terrorist Soleimani. Kerry often seemed bewildered that anyone would dare ask him whether his sponsorship of huge cash transfers to Iran, well aside from the windfalls that followed from lifting the sanctions, had fed Iranian-directed terrorist operations in Syria and Yemen.

The direct participation of former Obama officials of course is in addition to the so-called deep-state opposition, which has manifested itself in a variety of disturbing ways: leaking Trump private phone calls with foreign officials; seeding the Steele dossier among government agencies and cabinets; leaking confidential presidential memos to the press; bragging publicly about resistance efforts to impede the implementation of the Trump policy; warping the whistleblower statutes; and redefining impeachment as a partisan no-confidence vote, a preemptory check on future presidential behavior, and an election-year effort to unseat a first-term opposition president.

The parlance of the embittered Obama team is revealing. Eric Holder accused Attorney General Barr of being “unfit” for office. Clapper said Trump was a “Russian asset,” Brennan trumped that with “all roads with Trump lead to Putin.” Susan Rice said that America was “under attack” by the Trump team.

What is behind this radical departure from past practice? One factor is that Trump is a most un-McCain, un-Romney Republican who believes in don’t-tread-on-me, disproportionate retaliation. The result is that Trump answers with megatonnage to any insult to his person in a manner that the establishment believes does not befit a president — but which certainly frightens and enrages it. And one of the symptoms of the ensuing derangement syndrome is a 24/7 addiction to opposing Trump in any way possible, often to the ruination of all past custom, tradition, and practice, with the subtextual justification that “Trump did it first.”

Fear also explains a lot.

For all the various protestations from John Kerry, Joe Biden, and Barry Obama that the Obama administration was “scandal-free,” it most certainly was not. By the current standards of impeachment, once Obama lost the House in 2011, he would have been impeached for “Obstruction of Congress” and “Abuse of Power” for the Fast and Furious scandal and for invoking “executive privilege” to justify administration officials’ refusal to testify to Congress. Also impeachable by the new standard: political corruption at the IRS that was sicced on conservative groups during the Obama reelection bid; the lies and obstruction about the Benghazi disaster; the hot-mic quid pro quo promise Obama made to the Russians that resulted in the dismantlement of Eastern Europe missile defense in exchange for Putin’s good behavior to the benefit of Obama’s reelection campaign; the abuse of executive orders to nullify federal immigration law; the failure to consult Congress on the prisoner swap with the Taliban; the lying under oath to Congress by both the CIA director and the director of national intelligence; the secret monitoring of the communications of Associated Press reporters and Fox’s James Rosen, along with former CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson; the deliberate nullification of the constitutional treaty-making prerogative of the Senate during the Iran deal, whose secrete accords were never disclosed to the American people; and the warping of the CIA, DOJ, FBI, and National Security Council respectively, in their unethical and often illegal efforts to mislead the FISA courts, surveil the Trump campaign, unmask and leak the names of U.S. citizens whose communications were tapped, and disrupt a presidential transition. Before 2019, none of these offenses would have been impeachable; all now, and things like them, will be in the future.

One way of keeping all that quiet was for Obama-era officials to preemptively go on the offense, screaming of “collusion,” and then “obstruction,” and finally “quid pro quo” — all while supposedly impeachable statutes, people, and countries came and went, whether Russia, Ukraine, Stormy, the 25th Amendment, the Logan Act and the emoluments clause, and dozens more distractions from the Obama administration’s systematic constitutional violations and the trampling of the civil rights of American citizens.

The most baleful legacy of the current Trump hatred is a new model of out-of-power administrations that never quite leave. Instead, apparently from now on, the retired, the fired, the voted out, the emeriti, and the transitioned will become opposition activists who seek to destroy their successors whose record they cannot abide and whose agendas they deathly fear.

 

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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