The problem with Trump's defense of the White House loyalty 'purge'

The purge isn't just about identifying opponents of Trump's agenda; it's also about rooting out those who may stand in the way of Trump's corruption.
Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-ELECTIONS-TRUMP
US President Donald Trump leaves after speaking during the first meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House in Washington, DC, July 19, 2017.SAUL LOEB / AFP - Getty Images
By Steve Benen

There have been a series of striking reports in recent days about Donald Trump directing trusted White House aides to search the administration for those deemed insufficiently loyal to the president. As a Washington Post report put it, "What began as a campaign of retribution against officials who participated in the impeachment process has evolved into a full-scale effort to create an administration more fully in sync with Trump's id and agenda."

The New York Times added that even Republican political appointees will face scrutiny if they're considered "insufficiently committed to the president or suspected of not aggressively advancing his agenda."

The result is a McCarthyite dynamic in which U.S. officials -- whose principal responsibilities are supposed to be to the public and the rule of law -- are evaluated based on their capacity for Trump sycophancy. Those deemed unworthy face dismissal.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley appeared on Fox News yesterday and denied having seen literal enemies lists, though he said there "a lot of folks" in the executive branch who may not be committed to the Trump agenda. "If we find them," Gidley added, "we will take appropriate action."

Today, the president effectively confirmed that a "purge" is underway, though he suggested the number of people ousted for disloyalty would be modest and wouldn't affect "many" officials. As part of an apparent attempt to justify the hunt for enemies in his midst, Trump pointed specifically to the intelligence community whistleblower who helped expose the White House's Ukraine scandal.

"I think we had a whistleblower who was a fake because if you look at the whistleblower as an example, if you look at his report, and then you compare that to the transcripts, it bore no relationship," Trump said. Trump did not say specifically whether or not he expected the whistleblower, who reportedly works for the CIA, would be among those ousted from the administration.

The Republican added, "We want to have people that are good for the country, that are loyal to our country. Because that was a disgraceful situation."

This may have been more interesting than Trump intended. By the president's own telling, the White House is effectively imposing political loyalty tests on officials -- and those who fail to meet the president's standards should expect to be punished. His proof of the purge's necessity is the whistleblower who exposed Trump's illegal extortion scheme.

Except, that doesn't make sense. The whistleblower wasn't a "fake"; at issue is an official who uncovered actual wrongdoing and followed the rules. The whistleblower's formal complaint proved to be accurate and, despite Trump's claims this morning, the document stood up quite well to extensive scrutiny.

And therein lies the rub: the president and his loyalists are on the lookout for possible skeptics because an official told the truth -- and covered actual wrongdoing. It suggests the purge isn't just about identifying possible opponents of Trump's agenda; it's also about rooting out those who may stand in the way of Trump's corruption.

The president has had plenty of time to come up with a sound defense of the White House's purge policy. The one he presented today was more damaging that he seemed to realize.