“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” Claudius says that near the end of the fourth act of Hamlet. Everything is going wrong. Hamlet is onto him. Hamlet knows just what Claudius did to become king – he murdered the previous king and married the previous king’s widow, Hamlet’s mother – and soon everyone will know. Hamlet will see to that. Hamlet is causing havoc. It’s one damned thing after another – battalions of sorrows. And of course it ends badly – for everyone. Hamlet dies too.
Teaching Hamlet was easy. The kids got that. Adolescents seem to see life that way – everything is a crisis – the crises come in battalions – it’s just not fair. Then they discover that they’d better get used to that – or most of them discover that life really is one damned thing after another. The few who don’t discover that are rare – usually the rich kids. Perhaps money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy off this sorrow or that. Money can contain the damage. They lead a charmed life, and eventually they just can’t understand the sorrows of others. What’s the problem? Why are the people whining?
Donald Trump has led a charmed life – the son of a multimillionaire who became a billionaire (maybe) – a man untouched by sorrow, and proud of it. He’s worked his way out of many a jam. He’s used the bankruptcy laws to make himself even richer. He’s stiffed many banks but found other banks, or wealthy Russians, or, some say, Mafia guys in need of places to park gobs of questionable cash. It’s all good. He can make any potential personal sorrows go away. Don’t ask questions. No one is ever going to see his tax returns. Just know he can make sorrows go away – and he can make America great again. That was the promise. He could make America’s sorrows go away, just like his bald spot.
He’d lock up Hillary Clinton. That was the chant – Lock Her Up! That woman had no idea how to handle classified information. There was that private server. There were those missing emails. It was a scandal and clearly criminal, or even treasonous. He’d never be so “casual” about such things, but now there’s this:
Thirty to forty White House officials and administration political appointees are still operating without full security clearances, including senior adviser to President Donald Trump Jared Kushner and – until recently – White House staffer Rob Porter, according to a US official and a source familiar with the situation.
The White House claims that the backlog of interim security clearances is a procedural consequence of the review process carried out by the FBI and White House Office of Security, which can take time to complete.
But several sources, including intelligence officials who have served previous Democratic and GOP administrations, describe the backlog as very unusual and make clear that the process should have been completed after a year in office.
Thirty to forty White House officials and administration political appointees are dealing with highly classified government issues without the clearance to do so, which is a bit “casual” – and thirty or forty times worse than the hypothetical situation with Hillary Clinton, but that’s not all, as Steve Benen notes:
Donald Trump has long taken an interest in the presidential daily intelligence briefing. In fact, in 2014, he seemed convinced that Barack Obama wasn’t taking the national-security briefings as seriously as he should.
“Fact – Obama does not read his intelligence briefings,” Trump complained, making up details that in no way reflected reality. Around the same time, Trump added, “Obama has missed 58% of his intelligence briefings” – which, again, was completely untrue.
All of this seemed quite ironic when, during Trump’s presidential transition process, he skipped nearly all of his intelligence briefings. Asked why, the Republican told Fox News in December 2016, “Well, I get it when I need it… I don’t have to be told – you know, I’m, like, a smart person.”
Yes, he does lead a charmed life:
As his inauguration drew closer, Trump acknowledged that he likes very short intelligence briefings. “I like bullets or I like as little as possible,” he explained in January 2017.
Intelligence professionals have gone to great lengths to accommodate the president’s toddler-like attention span, preparing reports “with lots of graphics and maps.” National Security Council officials have even learned that Trump is likely to stop reading important materials unless he sees his name, so they include his name in “as many paragraphs” as possible.
And now the Washington Post reports this:
For much of the past year, President Trump has declined to participate in a practice followed by the past seven of his predecessors: He rarely if ever reads the President’s Daily Brief, a document that lays out the most pressing information collected by U.S. intelligence agencies from hot spots around the world.
Trump has opted to rely on an oral briefing of select intelligence issues in the Oval Office rather than getting the full written document delivered to review separately each day, according to three people familiar with his briefings.
It seems that months ago Trump made it clear that he’s “not interested in reviewing a personal copy of the written intelligence report known as the PDB, a highly classified summary prepared before dawn to provide the president with the best update on the world’s events.” And this “could hamper his ability to respond to crises in the most effective manner, intelligence experts warned.” But Trump doesn’t like intelligence experts. They keep saying that Russia meddled in the last election, and they can prove it. Trump takes that as an insult. He won fair and square, on his own, but no good will come of this:
Leon Panetta, a former CIA director and defense secretary for President Barack Obama, said Trump could miss important context and nuance if he is relying solely on an oral briefing. The arrangement also increases pressure on the president’s national security team, which cannot entirely replace a well-informed commander in chief, he said.
“Something will be missed,” Panetta said. “If for some reason his instincts on what should be done are not backed up by the intelligence because he hasn’t taken the time to read that intelligence, it increases the risk that he will make a mistake.”
Benen adds this:
Part of the problem may stem from the fact that Trump, by his own admission, doesn’t like to read because he doesn’t think he has to. The Republican told the Washington Post in July 2016 that he believes he reaches the right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I already had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense.”
Last summer, the Post had a piece on White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, noting that one of the three-star-general’s challenges is “holding the attention of the president.”
Specifically in reference to the war in Afghanistan, the article added, “Even a single page of bullet points on the country seemed to tax the president’s attention span on the subject.”
A Trump confidant said at the time, “I call the president the two-minute man. The president has patience for a half-page.”
That may be true, but Benen had documented elsewhere how Trump never misses a moment of Fox and Friends each morning, and then immediately tweets his policy responses to their assessment of the details of most pressing crises of the day. That’s Trump’s President’s Daily Brief. Steve Doocy briefs him, every day, and he often has dinner with Sean Hannity, but these two news items – a White House full of people without security clearance to do what they’re doing, and his refusal to read the intelligence reports from his own intelligence agencies – came on the same Friday morning. They were a bother.
They were also the first of more sorrows to come:
A White House speechwriter resigned Friday after his former wife claimed that he was violent and emotionally abusive during their turbulent 2½ -year marriage – allegations that he vehemently denied, saying she was the one who victimized him.
The abrupt departure of David Sorensen, a speechwriter who worked under senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, came as The Washington Post was reporting on a story about abuse claims by his ex-wife, Jessica Corbett. Corbett told The Post that she described his behavior to the FBI last fall as the bureau was conducting a background check of Sorensen.
White House officials said they learned of the accusations by Sorensen’s wife Thursday night, before The Post contacted the White House for comment.
“We immediately confronted the staffer, he denied the allegations and he resigned today,” spokesman Raj Shah said in a statement Friday evening.
In a text message to The Post, Sorensen said he stepped down because he “didn’t want the White House to have to deal with this distraction.”
It happened again:
Sorensen’s resignation comes two days after another administration official, staff secretary Rob Porter, departed after two ex-wives said that he physically abused them. Senior White House officials and the FBI knew about the allegations for months, raising questions about why he was allowed to remain in his post.
But at least there was this:
Administration officials said Sorensen’s position as a speechwriter at the Council on Environmental Quality, a division of the Executive Office of the President, did not require a security clearance. His background check was ongoing, they said. The FBI declined requests for comment.
The rest is all the sordid details, not worth repeating, but there was this:
White House Counsel Donald McGahn and other Trump administration officials have been so vexed by Jared Kushner’s months-long inability to obtain a permanent security clearance that they have hesitated to get involved in other cases with potential problems, several people familiar with the matter said…
Those in McGahn’s office, people familiar with the matter said, feel they cannot take action on other people whose background checks have dragged on because they did not take similar steps with Kushner.
The sorrows were coming in battalions, as Philip Rucker and Josh Dawsey explain here:
The White House was engulfed in chaos Friday as officials scrambled to contain the fallout from its management of domestic violence allegations against staff secretary Rob Porter, even as President Trump lavished praise on the now-departed senior aide and suggested he may be innocent.
No one was surprised. Trump had said Roger Ailes was a fine man, and Bill O’Reilly did nothing wrong, and those women could have been lying about Judge Roy Moore, and as for that the Access Hollywood tape and the fifteen or twenty women who said they could prove he had done to them exactly what he had bragged about on that tape, he had said they were all liars and he’d sue them all – one day, when he got around to it. He was innocent, Porter may be innocent too, but that wasn’t the only problem:
And amid the tumult, the man whose mission had been to enforce order in the West Wing, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, was focused instead on a more personal goal – to save his job – as Trump seriously sounded out confidants about possible replacements.
Things were not going well:
Trump and Kelly have had a series of conversations in recent days that two White House officials described as “very turbulent.” The president is upset with his top aide – as well as with White House Communications Director Hope Hicks – for not being more transparent with him about the allegations against Porter and for their botched public relations push to defend him, according to four officials.
Kelly and his loyal deputies have been “frantically trying to stop the bleeding,” according to one West Wing staffer, who, like the others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe the chaos.
Kelly’s efforts at damage control included instructing senior aides at a Friday morning meeting to communicate that he had taken action to remove Porter within 40 minutes of learning that abuse allegations from both of Porter’s ex-wives were credible, according to two senior officials. That account contradicts the administration’s public statements and other private accounts.
Kelly told them to lie. They didn’t like that. They called up reporters at the Washington Post and spilled the beans, which led to this:
In a conversation with Trump, Kelly said he would be willing to resign if that would improve the situation, but he made the offer casually and did not submit a letter of resignation or take formal action, according to two White House officials.
But wait, there’s more:
Aides described a resulting level of dysfunction not experienced behind the scenes at the White House since the early months of Trump’s presidency. Dormant rivalries have come alive, with suspicions swirling about some of the most senior officials and the roles they apparently played in protecting Porter.
“People are using it to their advantage,” one West Wing aide said. “If you hate Kelly, this is your moment. Hope’s enemies are using it to go after her.”
Mercedes Schlapp, the director of strategic communications, who is responsible for long-term planning, advised some lower-level press staffers to deal with her because Hicks was distracted by the Porter situation – a move that one White House official said was interpreted as an encroachment on Hicks’s turf.
Hope Hicks is in trouble:
Hicks, who had been dating Porter and played an integral role in orchestrating the initial White House responses defending him after the first allegations were reported Tuesday, has been the target of some of the internal blame.
Having worked as Trump’s top communications adviser for three years, Hicks is considered almost a member of the family. She is arguably the president’s closest personal confidante in the White House, and their relationship has shielded her during previous internal battles. But officials said the Porter situation has exposed her vulnerabilities.
She’s not alone:
Officials described Kelly as more endangered than Hicks, adding that the chief of staff had lost the trust and confidence of some on the senior staff. But advisers said they saw no evidence that Trump was preparing to oust Kelly imminently; one of them suggested the president may try to publicly torment him for a while, which is the style of punishment he has given other aides when he is unsatisfied with their performances.
But don’t count to it:
Trump is mercurial and impulsive by nature, however. His advisers cautioned that he could decide on a moment’s notice to let Kelly go – as he did with Kelly’s predecessor, Reince Priebus, who spent a Friday in July traveling with Trump only to be unceremoniously terminated in a presidential tweet that was sent as Priebus was descending the steps from Air Force One onto a rain-soaked tarmac at Joint Base Andrews near Washington.
And Kelly did tell his staff to lie:
Kelly spent much of Friday scrambling to preserve his credibility inside the White House. In a morning staff meeting, he told senior aides to tell lower-level staffers throughout the White House that he had taken action within 40 minutes of learning that abuse allegations from both of Porter’s ex-wives were credible, according to two senior officials. He also sought to assure attendees that he cares about domestic violence, the officials said.
“He told the staff he took immediate and direct action,” one of the officials said.
Since that account contradicts the Trump administration’s previous accounts, some staffers left the meeting believing Kelly had asked them to lie, according to the two senior officials.
That’s when they called the Post’s reporters, and then there was this confusion:
Trump – who has told confidants he was angry that the Porter saga was national news for several straight days – spoke out on the matter for the first time Friday. After summoning reporters into the Oval Office, Trump said this was a “tough time” for Porter and “we absolutely wish him well.” The president said nothing about his ex-wives’ allegations, nor did he broadly condemn domestic violence.
Those who lead a charmed life just can’t understand the sorrows of others:
“He did a very good job when he was in the White House, and we hope he has a wonderful career, and he will have a great career ahead of him,” Trump said. “But it was very sad when we heard about it, and certainly he’s also very sad now. He also, as you probably know, says he’s innocent, and I think you have to remember that.”
On the other hand:
Vice President Pence, who is traveling in South Korea, strongly condemned domestic violence and vowed to personally investigate the Porter matter when he returns to Washington and “share my counsel with the president directly.”
“There is no tolerance in this White House and no place in America for domestic abuse,” Pence said in an interview Friday with NBC News. “That being said, I think the White House has acknowledged that they could have handled it better.”
That may be a power play. Vice President Pence may be trying to make President Trump look like a clueless fool, but Trump can do that all by himself:
President Trump will not immediately agree to release a Democratic memo rebutting GOP claims that the FBI abused its surveillance authority as it probed Russian meddling in the 2016 election, but he has directed the Justice Department to work with lawmakers so some form of the document could be made public, the White House counsel said Friday night.
In a letter to the House Intelligence Committee, White House counsel Donald McGahn wrote that the Justice Department had identified portions of the Democrats’ memo that it believed “would create especially significant concerns for the national security and law enforcement interests” if disclosed. McGahn included in his note a letter from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray supporting that claim.
The decision stands in contrast to one Trump made last week on a Republican memo alleging the FBI misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to obtain a warrant to surveil a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. After the House Intelligence Committee voted on a Monday to make that document public, Trump authorized its release swiftly on a Friday afternoon.
The Republican memo showed that the FISA approval to continue electronic tracking of Carter Page was entirely based on the now famous Steele dossier, which the Democrats eventually paid for, so that tracking never should have been approved – and no tracking of any Trump folk should have been approved, or should now be approved, because it’s all based on what the Democrats eventually paid for. The Democratic memo says no – there were many reasons Page was targeted. They can be listed. He had been targeted for years. There’s a ton of stuff beside the Steele dossier that points to odd stuff going on here, and not just with Carter Page. That should be considered too – but the White House says that’s all classified. That would show how our intelligence agencies get what they get. Remove it – all of it.
Some folks howled:
“I’m not surprised,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) in a statement. “Those on the side of truth don’t fear transparency.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement: “The President’s double standard when it comes to transparency is appalling. The rationale for releasing the Nunes memo, transparency, vanishes when it could show information that’s harmful to him. Millions of Americans are asking one simple question: what is he hiding?”
That was for show. This was a set-up. The Democrats knew what they put in their memo, that did prove their point, was highly classified, and Team Trump would have to call for it to be removed, making it look like Trump had a whole lot to hide. Trump got played. In that Shakespeare play, Hamlet caused all sorts of havoc. Claudius got played. It was the same sort of thing.
And this was just one Friday in February. Sorrows do come in battalions. And no one leads a charmed life.