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Trump Is Turning the Enemies of Civil Liberties Into Liberal Heroes

In going after the most egregious violators of American freedoms, the president has forced pundits to rush to their defense

Former CIA Director John Brennan

Former CIA Director John Brennan sworn in before testifying during a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence for a hearing on Russian actions during the 2016 election at Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, May 23, 2017. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The CIA’s approval rating among Democrats is sky-high. Former FBI and Justice Department officials are being showered with donations on GoFundMe. And now George W. Bush — the president who signed the Patriot Act, opened Guantanamo, started the Iraq War, and warrantlessly wiretapped Americans — is a viral sensation being portrayed as our country’s most lovable grandpa.

It's an infuriating and depressing state of affairs for civil liberties advocates, many of whom have fought the CIA, FBI, and Justice Department in the past two presidential administrations.

Everyone expected Trump to be a nightmare for Americans’ civil liberties. But very few could have guessed the strange way this nightmare would manifest itself over the past 18 months. Of course, Trump has used his executive power to implement countless cruel and rights-violating policies. But he has also, with an assist from a frenzied media, turned many of the individuals and agencies responsible for creating our unaccountable national security apparatus into folk heroes at the same time.

It’s an infuriating and depressing state of affairs for civil liberties advocates, many of whom have fought the CIA, FBI, and Justice Department in the past two presidential administrations as these agencies expanded executive power, restricted privacy rights, and shielded officials from accountability under the guise of “national security” — the same tools Trump now regularly uses for his benefit.

The nauseating sight this weekend of George W. Bush being deified on social media because he passed a piece of candy to Michelle Obama was only the latest example. The combination of Trump’s relentless and inaccurate Twitter feed and the stampede of pundits who instinctively feel the need take the exact opposite view has created a nonstop cycle that has destroyed our ability to see the truth.

The examples come so fast that they are almost impossible to enumerate. In just the past couple weeks, Trump has gone after the FISA court, the Justice Department, and the FBI — all due to personal grievances or feuds he has because of their perceived role in the Mueller investigation.

Virtually all of Trump’s specific criticisms are baseless, but he has an uncanny ability to pick targets for his tweet tirades that should be harshly criticized for entirely different reasons. The FISA court has been radically reinterpreting Fourth Amendment law in complete secrecy since the Bush administration. The FBI, still headquartered in a building named after serial lawbreaker J. Edgar Hoover, has been a civil liberties disaster since its inception and was recently handed increased surveillance authorities under Trump’s watch. The Justice Department has repeatedly tipped the scales against the powerless while shielding the powerful.

Why, then, when Trump tweets something idiotic about the Justice Department, do so many pundits have to say something almost as ridiculous in response, like, “The statute of Justice is blindfolded for a reason, it applies to all without fear nor favor”? Try telling that to 500 children still separated from their immigrant parents because of Justice Department policies, or to the other countless victims of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ radical moves since he’s taken office.

When Trump criticizes law enforcement or intelligence officials by name, this phenomenon somehow gets worse. His targets are instantly turned into celebrities who must be morally pure, merely because Trump has decided to turn his fire on them on a particular day. The same people the Bush and Obama administration inoculated from accountability for similar transgressions Trump commits on a daily basis — like lying — are being turned into liberal icons.

Take former CIA director John Brennan, whose security clearance Trump revoked because he was upset that Brennan was criticizing him. After Trump’s announcement, Brennan was lionized by the media as a truth-telling luminary, instantly beloved by all Democrats. How quickly people (pretend to) forget that Brennan, just a few years ago, ordered the CIA to spy on Democratic Senate staffers who were investigating the agency’s torture program, and then blatantly lied about it to the public.

Yes, Trump’s retaliation against Brennan for criticizing him is concerning, but why do so many pundits feel the need to declare Brennan a “hero”? It is indeed possible to condemn Trump’s vengeful actions against people like Brennan without showering these people with unadulterated praise. 

Cable news is littered with similar cases. James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, lied to Congress about the NSA’s mass surveillance of Americans before the Snowden revelations. He’s now a regular anti-Trump commentator on CNN. Michael Hayden, the former Bush administration NSA and CIA chief who made so many false statements to Congress that they are featured in a stand-alone section in the Senate’s 2014 torture report, is regularly seen on television ripping Trump for constant falsehoods. Hayden even has a bestselling new book, The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in the Age of Lies, lamenting the death of “truth.”

It is the height of irony that Trump constantly rants about the “deep state,” yet the most coordinated PR campaign involving ex-intelligence officials we’ve seen in his presidency was in support of one of his major agenda items. It was Brennan, Clapper, and Hayden — along with dozens of other former intelligence officials — who banded together and and used their newfound media platforms to lobby for Trump’s CIA nominee Gina Haspel, who was personally involved in the agency’s appalling torture program after 9/11.

The next time a Trump cabinet official is caught lying under oath but faces no retribution for it — or when Trump’s CIA is involved in its next human rights scandal — we should save part of the blame for those who paved the way for such an act to go unpunished. By uncritically glorifying law enforcement and intelligence officials who have tramped on civil liberties for decades in the name of fighting Trump, we may damage the cause of civil liberties long after Trump is gone.

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Trevor Timm

Trevor Timm

Trevor Timm is a co-founder and the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He is a writer, activist, and legal analyst who specializes in free speech and government transparency issues. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian and has also contributed to The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, Harvard Law and Policy Review, PBS MediaShift, and Politico. Follow him on Twitter: @TrevorTimm

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