The press is disturbed about Donald Trump’s latest attempt to smash norms and subvert our democracy. The president has now supposedly hastened our transformation into a banana republic by, of all things, calling for broader declassification and greater transparency. This line of argument is perverse.
A recent series of articles in the New York Times tries to paint a worrisome picture of White House efforts to grant Attorney General Bill Barr the authority to review the special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign and declassify pertinent documents. In one article, Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt claim that the president has now taken “extraordinary steps” to give Barr “sweeping new authorities” to conduct his review. That article features quotes from a former CIA official who describes this declassification as dangerous because “the power to declassify is also the power to selectively declassify, and selective declassification is one of the ways the Trump White House can spin a narrative about the origins of the Russia investigation to their point of view.”
By this argument, all declassification is a bad idea because all declassification is, in fact, selective declassification. Only anarchists believe in having no state secrets whatsoever. And note that the media and anti-Trump partisans have pivoted instantly from demanding the disclosure of a fully unredacted version of Robert Mueller’s report to warning against the perils of transparency.
But it’s a follow-up article in the Times, by Michael S. Schmidt and Julian E. Barnes, that really sounds the alarm on Trump’s supposed transgression here. “Democrats and some current and former national security officials are concerned over Mr. Barr’s inquiry into the intelligence agencies partly because it upends the relationship between the law enforcement and intelligence communities,” they write. “After fears grew that the Nixon administration had politicized the intelligence agencies in the 1970s, the Justice Department emerged as a neutral overseer of the intelligence agencies.”
To raise the specter of Nixon and Watergate in a story about a president’s push for transparency is absurd. And it’s even more absurd given that Mueller found insufficient evidence that the Trump campaign had conspired with Russia to undermine the 2016 election. “It’s not the crime,” goes the old saying about Watergate. “It’s the cover-up.” But for Russiagate, we have a new formulation: “It’s not the law-abiding. It’s the transparency.”
The article quotes David Kris, a Justice Department official during the Obama administration, who says, “The attorney general was supposed to help ensure the intelligence agencies would be respectful of privacy, operate in legal limits and be apolitical as well.” Schmidt and Barnes then offer: “But Mr. Trump’s efforts to personalize and politicize law enforcement inverted that order.”
Yet Kris describes precisely what Barr is doing. The attorney general’s review is intended to shed light on whether or not investigators justly invaded Americans’ privacy, hewed to the law, and conducted the investigation in a manner that was not personalized and politicized.
Surely, there are more concerning ways for a president to rebuke his antagonists than to call for a clearer picture of their actions. If Trump’s critics are so certain of the investigation’s integrity, they should be eager to see a fuller airing of its origins and methods. The defensive crouch they’re now adopting isn’t helping their case.