America's spies are playing a dangerous game against President Trump
And now this country's democratic institutions are breaking down before our eyes
After President Trump's truly off-the-rails, utterly mind-boggling press conference on Thursday afternoon, liberals can surely smell blood in the water. Here we have a Republican president far more sinister than Richard Nixon absorbing blow after blow from the press thanks to leaks by public-spirited whistleblowers in the federal bureaucracy. It's clearly a replay of Watergate. On second thought, it's bigger than Watergate — with lies covering up acts of high treason. It's only a matter of time before justice is done, President Trump is driven from office, and order is restored to the polity. Right?
There are many good reasons for liberals to loathe President Trump. But none of them justify treating extra-legal efforts to bring him down as a cause for celebration. On the contrary, this is a moment of high peril for the republic — and the dangers go far beyond Donald Trump.
Yes, the allegations (or more accurately, insinuations) against the president are very serious — not only that his former national security adviser Michael Flynn spoke repeatedly before Trump's inauguration with the Russian ambassador about the easing of sanctions, but also that several Trump advisers allegedly had numerous contacts with members of the Russian intelligence service during the presidential campaign, at the very time that Russian agents may have been working to interfere with the election on Trump's behalf.
But so is this: None of these allegations has been independently verified. Every one of them came from anonymous sources within the sprawling federal bureaucracies (16 in total) that go by the reassuringly benign euphemism "the intelligence community." And the flood of leaks to journalists haven't been limited to Russia and the election. Former National Security Agency analyst John Schindler tweeted on Wednesday morning that an anonymous source in the IC told him the time had come to "go nuclear" against the president, who would "die in jail." Later the same day, a Twitter account maintained by the FBI records division randomly released nearly 400 pages of documents related to an investigation of charges of racial discrimination against Trump properties more than four decades ago.
It seems undeniable that large numbers of federal civil servants have declared war on the president of the United States — and that their battle is being waged with the help of journalists who are more than happy to act as stenographers conveying unsubstantiated, anonymous allegations to the public.
All of this is bad — the behavior alleged in the leaks, of course, but also the extent of the leaks themselves, and the willingness of the press to publish them while providing the leakers with a cloak of anonymity. It's part of a pattern that also encompasses FBI Director James Comey's reckless decision to deal what turned out to be a fatal blow to the Hillary Clinton campaign less than two weeks before Election Day — and the reluctance of Congress to take the lead in investigating alarming allegations of wrongdoing by Trump and his senior staff (a reluctance that appears to be emboldening the leakers to go further in their efforts to bring down the president all on their own).
Put it all together and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that we're living through a remarkably comprehensive breakdown in America's democratic institutions.
As the constitutional framers explained in The Federalist Papers, the American system of government presumes that virtuous men and women — those who consistently place the public good ahead of their own personal ambitions, or who seek fulfillment of their personal ambitions in pursuit of the public good — will rarely end up in positions of power. Instead of relying on virtue, which is rare, the idea was to build institutional mechanisms that presume the prevalence of vice.
That's where checks and balances come in, with the ambition of public servants in each branch of government motivating them to check the actions of ambitious public servants in the other branches. James Madison famously described this arrangement as one that would use "ambition… to counteract ambition" — which is to say that it would manipulate competing vices to minimize the damage they do, and hopefully produce a rough approximation of virtue in the bargain.
Two developments have put enormous strain on this approach to governing.
First, the administrative state that emerged from the progressive movement in the early decades of the 20th century greatly expanded the number and size of executive branch departments and agencies. These bureaucracies are mostly staffed by unelected career civil servants, with a modest number of political appointees running the show at the top. Unlike the people of intense personal ambition that Madison thought would pursue positions of power in the elected branches of the federal government, employees in the administrative state are presumed to be genuinely public-spirited, disinterested individuals happy to toil in obscurity in pursuit of the public good.
Either Madison was far too pessimistic about the prevalence of virtuous men and women in the world — or the administrative state is populated by employees who are far less selflessly public-spirited than its defenders tend to presume.
Second, the rise of hyper-partisanship over the past few decades has undermined the effectiveness of institutional checks within and among the political branches of government. Many of the constitutional framers disdained parties altogether, because they encourage rather than diminish factionalism, but they arose very quickly and have been a feature of American politics ever since. For much of the intervening years, ideological divergences between the parties have been relatively slight. But not today.
Hyper-partisanship has led to a situation in which an extreme and unfit candidate for president has captured the GOP and is using his popularity with its voters to keep fellow Republicans in a competing branch of government from opposing him. Republicans in Congress no longer believe they can advance their own ambitions by checking the ambitions of the president. On the contrary, many of them believe their personal ambitions are more likely to be advanced by giving the president a free hand to pursue his own ambitions with a minimum of oversight.
Instead of serving as a check on the president, the Republican majority in Congress is facilitating his recklessness. And that, in turn, has (apparently) emboldened employees of the intelligence-gathering arm of the administrative state to step in to check the president in Congress' place.
But what are the motives of these executive branch employees? Are they going after Trump because they possess genuinely incriminating information about him and sincerely fear for the well-being of the country? Or do they have other, baser motives? And perhaps most pressingly of all: Who gets to make that determination? (One man's virtuous deed is often another's act of blatant partisanship.)
These are political questions, and political questions are best answered by the political branches of government — by elected officials doing their jobs in the light of day rather than by anonymous, unaccountable experts in espionage, lurking in the shadows.
That's why Congress has to take the lead in investigating the president — and leaks, no matter how ominous and plausible they may seem, need to be treated with maximal skepticism. Until both of those things happen, the self-reinforcing breakdown of our democratic institutions will only get worse.