Midterm Time Capsule, 49 Days to Go: Intel Dump, Refugee Cap

Statement from the White House, with Donald Trump's order that closely protected secret information be made public. (Screenshot from White House Press Office)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Because these details tend to get lost in the froth, let’s pause to note two extraordinary steps Donald Trump took in the past 24 hours.

One of them is literally unprecedented; the other is a sharp departure from modern norms. I’m not aware of any member of the governing GOP majority objecting to either of them.

They are:

(1) Declassifying FISA warrants and messages from FBI agents. Presumably because he thinks these messages might embarrass people he considers enemies, on Monday Trump ordered the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Justice (which includes the FBI) to make public “without redaction” a variety of text messages, reports, and even FISA warrants all involved in the Russian-influence probe.

Why did this matter? Because the FISA warrants, the FBI reports, and these other documents presumably contain details on how the government knows what it knows. Who its sources are, what informants and moles it has developed, which surveillance systems work, which enemy codes have been broken. Recall the familiar (though disputed and even disproved) claim that in World War II Winston Churchill let the Luftwaffe bombing of Coventry proceed — rather than evacuate the city, which could have tipped off the Germans to how much the British knew. Whether or not that story is correct (probably not), as a parable it illustrates how important protecting “sources and methods” can be. And in this case Trump decreed: I don’t care.

The “Gang of Eight” within the Congress is supposed to be the bipartisan bulwark against misuse of the intelligence system. Today a “Gang of Four” — the Democratic half of the full-scale octet Gang — protested bitterly against Trump’s decision, and appealed to the FBI and intelligence establishment to ignore it, or slow it down.

“We write to express profound alarm at President Donald Trump’s decision on September 17, 2018 to intervene in an ongoing law enforcement investigation that may implicate the President himself or those around him,” the four Democrats said in their letter. (They are: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; Ranking Senate member of the intelligence committee Mark Warner; and Ranking House member of the intelligence committee Adam Schiff. The four Republicans, who did not sign on, are: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; House Speaker Paul Ryan; Senate intelligence chairman Richard Burr; and House intelligence chairman (sigh) Devin Nunes.) The letter added:

“The action he has taken… is a brazen abuse of power. Any decision by your offices to share this material with the President or his lawyers will violate longstanding Department of Justice policies, as well as assurances you have provided to us.”

So let’s note for the long-term record: no previous president has done this; no minority-party “Gang of Four” has previously had to complain in such impassioned tones; and no majority-party “Gang of the Missing Four” has as distinctly averted its eyes.

Possible leaks of classified material were a huge theme in the past presidential campaign. The winning candidate has now ordained a leak dwarfing anything contemplated back then. (Update: see more from Natasha Bertrand here.)

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(2) Refugees. One of the glories of the United States, idealistically and in practical terms, is that it has opened its doors to those persecuted or endangered in their homelands. As my wife, Deb, and I discussed at length in our book, once they arrive, refugees are on average more entrepreneurial, more education-minded, and more law-abiding than the populace as a whole.

One of the stains on America’s record is when it has turned its back and closed its doors to those persecuted or endangered. Of course the MS St. Louis is the most notorious example, but every day there are similar cases.

There are limits to even America’s absorptive capacity, but every president in the modern era has set them higher than Donald Trump has now done. (You can see the historical patterns here. Two recent Atlantic posts go into the trends too, here and here.)

  • After the warfare in Vietnam and Cambodia, Jimmy Carter substantially raised refugee admissions, to well above 100,000 per year, and large numbers arrived as well early in Ronald Reagan’s term.
  • Through the first Bush era and the Clinton years, refugees from the former Soviet Union and the Balkans increased, and average annual levels were between 75,000 and 100,000.
  • Refugee ceilings fell immediately after the 9/11 attacks, but then rose through the George W. Bush and Obama eras, averaging around 75,000 annually. To put it in perspective: this is roughly 1/4500th of the existing U.S. population — a significant absolute number in international terms, but not among the leaders proportional to either population or GDP.
  • Donald Trump has now set the coming year’s ceiling at 30,000—a one-third cut from last year’s 45,000, and the lowest level since before Ronald Reagan’s time.

I won’t make any more of the moral or practical argument in favor of refugee admission at the moment. Instead I’ll point you to this report by Deb about how refugees have helped invigorate the town of Erie, Pennsylvania. (Plus this.) And I’ll point you to an interactive Esri map, which you can find here, which dramatizes how the flow of refugees into the United States has changed in recent years; where they have arrived; and how many of them (and from where) have settled in any given town, including yours.

Noted for the record, as Jews in America and worldwide are beginning the Yom Kippur fast, and with 49 days to go until the midterm elections.