A Coup Against Our Institutions

Matthew Spalding, a scholar of the Constitution and dean of Hillsdale College’s Van Andel Graduate School of Government in Washington, D.C., has written an important essay on the troubling possibility that the treatment of General Michael Flynn by the Obama administration and, later, by holdovers in the FBI, the Justice Department, and the CIA, represents not just a personal disaster for Flynn—who was, for a week or so, President Trump’s national security advisor—but also a brewing constitutional crisis for the United States.

Many commentators, myself included, have described the whole “Donald-Trump-was-a-Russian-Asset” caper as the biggest political scandal in U.S. history. We were ridiculed or condemned by the Left and the NeverTrump fraternity alleged to be on the Right for saying that, but time has proven us right. We were right, too, that this scandal was less a “hoax,” as it was sometimes called, than an attempted, if slow-motion, coup. It was an attempted coup because it aimed to disrupt the peaceful transition of presidential power from one administration, and one party, to another.

That sounds pretty dramatic, I know—aren’t “coups” things that happen in South American banana republics, not the United States? But as I wrote in May 2019, “coup” 

accurately expresses the deliberate effort by actors in the Obama Administration, including by President Obama himself, to assure Hillary Clinton’s victory by destroying the reputation of Donald Trump. “Most Presidents leave office,” the commentator L. J. Keith recently wrote, “and essentially step back from public life. Not Barack Obama. Shellshocked by Hillary Clinton’s loss, Obama, Brennan, Clapper, Comey, and Clinton set in motion a series of events that will forever tar his presidency, and decimate the concept of a peaceful transition of power.”

I returned to Keith’s point last September, noting that “the Obama administration’s actions threatened not just Trump and his presidency, but the very processes and protocols by which the peaceful transition of power has been effected in the United States.”

This troubling truth is Spalding’s theme, and he brings together the threads of the argument in masterly fashion. 

As the cocoon of deep-state lies surrounding Michael Flynn has unravelled, we can see the extent to which he stands at the very origin of the attempted coup against Donald Trump. The Russian-born historian Svetlana Lokhova, a British citizen who met Flynn at a conference dinner in 2014, was smeared by the Obama operative Stefan Halper as Flynn’s mistress who was taking orders from the Kremlin. It was a complete and vicious fabrication, every piece of it, as Lokhova shows in her new book Spygate Exposed. Lokhova, in fact, was the only relevant Russian in the whole “Russian collusion” fantasy, and it turns out that she was totally innocent of the accusations made against her, just as was Flynn. 

But while the case of Michael Flynn stands at the beginning of the multi-pronged attack against Trump and his administration, the effort by the FBI to frame Flynn is only one piece in a much more complex puzzle. 

As Spalding observes, what happened to Michael Flynn was part of a much bigger initiative, namely a “systematic campaign to undermine an incoming presidential administration through politicized investigations.” And this, Spalding notes, is not just “another political scandal, but threatens a true constitutional crisis.”

Flynn’s treatment by the Obama administration’s FBI and DOJ seems to be a case study in how administrative elites, charged with executing the law, undermined the very rule of law. Our country was founded on fundamental republican principles: equal rights, individual liberty, and the consent of the governed. These sacred rights are secured, protected, and perpetuated by our civilization’s greatest political achievement: the constitutional rule of law. And while often taken for granted, the peaceful and unobstructed transition of power from one presidential administration to the next, frequently from the control of one political party to its political opposition, is the crown jewel of the American constitutional system.

Nota bene “the peaceful and unobstructed transition of power from one presidential administration to the next. . . is the crown jewel of the American constitutional system.”

“Is” or “was”? 

Spalding rehearses the course of events surrounding Flynn, from the opening of a counter-intelligence investigation on the basis of no legitimate predicate (the pretext was a congeries of sordid rumors assembled by an anti-Trump Brit named Christopher Steele and commissioned and paid for by the Hillary Clinton campaign) to the deliberate entrapment of Flynn by the FBI in January 2017. 

As Spalding notes, each of the moves against Flynn is disturbing in its own right. But taken together, they reveal a “pattern of politicizing the legal process to subvert the outcome of our electoral system.” 

Among much else that can be said about the mobilization of the machinery of government against a duly elected president of the United States, it is impossible to overlook the matter of precedent. It happened once. What is to stop it from happening again? 

“If it is appropriate,” Spalding asks, “for one political party, having lost an election, to use the authority of government outside of the bounds of the law against their opponents who have won that election, what is to stop the next political party from doing the same?”

I frankly do not think that we have a convincing answer to that question. And this brings Spalding to his troubling conclusion. 

To circumvent or undermine a valid election denies the legitimacy and sovereignty of popular rule. What appears to have been done to Mr. Flynn and the incoming Trump administration at the hands of the intelligence agencies of the Obama administration may seem merely another partisan squabble but is ultimately a rejection of republican government. 

The possibility of that rejection is the issue behind the issue with which we must conjure. 

The covert deployment of sundry aspects of governmental power, from actors deep within our intelligence services, to high-ranking bureaucrats in the Executive Branch, is troubling not because it was directed at Donald Trump. It is troubling because this extraordinary and nearly monolithic effort at repudiation has had as its target not just the “bad orange man” Trump but the very authority of the political institutions he represents by virtue of having been elected president in a free, open, and democratic election. 

The campaign against Donald Trump has involved every department of the so-called deep state and the myriad cultural institutions—the media, academia, Hollywood, the art world—which nourish it and impart legitimacy to it. To date, the coup against this president seems to have failed. But it seems to me less certain that an interior coup, a coup against our fundamental allegiance to democratic institutions, has not already taken place and succeeded. 

About Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee).

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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