One of the surreal features of the Trump era in Washington is the composition of “the resistance.”
There are of course many progressives online who warn against becoming inured to Donald Trump’s transgressions, to “normalizing” his presidency. That’s to be expected. But among their allies is also a cadre of former national security insiders who resist Trump primarily on the grounds that he may be unduly influenced by Russia. Most Democrats agree about this possibility, even if their party opposes Trump for more reasons than suspicion of collusion.
With Trump’s nomination of his current deputy director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, to lead the agency, these strange bedfellows are breaking up.
[Opinion: Gina Haspel’s role in CIA’s torture program disqualifies her to serve as CIA director]
On one side you have the Democrats. They argue that Haspel, whose open confirmation hearing in the Senate takes place on Wednesday, was too closely associated with the CIA’s torment and interrogation of terrorism suspects after 9/11 to be approved as director now. She was chief of staff to director of operations Jose Rodriguez when he ordered videotapes depicting waterboarding to be destroyed, even though congressional oversight committees requested them. And even though Haspel has since disavowed torture, her past is a stain that should not be washed away.
As former Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman, Dianne Feinstein, put it last month: “To promote someone so heavily involved in the torture program to the top position at the CIA, the agency responsible for one of the darkest chapters in our history, is a move that I’m very wary of.”
Feinstein is being consistent. When she led the intelligence committee, the Democratic staff produced a comprehensive report on the CIA’s program, much to the chagrin of the agency. The tensions boiled over in 2014 when CIA staffers breached the database used by the Senate investigators. John Brennan, then director of the CIA, was forced to publicly apologize to Feinstein, but only after his agency initially counter-charged that her staffers had mishandled state secrets.
The rise of Trump smoothed things over between the Democrats and the intelligence mandarins. It gave them a common cause. Retired CIA leaders like Michael Hayden and Michael Morell, who served Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, broke precedent and publicly accused Trump of being a Russian patsy in the run-up to the election in 2016.
Since Trump’s inauguration last year, other former spy chiefs have followed suit. Former director of national intelligence James Clapper is now a member of filmmaker Rob Reiner’s “Committee to Investigate Russia.” Former CIA director John Brennan is now a paid contributor to the broadcast home of the resistance, MSNBC.
[Trump stands by CIA nomination of Gina Haspel, dismissing torture concerns]
This is why it’s interesting that all four men signed an open letter last month with 46 other retired intelligence pros endorsing Haspel’s nomination. Some of the former leaders have gone even further. Jeremy Bash, who served as chief of staff to CIA director Leon Panetta during the Obama administration, wrote on Wednesday that Haspel should not be blamed for destroying the waterboarding tapes because she believed she was following the orders of Porter Goss, who was then CIA director. Bash is in a position to know; he was chief counsel for the Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee when it investigated the matter.
The ending of Bash’s OpEd gets to the heart of the rift that Haspel’s nomination has torn in the resistance. “Confirming Gina Haspel would send exactly the right signal to the intelligence community and the rest of the country about the importance of professional intelligence and service over self,” he wrote. “We need that signal now more than ever.”
In other words, Bash endorses Haspel in large part because he believes she will place the interests of the CIA over the narrow interests of the president. Feinstein on the other hand opposes Haspel because she still wants to hold the CIA accountable for past torture.
Just as Democrats now find their allies against Trump endorsing his pick for CIA director, the president finds his nominee has support from the former spies his supporters decry as apparatus of America’s “deep state.”
When I asked the White House director for legislative affairs, Marc Short, about this on Friday, he acknowledged that some Trump supporters have told him that the support for Haspel from administration critics like Brennan and Clapper gives them anxiety. But Short also said this didn’t factor into the decision to nominate Haspel. “She was not put forward to this position because Brennan liked her,” he said, but because of her service as deputy director of the CIA. “She was put forward because she did a good job.”
Even if enough senators agree and confirm Haspel, the ironies have now been laid bare: Trump has nominated a woman his national security state adversaries believe will check his power.
And Democrats will oppose her nomination because of their resistance to the policies of the last Republican president.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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