One of the more disorienting aspects of the moment is that we’ve lost all sense of proportion regarding the misdeeds of Donald Trump. Some Trump transgressions, after all, fall somewhere between obnoxious tweeting and treason. Given both the petty distractions created by the president and the fantastical conspiracy theories of his most heated opponents, we risk mischaracterizing those offenses in the middle—offenses that can simply be very bad.
For example, there’s the new report in the New York Times that alleges Trump forced his then Chief of Staff John Kelly to grant a top-secret security clearance to his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, over the objections of intelligence officials and the White House counsel. This is both serious and shameful.
In May, former White House Counsel Donald McGahn wrote a memo recommending the denial of a top-secret clearance for Kushner. The very next day, Kelly claims, Trump “ordered” him to give Kushner the clearance. The president, Kushner, and Ivanka Trump have all claimed that Kushner’s clearance process was standard and that Trump wasn’t involved.
Why was Kushner having such trouble getting clearance? “The full scope of intelligence officials’ concerns about Mr. Kushner is not known,” according to the Times. “But the clearance had been held up in part over questions from the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. about his foreign and business contacts, including those related to Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, according to multiple people familiar with the events.” It’s also worth recalling that when Kushner first applied for security clearance, he failed to mention that he attended the 2016 Trump campaign meeting with Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, and his presidential transition-period meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and the head of a Russian state-owned bank.
Because of the Russian angle, it would be very easy for the left to make this into a story about collusion and Trump’s advancing the aims of Vladimir Putin. And that’s the problem. The obsession with proving (seemingly against evidence) that Trump is a Kremlin agent means ignoring real concerns about his presidency. The horror of Trump’s overruling the intelligence community and White House officials on the security clearance of his son-in-law is that it is precisely how a banana republic operates.
Trump clearly likes to treat the U.S. government as if it were another family-owned business. In such businesses, things like human-resources and standard procedures turn into pretty little fictions once, say, the boss wants to hire his son-in-law. That’s the prerogative of big shots in the private sector.
But the American government can’t work that way. When an elected official bends the rules or just plows through them, he risks the integrity of what John Adams called “a government of laws and not of men.” In a government of men, laws become malleable, optional, and ultimately useless in the protection of individual rights. The instant a president becomes a ruler, citizens become subjects.
Trump is not a ruler, and Jared Kushner’s non-kosher security clearance doesn’t turn the rest of us into subjects. But it’s amazing how far down the road toward a banana republic we can travel while public attention is divided between the president’s silly outbursts and the dwindling prospect of collusion with Russia.