J. Edgar Hoover died when I was still in nursery school, but I knew his name from about that time. People talked about him differently than they talked about anyone else. He was fearsome and untouchable because he knew secrets about everybody, especially the politicians in Washington. He seemed like some kind of evil Santa Claus who could control people’s fate depending on whether they’d been naughty or nice, and apparently every adult who mattered had been naughty. Nixon finally resigned a few weeks before I started kindergarten, but my house was filled with much older people and they discussed Watergate while I played with my blocks and trains. Hoover had been dead for over two years by then, but it felt like he’d had an influence even from the grave. I had to wait more than three decades to get a confirmation of that feeling, but it came when Deep Throat was revealed to have been Mark Felt, the Associate Director for Hoover’s FBI, who felt like he’d been unjustly passed over for a promotion after Hoover’s death.
Maybe James Comey shares little more in common with Hoover than former job titles, but he might be able to take down a president while he’s still living, and in broad daylight. For a lot of people, this is an example of a Deep State or an incompetent Establishment carrying out a coup that overrules the verdict the people made at the ballot box. And, it’s true, our clandestine services have been known to orchestrate coups and meddle in elections in other countries. The presumption in these cases is that this meddling is unjustified or even immoral, but I don’t know that people would have felt much differently about Watergate if they knew someone at the top of the FBI was leaking to Woodward and Bernstein. Nixon really had committed crimes and he really was committing more as he tried to cover his tracks. The way to make sure he was removed from office wasn’t to prosecute him. It was to make sure the people knew what he had done.
It’s obviously not just Comey who is crippling the president with leaks. There are leakers very close to the president, perhaps even in his inner circle. There are people leaking throughout the intelligence community and the Justice Department. They are doing so, most of them, because of sincere alarm and for patriotic reasons. And the result is this:
In interviews, multiple White House officials indicated they feel under siege — unsure who in the intelligence community was leaking, how much damaging information was out there, when the next proverbial shoe would drop and what Trump might say.
Staffers shuttled back and forth among West Wing offices debating what to say without divulging confidential material or getting anything wrong. A deflated and exhausted Sean Spicer, who continues to read reports that his job is in jeopardy while he works 12 hours every day in his office, huddled in his office with chief of staff Reince Priebus.
There was a pervasive sense, another official said, that “we are kind of helpless.”
I’m sure that Mohammad Mosaddegh and his aides felt similarly helpless in 1953 when the CIA was orchestrating his removal from office in Tehran. A year later, I feel certain that a sense of helplessness caused Jacobo Árbenz to flee the presidential palace in Guatemala City and seek asylum at the Mexican embassy. Near the end, Nixon felt helpless, too, and reportedly began drinking heavily and talking to the portraits in the White House.
We can debate who deserved their fate and who did not, but we should be clear that things look substantially the same regardless of which side is wearing the black hats. Trump is getting taken down in a way I began predicting he would when he began publicly denigrating the Intelligence Community’s assessment of Russian involvement in the election. I don’t believe this would be happening if Trump were trustworthy and competent.
For example, had President Obama blundered by revealing sensitive information to the Russians that had been provided by the Israelis, the reaction would have likely been to quietly do damage control, explain to the president his error, and go on with the assumption that the mistake would not be repeated. When Trump did it, the damage control involved taking steps to remove him from office. How do I know this?
The ordinary way to minimize the damage from Trump’s leak would have been to quarantine knowledge that it had happened at all. This is for a variety of reasons. First, while there’s a fear the Russians will help ISIS track down the source of the information, there’s no certainty they will do so. Telling the whole world what happened almost assures that the informant’s life is at risk. Second, intelligence officers don’t want possible sources to know that the president can’t be trusted not to leak to our adversaries because it makes it difficult to recruit them. Advertising this makes their jobs immeasurably harder. Third, by telling the Israeli public what happened, it makes it more challenging for the Israeli government to share information with us. It would have been easier to patch things up with the Israelis if we had limited knowledge of what happened to a few key, reliable figures in their intelligence services and their cabinet. Yet, the intelligence community immediately revealed what Trump had done, and that the Israelis were the aggrieved party.
Another way of putting this is that the damage control plan from the beginning showed no signs of being an ordinary kind of plan. Every step is counterproductive. None of it makes any sense unless the real damage control plan is to remove Trump from power. If the conclusion is that the problem isn’t limited to a single blunder, but is systemic, any damage control plan that goes no further than triage and cleanup won’t be adequate.
I’ve been writing about this slow-moving coup in various ways for months now because its not well understood and it’s the most consequential thing going on in this country and the world right now. Nixon won a landslide reelection in 1972 even after many details of the Watergate burglary were reported, yet his efforts to obstruct justice were thwarted by leaks from the intelligence community. People generally don’t see this as a problem because Nixon was actually guilty and he was actually obstructing justice. But we can imagine a scenario where the intelligence community turns on an elected president because they disagree with him on policy and where the leaks are dishonest and the takedown is unjustified and undemocratic. It’s not a small thing to work for the president and then go running to the Washington Post to knife him when he screws up.
In Trump’s case, though, his operation has been the subject of a counterintelligence investigation for almost a year now. He appointed a man on the Kremlin’s payroll to be our national security advisor. He’s giving out information to the Russians that could get Israeli intelligence assets killed, or prevent us from stopping a mass casualty terrorist attack on civil aviation.
Nixon was abusing his power but we wasn’t endangering the country.
So, the proverbial shoes will keep dropping. The grand juries will start producing indictments. The pace will continue to make White House staffers feel helpless and under siege. It will get ratcheted up, step by step, until the GOP resistance in Congress breaks.
And it will be relatively easy to produce the material, both because Trump does most of the work himself, and because he has left such a rich trail to work with, going back decades.
Whenever it ends, the heroes will be reporters in the media rather than the unnamed sources who drove the process.
That’s the plan, anyway. We’ll see if Trump has the stuff to weather this storm.