DAY OF THE GENERALS

Rather than as a reality television show, think of the developing Trump administration as a movie. So far, the military members of the cast include:

General James N. Mattis (Marines) — Secretary of Defense (former commanding officer of the current chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Joseph F. Dunford (Marines))

Lt. General Mike Flynn (Army) — National Security Adviser

General John Kelly (Marines) — Director of Homeland Security

Still awaiting callbacks after their auditions: General David Petraeus (Army) and Admiral Michael Rogers (Navy)

Throughout Trump’s campaign, he disdained America’s generals. Now he can’t get enough of them. Back in August, military leaders expressed concern that a President Trump might issue illegal orders precipitating a constitutional crisis. Now Trump is what biologists might call their host species.

Movie Time

If life imitates art, then perhaps a 1964 movie, “Seven Days in May” is instructive. In the film, Burt Lancaster plays General James Matoon Scott, an egomaniac chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Scott assembles a group of officers to stage a coup against President Jordan Lyman, played by Frederic March. The general’s plans turn on a manufactured crisis that will create popular support for his cause.

The film’s lessons have little to do with the antagonists’ specific policy differences. Rather, it reinforces a concern that President Dwight D. Eisenhower expressed as he was leaving office in 1961.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, of the military-industrial complex,” the former general warned. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

The Cure

When President Eisenhower referred to “the disastrous rise of misplaced power,” he wasn’t talking about a president like Trump. But his antidote applies just the same: a vigilant, well-informed electorate. Today’s post-factual world and a leader who traffics in “fake news” make that increasingly difficult.

Lt. Gen. Michal Flynn fits Trump’s new normal. For years, Trump ‘s “birther” hoax propelled his political career. Likewise, Flynn has peddled so many falsehoods that his co-workers had a name for them: “Flynn facts.” Some of his most heinous falsehoods involved Islam, which he called “a political ideology that hides behind religion.” He has touted baseless conspiracy theories about Sharia law coming to the United States.

Fake News Can Be Deadly

Proving that if you plant apples, you grow apples, General Flynn’s son was behind the recent fake news story — “Pizza-gate.” The absurd claim that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria really riled a North Carolina man, who believed it. On Sunday, December 4, he marched into the restaurant with an assault rifle, apparently intent on rescuing the child-slaves.

After the incident, the younger Flynn tweeted about the “Pizza-gate” conspiracy theory, saying “it’ll remain a story” until it is “proven to be false.” Senator Joe McCarthy would be proud of that upside down approach to the relationship between journalism and the search for truth.

But that’s not the real story.

It Gets Worse

Mike Flynn Jr. had a Trump transition team email account. On November 17, he’d tweeted about his involvement: “I’ve been here last 2 days. Great atmosphere, great mood…. media lying about transition. Couldn’t be going better!” He was even getting a security clearance.

On the Tuesday morning following the Pizza-gate incident, Vice President-elect Pence — who chairs the Trump transition team — responded to questions from MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough about the younger Flynn’s role.

“General Flynn’s son has no involvement in the transition whatsoever,” Pence said. Thrice Scarborough pressed him on the issue; thrice Pence denied Flynn Jr.’s connection to the Trump team.

A few hours later, Pence dissembled as CNN’s Jake Tapper posed the same question to Pence seven times. By the end of the day, Flynn Jr. had resigned (or was fired by Trump himself) from the transition team.

Moral: Beware of Pence’s Boy Scout appearance. He often maintains a safe distance from the truth, too. But we should have learned that from the vice-presidential debate.

Trump the Military Man

President-elect Trump avoided military service because of bone spurs — he couldn’t recall which foot; maybe it was both. Subsequently, he admitted to feelings of guilt for not having served while other young men his age were dying in Vietnam. Perhaps his need to overcompensate for that underlying insecurity explains his boasts during the campaign that he knew more about ISIS than the generals, who had been reduced to “rubble.”

Now Trump has come full circle. Senior military men enthrall him. Maybe it’s the uniform. Maybe it’s their take charge attitude. But civilian control of the military stabilizes our democracy, and the plethora of former general officers in Trump’s administration is unprecedented.

They probably won’t comprise anything comparable to General James Matoon Scott’s band of rebels. But when former generals speak in unison on policy matters that our founders entrusted to civilians, their collective voice could dominate the room. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Trump the Impressionable

The danger is especially great with President-elect Trump. In addition to being untethered to facts, he has no philosophical core informing his decisions. That’s why he reverses his policy views on a dime — or according to whatever people want to hear — or based on what the last person in the room tells him. (The last item makes Steve Bannon’s proximity to President Trump’s Oval Office particularly frightening.)

Consider the moment that Trump’s Secretary of Defense-designate James Mattis so impressed him. At campaign rallies, Trump repeatedly endorsed waterboarding for the interrogation of suspected terrorists. But with a single offhand remark, General Mattis flipped him.

“[Mattis] said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful,’” Trump reported later. He added that Mattis found more value in building trust and rewarding cooperation with terrorism suspects.

According to Trump, Mattis told him, “Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I’ll do better.”

“I was very impressed by that answer,” Trump said.

Torture, Trump continued, is “not going to make the kind of a difference that a lot of people are thinking.” But until his conversation with Mattis, Trump himself was one of those people.

Remain Alert

In Seven Days in May, Kirk Douglas played another military officer, Col. Jiggs Casey. He didn’t agree with President Lyman’s policies, but he recognized the threat that General Scott posed to the Constitution. Trump is no Lyman.

One more point about the movie: Rod Serling wrote the screenplay. He’d also created and written an early 1960s series that opened with these lines:

“It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone.”

The country has entered it.

OPEN LETTER #3 TO PRESIDENT-ELECT TRUMP: A JOB FOR JEFF SESSIONS

Dear President-elect Trump,

Sometimes your lack of impulse control works for you. For example, on Friday night, you lashed out at the Broadway hit, Hamilton. With the stroke of a few tweets, you dominated the weekend news cycle. The fun ended Sunday morning, when Vice-President-elect Mike Pence told CBS’s John Dickerson that Hamilton was “a great show.”

Pence “wasn’t offended” by a 90-second post-performance comment on behalf of the cast and producers. Your tweets had demanded an apology from them, but it turned out that you now owe one — for misstating the facts and challenging First Amendment principles.

You achieved a larger objective. Your twitter tantrum diverted popular attention from: your thumbs-up group photo after meeting with business partners developing a Trump-branded luxury apartment complex in India; white nationalists convening in Washington to celebrate your election; and your selection of National Security Adviser-designate Mike Flynn, who called Islam a “cancer” and a “political ideology hiding behind religion.” He’s also a board member of ACT for America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “far and away the largest grassroots anti-Muslim group in America.”

Master Distracter

Your Hamilton tweets also moved the spotlight away from your attorney general-designate. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan’s Republican Senate put Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court and made William Rehnquist chief justice. But even at the height of the Reagan revolution, Alabama’s then-U.S. attorney Sessions became only the second nominee in 48 years to be rejected for a federal judgeship. Now he’ll be your attorney general.

In a normal world, Sessions’ earlier defeat would doom your nominee. But you’re normalizing the abnormal. When Steve Bannon is the baseline for comparison, even Jeff Sessions looks good. He shouldn’t.

Sessions on the Merits

The junior senator from Alabama is one of its most conservative members. He opposes: any path to legalizing undocumented immigrants, gay marriage, abortion, and the legalization of marijuana. He voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. His portfolio is a distressing compilation of what you seem to mean by “Make America Great Again.”

Sessions is far out of step with most Americans. (Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory — 1.5 million ballots and growing — proves that you are, too.) But resigned to his confirmation, I propose a bipartisan assignment for him: restore the integrity of the FBI. It will require a public investigation into events culminating in your election.

Roll the Tape

In October, polls showed you losing so badly that you were likely to cost Republicans the Senate. Three months earlier, FBI Director James Comey had announced that no reasonable prosecutor would bring criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. But in an unprecedented press conference, he’d opined about her recklessness anyway. That kept your “Crooked Hillary” rally theme alive. Even so, as summer turned to fall, the email-gate story was losing its legs.

On October 25, your key surrogate, Rudy Giuliani appeared on Fox & Friends. When a host asked whether you had anything other than “some more inspiring rallies” planned for the remaining 14 days of the campaign, Giuliani chuckled.

“Yes,” he grinned.

“What?” a co-host asked.

“You’ll see,” Giuliani answered in a full-throated laugh. “We’ve got a couple of surprises left. I call them surprises in the way we’re going to campaign, to get our message out there. Maybe in a little bit of a different way. You’ll see, and I think it’ll be enormously effective.”

Giuliani then discussed how “all of these revelations about Hillary Clinton, finally, are beginning to have an impact.”

 

On Oct. 26, Giuliani appeared with Fox reporter Martha MacCallum. As the interview ended, he interrupted her to volunteer, “And I think he’s [Trump] got a surprise or two that you’re going to hear about in the next few days.”

MacCallum tried to conclude the interview, but Giuliani kept pushing: “I mean, I’m talking about some pretty big surprises.”

Finally, MacCallum took the bait.

“I heard you saying that this morning,” she said. “What do you mean?”

“You’ll see,” Giuliani laughed.

Friday, October 28

Only days after Giuliani’s teasers, Comey violated Justice Department guidelines with a letter informing Congress that the Bureau was reviewing additional evidence relating to the Clinton email investigation. Conservative radio talk show host Lars Larson interviewed Giuliani.

“There’s a kind of revolution going on inside the FBI about the original [July] conclusion being completely unjustified and almost a slap in the face of the FBI’s integrity,” Giuliani said. “I know that from former agents. I know that even from a few active agents who, obviously, don’t want to identify themselves.”

Later, Giuliani backpedaled.

“I don’t know anything about leaks from the FBI or the Justice Department,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “I haven’t talked to anybody in the FBI or Justice Department.”

When Blitzer confronted Giuliani with the Lars Larson interview, Giuliani responded, “Well, the information I’ve been getting is from former FBI agents. If I did say that, that was wrong.”

In 48 hours, Giuliani had gone from “I know that even from a few active agents who, obviously don’t want to identify themselves” to “the information I’ve been getting is from former FBI agents.”

But Giuliani’s distinction didn’t help the Bureau. Whether the leaks came directly from active agents, or whether active agents leaked to retired agents who then went to Giuliani, they originated within the FBI. In addition to professional responsibilities of confidentiality under the ABA Standards on Prosecutorial Investigations, agents sign employment agreements that have sharp non-disclosure teeth. Certain FBI personnel working on the Clinton investigation also signed a “Case Briefing Acknowledgement,” agreeing that “due to the nature and sensitivity of this investigation, compliance with these restrictions may be subject to verification by polygraph examination.”

Lie detectors!

Wednesday, November 2 

Less than a week before Election Day, another FBI leak produced a new bombshell. Bret Baier of Fox News cited “two separate sources with intimate knowledge of the FBI investigations” for what turned out to be a bogus report. He said that the Clinton investigations would likely to lead to an indictment. You milked that one. As rally crowds responded with “Lock her up” even more loudly than before, some members of your mob added, “Execute her!”

By Thursday, Baier admitted that he’d spoken “inartfully” about the false FBI report. By Friday, he was in full retreat: “That just wasn’t inartful, it was a mistake and for that I’m sorry.”

When MSNBC’s Brian Williams grilled your campaign manager Kellyanne Conway on whether you would stop using the earlier false report in your stump speech, she smiled and said, “Well, the damage is done to Hillary Clinton…”

Sunday, November 6

Then Comey sent another letter confirming that his earlier missive had been a false alarm. But by then, early voters had cast 40 million ballots — almost 30 million of which came after his October 30 letter. Meanwhile, you’d spent the week telling crowds that Clinton’s problems were “bigger than Watergate” and that criminal investigations into her dealings would continue for years into her presidency.

When confronted with Comey’s latest exoneration of Clinton, Kellyanne Conway kept her smile as she told MSNBC, “We have not made this a centerpiece of our messaging… This has not been front and center of our campaign.”

Sessions could put Rudy Giuliani under oath and ask him to name his FBI sources — active or retired. After all, if this had happened to you, hearings in the Republican Congress would already be underway. Now they’ll never happen. To “Make America Great Again,” start with the FBI, if you dare.