The Intelligence agencies’ pressures on President Trump to block the House of Representatives’ decision to release a summary of the FBI’s highly classified misdeeds are instructive comedy. The House’s decision shows what no one should ever have doubted: the FBI, CIA, etc. are not the source of authority over America’s secrets. They merely administer secrets and clearances on behalf of the one and only authority over the Executive Branch: The President of the United States. He clears them — not the other way around. Congress, as a co-equal, popularly elected branch of government, may hold or release such information as it chooses, and pay such attention as it chooses to the President’s opinions. Thus far, the Constitution.
With regard to Donald Trump, however, the Intelligence Agencies have been pretending that they are in charge of such matters. They have tried that with other presidents — slow-rolling clearances for appointees they don’t like and threatening them with security violations (the Valerie Plame Case investigation that CIA and the New York Times instigated well-nigh paralyzed the G.W. Bush White House). Usually they have had little success. Barack Obama, for example, simply rejected the FBI’s non-clearance of key appointments, and made them personally, instantly. But Trump, by and large, has let them get away with it, bowing to the Agencies’ objections to his nominees — even refusing to prosecute high officials who have disclosed the sources and methods of communications intelligence to the press.
The FBI’s top leadership — whose careers, business dealings, politics, marriages and extramarital affairs intertwine — invested itself incompetently and illegally into the 2016 election campaign against Donald Trump. In part to cover itself, it launched the so-called “Russia probe.” Its members are personally, deeply interested in keeping the public from seeing the documents concerning these activities. They raised the familiar shield: release would compromise the sources and methods of national security.
The House of Representatives’ Republican majority wanted the documents made public, issued a subpoena for them, and was prepared to jail senior FBI for contempt had they not complied with it. The House compromised, being satisfied by viewing them and making a summary, which it has voted to make public. The FBI and the Justice Department’s bureaucracy, being out of options for saving their reputations, their pensions, and perhaps for keeping themselves out of jail, urge President Trump to advise the House to guard the secrecy of the summary, of the activities that it describes, and hence to save their bacon.
The Democratic Party pretends to care so much about national security, to have such faith in the FBI’s stewardship of it, and such diffidence of the American people’s capacity to judge such matters, that its leading spokesmen have joined the agencies’ demand on Trump.
This is as rich constitutionally as it is politically. The Agencies, having told the country and President Trump for a year that they are the arbiters of secrecy, scurry to get back under the presidency’s protective power by asserting that this power extends over Congress as well.
Sorry, fellas, it does not. No president can tell Congress what to tell or not to tell the American people, or not to subpoena your documents, or not to put you in jail if you don’t comply. Maybe if you had not slapped your lawful boss around with your pretense of “independence,” if you had come to him confessing your sins and humbly asking his indulgence, you might not be in this fix. Now you are asking for a “get out of jail” card, which he probably can’t give you even if he wanted to.
The reason is political. Despite your, the Democratic Party’s, and the media’s dogged efforts to deep-six the facts concerning your misdeeds, nothing is going to put these black cats back into the proverbial bag. They are coming to light through the whistle-blowers among you, working with journalists on the media’s periphery, and with substantial Republican elements. At this point, the more you protest “National Security,” the fewer people believe you and the more you anger.
Your best hope is to retire and resign, hoping that your soft-hearted opponents might be satisfied with non-punitive housecleaning. The chief of the FBI’s national security division did that as soon as NSA sounded the alarm over the not-so-incidental interception of Trump campaign officials’ communications. Bruce Ohr was demoted, “Andy” McCabe functionally retired. What will the people involved in asking for certain FISA warrants do? When will they do it?
At this point, your retreats are being covered by ever fiercer fire from a decreasing number of officials and media people. But that ferocity makes it impossible for your opponents to let you off the hook. For the rest of us, this is a spectacle.