Like Richard Nixon, Donald Trump Has Created an Enemies List

On June 27, 1973, former Nixon White House counsel John Dean mentioned that he had turned over a pile of documents to the Senate Watergate Committee and that among them was a set of papers called “Opponents List and Political Enemies Project.” In a 1971 memo included in the papers, Dean described the purpose of the list:

This memorandum addresses the matter of how we can maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our Administration; stated a bit more bluntly — how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.

The “available machinery” included plans to deny them federal grants and contracts and use the IRS and the Justice Department to harass them. This was the infamous “Enemies List” and it included the names of journalists, senators, House members, certain businessmen and labor leaders, entertainers and Democratic Party donors.

CBS newsman Daniel Schorr obtained a copy later that day and read it live for the “CBS Evening News” with Walter Cronkite, only realizing he was on the list when he got to his name. This first list only included 20 names, but as the Watergate scandal unfolded over the next few months, more evidence emerged: There was more than one list, and the total included over 200 names. In the end, the attempts to use the IRS to harass his critics and violate their constitutional rights was named among Nixon’s abuses of power that made up the second article of impeachment.

Fast forward to 2018 and we have President Trump tweeting this on Monday morning:

The difference between Nixon and Trump is that Nixon at least had the sense to abuse his power in secret.

Trump has hinted broadly in the past that he would like to order the government to hurt Amazon but has used thin excuses about the Postal Service being taken advantage of and the tax base being cheated. Everyone knew he was really angry at the Post but he didn’t make it explicit. On Monday he finally did. And by mentioning the antitrust issue, he also lends credence to those who have suspected that his Department of Justice’s objection to the AT&T-Time Warner merger had a lot more to do with damaging CNN than with any concern for media monopolies. (The Justice Department surprised observers when they decided to appeal the lower court’s decisive ruling in favor of the merger.)

It appears that Trump is taking a page from the Nixon playbook and wants the government to harass and prosecute his enemies in the media. Nixon didn’t get much cooperation when he tried it and it’s likely Trump won’t either. But the abuse of power is very much in the same vein.

So is the bombshell his press secretary dropped in the White House briefing yesterday. When asked about a tweet by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in which he claimed that former CIA director John Brennan was “monetizing” his security clearance and should therefore be stripped of it, she replied:

Not only is the president looking to take away Brennan’s security clearance, he’s also looking into the clearances of Comey, Clapper, Hayden, Rice, and McCabe. The president is exploring the mechanisms to remove security clearance because they’ve politicized and, in some cases, monetized their public service and security clearances.

Making baseless accusations of improper contact with Russia or being influenced by Russia against the president is extremely inappropriate. And the fact that people with security clearances are making these baseless charges provides inappropriate legitimacy to accusations with zero evidence.

That’s quite a list of enemies, no?

First, there is no evidence that any of those people have exposed classified material, which would certainly be cause for taking away their clearance. Neither is any of them reported to have failed to fully fill out their clearance forms or to be suspected of some sort of nefarious activity, as is Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, which would also be reason to strip them of security clearances. They aren’t accused of domestic violence, as was Trump’s former Staff Secretary Rob Porter, or any other violations — as were the 30 Trump staffers who had their clearances downgraded or revoked last winter. If their clearances are revoked it would be purely as punishment for criticizing the president.

Rand Paul styles himself as the one true principled civil libertarian, which raises questions about why he would be against these people exercising their First Amendment right to free speech. It’s true that this is a confusing set of circumstances since they were all previously powerful members of the intelligence community, but from some perspectives they might be considered whistleblowers. Yet here is Paul, the high-minded, small-government libertarian, taking Donald Trump’s side against the “deep state” by suggesting that he abuse the power of the presidency to punish citizens who are speaking out against him. We do live in strange times.

The charge that these people are “monetizing” their clearances has to be an inside joke between Paul and Trump. The idea seems to be that their clearances are what give them credibility with the public, but nobody knew until yesterday that they still had them, so that’s absurd. For better or worse, their former jobs are what give them credibility, and there’s nothing Trump can do about that. The media are allowed to hire former government workers to give expert commentary on government and politics. Or at least they were until now.

Moreover, the mere idea of anyone in Trump World objecting to someone “monetizing” their government service is hilarious. The president never divested himself of his businesses or provided his tax returns, as every other president has done for decades. He spends nearly every weekend making personal appearances at his commercial properties and personally pockets the money the government spends to protect him there. His family is pretty much running their businesses out of the Oval Office, and his Cabinet is so overwhelmingly unethical that he’s already had to fire two members for outrageous self-dealing, with a couple more hanging by a thread. This flat-out corruption is one area where Nixon was a piker by comparison.

Finally, the man who tweets “Witch Hunt!” on a daily basis getting on his high horse complaining that people are making “baseless accusations of improper conduct” is so absurd that you just have to laugh. If there is someone on this planet who is less self-aware I’ve never met him.