Trump’s Weaponization of the National Security State

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

With national polls showing Joe Biden leading Donald Trump in key battleground states, the president is acting irrationally and deploying his cabinet secretaries and departments to influence next month’s election.  Trump has used most of the past four years to enforce Steve Bannon’s “deconstruction of the administrative state,” and most of the past several months to politicize and weaponize the key departments of the national security state.  He has manipulated the Department of Justice; the Department of Defense; the Department of Homeland Security; the Department of State, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; and the Central Intelligence Agency in unprecedented ways.

+ Attorney General William Barr and the Department of Justice have become Trump’s “personal attorney” and “personal law firm,” respectively.  Bill Barr marshaled federal law enforcement and the National Guard to enable Trump’s blasphemous photo opportunity in front of the St. John’s Episcopal Church on the first of June, 2020.  The Department of Justice utilized the command center of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to manage the aggressive show of force that took place on the first of June to remove peaceful protestors from Lafayette Square to enable the photo opportunity. Barr also threatened to punish New York City, Portland, and Seattle and their Democratic mayors as “anarchist jurisdictions,” and even to cut off funding to those cities, which he is not in a position to do.

+ Barr has ignored Trump’s latest demands on the Department of Justice to move against his political adversaries, citing Hillary Clinton, who should be “jailed,” Joe Biden, a “criminal” who “shouldn’t be allowed to run,” and President Barack Obama, who was included in a string of charges. This is the first Trump red line that Barr appears hesitant to cross. Thus far, Barr has said publicly that Obama and Biden are not under investigation.  Barr disingenuously contends that Trump “has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case,” although he acknowledged that Trump’s tweets about the Department of Justice “make it impossible for me to do my job.”

+ Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf is using his department as the personal militia of the president of the United States.  DHS played a central role in dealing with protest activity in Portland and Seattle, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement occupied U.S. cities this month to conduct arrests in so-called “sanctuary enclaves.”  ICE’s campaign was designed to distract from Trump’s incompetent handling of the pandemic and the economic setback.

+ John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, cooperated with Trump’s weaponizing of the government by providing unsubstantiated intelligence to Senator Lindsey Graham’s Judiciary Committee to justify opening an investigation against Hillary Clinton.  The so-called intelligence has been repudiated by senior intelligence officials as well as the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, who concluded Ratcliffe’s so-called intelligence was in fact Russian disinformation.  Ratcliffe conceded that he released the information “at the direction of the president of the United States.”

+ CIA director Gina Haspel is making sure that Trump doesn’t receive any unwanted intelligence at his Resolute desk in the Oval Office.  In an unprecedented step, Haspel has ordered intelligence analysts to vet intelligence dealing with Russian interference, for example, with the General Counsel, Courtney Elwood.  Ms. Elwood previously provided the CIA whistleblower’s affidavit on Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president to the National Security Council rather than to the Department of Justice, which various rulings require her to do.  When the inspector general of the director of national intelligence provided the affidavit to the Senate Intelligence Committee as required by law, Trump fired him.

+ The Pentagon’s contribution to Trump’s photo opportunity at the St. John’s Episcopal Church in June was requesting National Guard commanders from all over the country to airlift citizen-soldiers to Washington, D.C. to assist in clearing out protestors from Lafayette Square.  In the wake of 9/11, a obscure law allowed governors to send guardsmen across state lines, but only for counter-terrorism missions.  In June, nearly all of the 3,800 troops that arrived in Washington came from states with Republican governors.  Most blue state National Guard commanders sided with the head of the California National Guard, who remarked “f— this, I have other things to worry about.”

+ Secretary of Defense Mark Esper actually described those cities that were occupied by National Guard troops as “battle-space,” which is a rather unusual description of American cities.  In fact, the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibits the deployment of U.S. land forces in the United States without an act of Congress or the concurrence of state officials.

+ Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump’s most vocal loyalist and a serial violator of the Hatch Act, carried out the president’s order to release Hillary Clinton’s emails sent through her home server between 2009 and 2012. Trump said that he was “not happy” with the way the secretary was “running the State Department” and that he should “get them out.”  Pompeo immediately announced he would do so on Trump’s network, Fox News.

It couldn’t be more worrisome to have every principal of the national security team willing to follow the dictates and commands from someone as unhinged as Donald Trump.  There appears to be no concern with someone who tweeted last week after spending several days in Walter Reed Hospital: “I’m back because I’m a perfect specimen and I’m extremely young.”  And if that wasn’t enough to cause alarm, he then released a video in which he stated: “I’m a senior.  I known you don’t know that.  Nobody knows that.”

The ostrich puts his head in the sand and because he can’t see, it assumes that it can’t be seen. Donald Trump has lost touch with reality, but those in his administration and his party do not presume to see.


Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for