Sometimes these clearances help ease the way back into government service for former senior officials when one party replaces another. It is a quiet, unwritten aspect of an arrangement designed to preserve a cohesive and informed national-security establishment. Even though hundreds of political appointees will be replaced when an administrations changes, many, if not most, of the newcomers will have been in the loop. And they will quietly welcome the advice of their predecessors, even if they criticized them during campaigns past. It is an altogether sensible arrangement for a government that uniquely among developed countries purges itself of high-level government experience on a four- or eight-year cycle.
Those kinds of security clearances are not particularly lucrative for people who have had the top jobs. That is not why they maintain them, but Trump probably has no idea that that is the case. Rather, he apparently thinks that he can punish his enemies by going after their wallets, not realizing that Michael Hayden’s speaking fees and book advances will go up if the White House manages to pull his code-word tickets. He does not understand the value assigned by the insiders to their predecessors’ experience or the mentality of people who want to continue to serve their country even in semiretirement. Quiet patriotism—as opposed to the flag-waving, wall-building, ally-bashing, threat-tweeting brand of nationalism that Trump has ridden to the presidency—is beyond him.
This, then, is the product of malice, but also of an ignorance and a sheer incompetence that are both a danger and an insurance against Trump’s success. There are other ways to mess with people who have clearances, which is why I let mine lapse shortly after the election. Trump is too incurious to figure them out, and the bureaucracy is too resistant to go along with them. The president’s instinct is to project his own venality on others. When he accuses former officials of monetizing public service, it is because that is precisely what he has attempted to do. He is likely to do more dumb things of this kind, in the same way that he reacted to criticism of his lovefest with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki by inviting the Russian dictator to visit Washington during a bitter fall campaign season.
The White House transcript is missing the most explosive part of the Trump-Putin press conference
The more worrisome thing here is that this episode points in the direction of more norms being dismantled—temporarily, one hopes. Sanders did not dismiss out of hand the idea of handing over a former ambassador to the Russians. Attorney General Jeff Sessions thinks it is acceptable for the country’s chief law-enforcement officer to join shouts of “Lock her up!” So, too, will others in Trump’s circle edge into territory unthinkable a few years ago. And Republicans who would have howled in fury if the Obama administration had attempted any similar outrages studiously look the other way in the cowardly silence that will ruin their party, and what remains of their characters. All this while former Trump officials hold their tongues out of some twisted notion of loyalty or the mere fear of a public tongue-lashing.