President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that in addition to stripping former CIA director John Brennan of his security clearance, he’s reviewing the clearances of nine other former top government officials who have — in some cases harshly — criticized the president. Yes, the president has an enemies list.
How Nixonian of him.
Until Trump came along, President Richard Nixon was probably the nation’s most paranoid president — and a man who, like Trump, had few qualms about abusing the power of his office.
The Nixon enemies list came to light during former White House aide John Dean’s testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee; Dean would later serve four months in prison for obstruction of justice in connection with the burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex.
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The original enemies list was compiled by White House counsel office staffer George Bell, but the final selections were made by special counsel Charles Colson, who also would later serve seven months in prison for obstruction of justice in connection with the burglary of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office (related government misconduct led a judge to dismiss espionage charges against Ellsberg).
Nixon’s enemies list contained the name of critics of the president ranging from Edwin Guthman, a former press secretary for Bobby Kennedy and national editor here at the Times during the Nixon years, to Leonard Woodcock, president of the United Auto Workers. Nixon and his minions had already been using government agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service to try to harass their political opponents, but the revelation of the list added a layer of sleaziness — as did the memo in which Dean wrote that the list could be used “to screw our political enemies.”
Trump’s enemies list is different, though. The Nixon list was a secret until Dean let the cat out of the bag. Trump heralded his list in a public statement released by the White House and read by press secretary Sarah Sanders during her press briefing Wednesday.
In Nixon’s hands, the list was a guide for targeting people for clandestine actions political dirty tricks. Trump’s list is, as my colleague Jon Healey argued Wednesday, an act of intimidation. Trump said in his statement that he acted because of Brennan’s “erratic conduct and behavior,” but later told the Wall Street Journal he targeted Brennan because he believed the former spy chief helped instigate the Russian collusion probe.
At heart these are the acts of a wannabe autocrat. Trump already has said he fired FBI director James Comey over the Russia investigation, has repeatedly attacked special counsel Mueller and his team, and has targeted individual FBI and Justice Department figures, all part of a relentless campaign to try to erode public confidence in Mueller’s independence and the veracity of whatever emerges.
That can and will do lasting damage to the country. Democracy relies on the confidence of the governed for its legitimacy, and we have in the Oval Office a flimflam man of the first order who cares little about the well-being of the people he supposedly is leading. And to date Trump’s fellow elected Republican leaders have stood mostly silent or vocally supportive while he has taken his rhetorical sledgehammer to the foundations of the government.
Voters ought to be keeping their own lists.