It’s a paradox of impeachment politics.
As President Trump faces charges of high crimes and misdemeanors in Congress, he denounces the alleged “deep state” cabal out to get him. His campaign is running a powerful online ad about the supposed conspiracy. It features footage of former CIA director John Brennan and former acting director John McLaughlin at a recent event in Washington. I had a memorable encounter with Brennan at the event, so I know what he’s talking about. No one has demonized the CIA leadership more effectively than Trump.
Yet on the CIA’s most controversial policy–torture–the president has backed the agency’s leadership (including Brennan and McLaughlin) to the hilt. By way of background, in October 2017 Trump caved to CIA demands on a more symbolic question–JFK assassination files. The president approved continuing JFK secrecy. On two issues where the CIA was vulnerable, Trump actually protected the deep state agency that he supposedly scorns. He and CIA director Gina Haspel share at least one belief: torture is a policy option that any commander in chief should consider without undue moralism.
I don’t believe in Trump’s concept of a “deep state.” It’s simplistic and riddled with factual falsehoods. I think the CIA is a political faction that wants to defeat the president for reasons of its own. Trump may approve of torture. The agency hands want to get rid of him anyway.
Trump and the CIA
Scott Roehm of the Open Society Foundation points out that Don McGahn, Trump’s White House counsel, was so disturbed by Gina Haspel’s torture resume that he suggested Trump to withdraw her nomination.
According to the report, U.S. President Donald Trump not only disagreed but “actually liked this aspect of Haspel’s resume.” He thought her support for torture “was an asset, not a liability.” In fact, Trump apparently asked Haspel whether waterboarding “works,” and she replied she was “100 percent sure” that it did.
Of course, the president, who campaigned in 2016 as an avowed supporter of torture, could have once again been describing a conversation in the way he wanted to have had it, rather than how actually transpired. Or perhaps Haspel indeed said something along the lines of what she’s reported to have said. Either way, for anyone who needed a reminder of how much work remains to be done to close this dark chapter of U.S. history, this anecdote should suffice.
The story of the CIA’s torture regime is well told in the new movie The Report, starring Adam Driver. (If we’re talking Oscar nominations, I think Driver deserves one. Then again I have an incorrigible weakness for that oxymoronic genre, the bureaucratic thriller, a snooze to many. )
In reality, Trump’s approval of the torture program (like his deal on JFK secrecy) suggests his demonization of the so-called “deep state” is opportunistic. The president, based on past performance, will reach tacit understandings with the secret agencies when it suits their mutual needs.
And, as he struggles to save his presidency, he may do so again.