White House prepares security-clearance revocations as 'distractions'

The empty speaker podium in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)
The empty speaker podium in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

Donald Trump sparked a serious controversy last week when he revoked former CIA Director John Brennan's security clearance. That same afternoon, the president made matters worse by connecting his move to the Russia scandal during an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

But that's not all he told the WSJ. In the same interview, Trump conceded that he was prepared to pull the trigger on his scheme a week earlier, but it was too "hectic."

That didn't make any sense. The previous week, Trump was away from the White House, playing golf at one of the private clubs he still profits from, while Congress was out of session. There was nothing "hectic" about it.

The truth, it turns out, was more strategic. The Washington Post  reported:

The senior White House official acknowledged that the step against Brennan had been prepared in late July, when Sanders first said Trump was considering it. But the decision to take that step was made this week to divert attention from nonstop coverage of a critical book released by fired Trump aide Omarosa Manigault Newman.

It's worth emphasizing for context that the presidential statement condemning Brennan was dated July 26, but was released Aug. 15. The White House, evidently, was simply waiting for an unflattering news cycle to create some new headlines. With Omarosa Manigault Newman releasing a series of damaging audio recordings last week, Team Trump decided it was time to weaponize security clearances and start targeting members of the president's enemies list.

And it's very likely to happen again. From the Post's report:

The White House has drafted documents revoking the security clearances of current and former officials whom President Trump has demanded be punished for criticizing him or playing a role in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to senior administration officials.Trump wants to sign "most if not all" of them, said one senior White House official, who indicated that communications aides, including press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Bill Shine, the newly named deputy chief of staff, have discussed the optimum times to release them as a distraction during unfavorable news cycles.

There's a school of thought, which I've generally been skeptical of, that responds to nearly every offensive Trump antic the same way: by dismissing it as a distraction. I've been reluctant to buy into the thesis, at least in some instances, because it's predicated on the idea that the president is capable of acting on forethought, rather than mere impulse -- and Trump clearly isn't exactly a chess player who thinks a few moves ahead.

Oftentimes, a tweet is just a tweet. Trump blurts out thoughts, not as part of a public-relations plan, but in response to uncontrollable whims.

But the Post report rebuts my skepticism nicely. Here we have evidence of the White House stockpiling presidential abuses as weapons of mass distraction.

This will almost certainly work as intended because presidential abuses are newsworthy in their own right. But the next time we see someone lose their security clearance, let's also pause to note what story Trump and his cynical aides are eager to knock off front pages.