This is what dictators do

The last two days of congressional testimony have offered a stunning testament to Donald Trump’s attempted seizure of personal control over the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Of the two days’ testimony, yesterday’s is the more important but needs to be seen from the vantage point of Comey’s testimony today.

The use of law enforcement and intelligence forces for political purposes is a hallmark of dictatorships everywhere. In democracies, such agencies — as well as the military — operate independently of political control. So consider what happened this week on Capitol Hill.

FBI Director James Comey testified today that on February 14 of this year Donald Trump asked him if he wanted to keep his job, then told Comey that he needed his personal loyalty. Comey not only declined to pledge loyalty, but over the next several weeks refused to drop his investigation of Michael Flynn, refused to clear Trump publicly in the Russia investigation, and then was fired.

It looks as if Director of National Security Dan Coats, Director Mike Rogers of the National Security Agency, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe must have received that message loud and clear: Do what I want or you’re fired.

All four are recent Trump appointees and one, Rogers, was reappointed to his job after President Obama considered firing him for poor performance. During the transition Rogers went to New York to pitch Trump for the job of Director of National Intelligence. Trump gave that job to Coats but reappointed Rogers to NSA.

Yesterday, when members of the Senate Intelligence Committee asked them whether anyone had spoken to them about influencing the Russian investigation, they waffled, answered questions that hadn’t been asked, and ultimately simply refused to answer, even though the questions did not touch on classified information and the president had not invoked executive privilege.

On that very morning The Washington Post had run a detailed story that Coats had told associates in March that Trump had asked him to approach Comey about backing off of the Flynn investigation. A few days earlier The Post had run another story about both of them being approached by Trump on the same issue.

“It shows what kind of an Orwellian existence that we live in,” said Sen. John McCain in yesterday’s hearing. “I mean, it’s detailed, as you know from reading the story, when you met, what you discussed, et cetera, et cetera. And yet, here in a public hearing before the American people, we can’t talk about what was described in detail in this morning’s Washington Post.”

Coats seemed flustered, at one point asking, “Are you talking to me? Comment on what?” Just because it appeared in The Post, he said, didn’t mean the story was unclassified. When Sen. Angus King, independent of Maine, asked what legal basis there was for Coats’s refusal to answer, Coats said, “I’m not sure I have a legal basis.”

At the end of the hearing the Republican chairman of the committee, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina expressed the general frustration:

“At no time should you be in a position where you come to Congress without an answer,” he said. “I would ask each of you to take a message back to the administration. Congressional oversight of the intelligence activities of our government is necessary and it must be robust.”

It was gentle as admonitions go given the flat refusal to answer questions. In spite of the anger some members showed, no one threatened enforcement action such as subpoenas or contempt citations.

So here is the matter simply stated: Comey lost his job for refusing to do exactly as the president wanted. Coats, Rogers, Rosenstein, and McCabe, when asked questions the honest answers to which the president would not like, simply did not answer.

That is an extension of the will to control the flow of information, a hallmark of all dictators.

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