The disgraced Michael Flynn on the sidlelines. Gage Skidmore photo via Flickr

The CIA Just Scored a Major Victory in Its War Against Trump

The slow burning coup against the president continues


On December 21 of last year I published a piece on Defiant called “The CIA-FBI Election Feud Looks a Lot Like Prelude to a Coup.” The article argued that U.S. security agencies were taking sides in domestic politics, that there was significant daylight between Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on these issues and that in other countries or circumstances we’d be anticipating a coup d’etat.

In the two months since then events have only reinforced my analysis. There is a dangerous, anti-democratic division deep within the US imperial state that threatens Donald Trump and his regime’s continued existence in a way that will not prevent the devastation he poses. It will accelerate and heighten it.

My coup theory was prescient. Last week, President Trump’s National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned after leaked intelligence indicated that he lied to Vice President Pence last year about his conversations with Russian diplomats.

Flynn was a notorious critic of the CIA, and the CIA hated him in turn — forcing him out as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Obama. The leaks that did him in this time almost certainly came from the Agency.

This needs to be very clear: the CIA appears to have both removed a major critic of it within the administration and sent an unambiguous message about their own political position and capabilities. But they did so in a way that underscored the power and authority of Mike Pence, who appears to be closer to its politics than the president. All this underscores what I said in December about the risk of a coup.

Conventional wisdom has caught up to that analysis, and the most cynical elements of U.S. politics are actually low-key supporting just such a coup. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told Rachel Maddow that Trump should watch out because the deep state had “six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.”

On the Right we have Bill Kristol, founder of the Weekly Standard and notorious pimp for American military aggression. Last week he tweeted “Obviously strongly prefer normal democratic and constitutional politics. But if it comes to it, prefer the deep state to the Trump state.”

These are only a couple of examples; the point is that the concept of a CIA-led coup against the duly — if unfortunately — elected President of the United States is now treated as a realistic possibility in American politics. When I wrote that piece I half-expected to look back in a couple of weeks and cringe at how off-base I was. Instead, I’m unsettled to see how closely I predicted things.

Since then, the divisions between the two agencies have become structural. On one hand Trump kept FBI Director James Comey in place. He even singled him out for praise at a White House event, joking “he’s become more famous than me” before literally embracing him and patting him on the back.

On the other hand Trump has battered the CIA. Trump went to the Agency’s headquarters in Virginia on the second day of his presidency, stood before its memorial to agents killed in action and spoke mostly about his own election victory and the size of his inauguration crowds.

He made it all about him in front of a memorial to its war dead.

Speeches aside, the CIA’s formal power has also eroded under Trump. He removed its experienced director, James Clapper, and downgraded the position by taking it off the principals committee of the National Security Council. He replaced them, notoriously, with Steve Bannon.

This conflict could be resolved if the differences between the sides were merely philosophical. But there is a real conflict of interests occurring here. Both sides are committed to protecting the present ruling class, of course, but the distinct roles played by the CIA and FBI in the pursuit of those aims have produced ideological differences that create distinct political alliances not easily resolved.

The best way to understand these distinctions is as the difference between a cop and a soldier. The FBI is a police agency, and so its primary role is the suppression of internal enemies of the ruling class. Thanks to the FBI’s past suppression of working class and poor people’s political organizations, resistance by these enemies is typically disorganized and random.

The key strategy for keeping dissidents scattered is to justify a persistent state violence against “guilty until proven innocent” communities. The two main thrusts of this strategy today are the Drug War — which justifies mass incarceration targeting Black and Latino families in particular — and a multi-faceted characterization of non-white immigrants as threats to national security.

For Latin American immigrants this means the international dimension of the Drug War and manufactured crises around the Southern border; for Asian and African immigrants we have Islamophobia and the so-called War on Terror. All these police campaigns intersect to label all communities of color as criminals or terrorists of one sort or another.

On the other side of this, of course, is the assumption that white, native-born, Christians are safe but under attack. The FBI helps organize a national law enforcement network to reinforce the narrative. Trump rode to power on these very same messages, and the FBI’s cultural identification with them made the bureau open to collaboration with his campaign and now his presidency.

The CIA is a collection of soldiers. Troops in an empire of this sort have a different primary task — they exist to project the empire’s power and extract value from subject nations. The American strategy for accomplishing this has been to establish and sustain global military, political and economic hegemony.

Hegemony is one of those words that a lot of smart folks love to throw around but when you ask them to define it they resort to versions of “I know it when I see it.” Think of it as a dominance so extensive and unchallenged that it becomes common sense; it’s “just the way things are.” That’s how U.S. power has been for a couple of decades now.

The CIA knows that anywhere any other country can establish power apart from the United States people in that region — and around the world — can envision a world where America’s empire is not in charge. Even minimal, isolated alternatives to U.S. power threaten that strategy.

Trump is fucking with this program. Most notable is his alliance with Russia, primary proponent of a “multi-polar” global order. His resulting skepticism of NATO is synonymous with a skepticism of U.S. global hegemony. Indeed, opponents of American rule the world over often use NATO as shorthand for U.S. militarism.

Also important are Trump’s recent high-profile meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe is an arch-nationalist and advocate for Japan’s rearmament. Such a move would create a clear political pathway for Japanese withdrawal from America’s imperial sphere. Now there are many imperialists in the CIA who favor Japanese rearmament, but they recognize the sensitivity of the matter. Trump is clearly not playing any complex games of great power politics.

So what is he doing? Well, in the first place it appears that he may not have any idea and this is when the CIA would normally be pulling him aside to learn about the birds and bees and cluster bombs of how the U.S. reproduces its global “greatness.” Yet they do not seem to feel safe doing so because Trump’s ignorance is a willful one driven by his personal financial stake in getting rich off of deals cut with America’s rivals.

There’s that mystery stake in Rosneft, the Russian oil monopoly and newly secured trademark protections in China among many other opportunities to come. His daughter, still managing part of his business, met with him and Abe the first time around.

This is the contradiction between the cops at the FBI and the soldiers at the CIA — Trump himself. Normally their tasks dovetail perfectly. But right now the Trump demagogic appeal is advancing the FBI’s cultural nationalist strategy while his self-dealing is undermining the CIA’s project of unquestioned global hegemony.

The man is the problem, which suggests that the simplest solution will be the man’s removal.

CIA director Mike Pompeo. Gage Skidmore photo via Wikimedia commons

So how does such a nightmare come to pass? The first step to removing someone’s power is to neutralize the key individuals and structures supporting them. Flynn was the first piece, and already Trump’s first choice for a replacement — Retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward — said fuck no. He could see where things were headed between the administration and the security state. Best to stay as far away as possible.

Getting at other internal supporters will mean more leaks and more anonymously sourced stories targeting them for discredit and disgrace. Behind the scenes the CIA and allies may also be engaging in extensive blackmail; the Flynn story had that subtle mention by The Washington Post’s source that the Kremlin could have blackmailed Flynn. The source had the information too, and so this hints at one of those “it’d be a shame if something were to happen to you” scenarios.

Trump has few external support structures — with one major exception I’ll get to in a moment — and so once key administration officials are neutralized Trump’s reign will be imperiled. His key institutional outside support comes from the finance sector, but there’s no reason to think that Pence would be any less helpful to them. Note that the dirt on Flynn was weeks old but only leaked after the Senate finally approved Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin — the bankers are assured of continuity regardless of what happens next.

The one exceptional element of all this is Trump’s deep support in the reactionary white middle class. They form the primary basis for U.S. imperialism and the audience for a reactionary media establishment that is generally impervious to the scandals breaking against the administration. Trump immerses himself in this media environment, a habit which only reinforces his native narcissism and makes him invulnerable to attempts to shame him.

The upshot of all this is that Trump will not resign of his own accord. His lifelong experience has been that when he wallows in mire that would shame any decent person his profile raises and he becomes more powerful. His more recent experience is that when all the smart people are certain his political life is over he wins anyway. There seem to be few, if any, circumstances that would drive him to give up power voluntarily.

If the CIA really is doing what sounded crazy in December and trying to eliminate the individual threat to its global strategy, it has limited options. One is to produce a scandal that leads to impeachment, but 19 senators would have to vote to convict. Most of these senators only have to keep the GOP base happy to keep their jobs, and it is hard to emphasize just how much this base will hate any impeachment push. The votes just won’t be there for this option.

That leaves either a marginalization in place — where Trump is still technically in power but de-fanged and isolated — or extralegal removal. The presidency has been empowered too much for the former option to be viable, leaving the latter. This would mean the final, undeniable, public death of the constitutional order, and securing it would necessitate a major public crackdown — unpredictable in its nature.

These are the sorts of things Chuck Schumer and BIll Kristol either welcome or can’t foresee. Trump’s reign must come to an end as quickly as possible, and precipitous or extralegal terminations of his rule are viable, exciting options. But they must be led by the people — this is a form of the democratic process, an extraordinary form that underlies all the others. The CIA’s vision is the precise opposite.

The good news is that the people of this country are starting to check and see what they are really capable of. Here in Austin, 20,000 public school students went on strike last Thursday to protest deportations. That’s one of literally thousands of examples of resistance popping off in this country right now — none of it needing the Democratic Party or elected politicians or well-heeled NGOs to run things. It’s something even the CIA can’t scheme around.

This is the hope for the future: a world without Trump, without a deep state, without white supremacy or empire or any of the other wicked institutions that made his rise possible. A world where democracy is not assassinated, but rather revived.

It’s a world defined by the one thing we can easily predict: defiance.

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