John Brennan isn’t the real victim

Mr. Trump, in fact, made no secret of his illegitimate motive: In an interview published in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, he blamed Mr. Brennan for the special counsel’s investigation into possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. Revoking Mr. Brennan’s clearance is an act of petty vengeance.

.. The real victim here is not Mr. Brennan, who will get along fine without his security clearance, but the national security of the United States and its democratic norms. National security is harmed because administration officials and members of Congress benefit when they can draw upon the wisdom and experience of long-serving public servants such as Mr. Brennan. Mr. Trump has threatened eight other former officials , and even one current official, with similar treatment. Over time, that would make their advice less useful to officials who might otherwise benefit from it.

.. Democratic norms erode as the president, inventing insulting pretexts for his actions, uses his authority over access to classified information to bully and punish critics and would-be critics.

Those who may be more vulnerable than Mr. Brennan, who rely on their security clearances for their employability in the private or public sector, may indeed be intimidated into silence.

.. “I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency,” he writes. “If you think for a moment that your McCarthy-era tactics will suppress the voices of criticism, you are sadly mistaken.”

In Mr. Trump’s America, every transition of power would result in the vilification, demotion and humiliation of those who served before, even civil servants who were honorably performing their duty. His conception of government denies the possibility of any motivation beyond partisan — or, in Mr. Trump’s case, personal — loyalty, at the expense of the principle that patriotic Americans can put the national interest above such considerations. It is pettiness distilled and more revealing of the president’s malformed sense of duty than that of his targets. This is the national debasement that Mr. Ryan and the rest of his party have enabled.

How Would Churchill Tweet?

If Churchill tweeted, we’d be reading very different tweets from those we read from the president and other political leaders today. I don’t suggest what he would say. No one can know that. But I do know how he would go about it — and I suggest that his methods offer an excellent example for today’s leaders.

.. First, Churchill avoided repaying vilification in kind. Instead he used humor, irony, plays on words. This lowered the temperature and took the sting out of debate.

.. Blunting insults with humor let Churchill off the hook. In the ensuing laughter, people forgot that he’d never responded to the accusation. “I have to measure the length of the response to any question by the worth, meaning, and significance of that question,” he said to an angry inquisitor — which avoided any answer at all.

.. Second, Churchill rarely attacked someone personally in public, though he didn’t hesitate to lampoon their well-known traits. During a loquacious speech by an MP who questioned his veracity, judgment, and even morals, Churchill interrupted: “I can well understand the honorable member speaking for practice, which he badly needs.”

.. in avoiding jibes, he did not even defend himself. The defense would come later, in a carefully worded statement at a time of his choosing. This was much more gratifying than outbursts in the Twitterverse.

.. Third, Churchill would often use interesting allegories or images rather than vicious barbs when confronted by opponents.

.. Lastly — and perhaps most important — even though the political divide was as wide in his time as in ours, Churchill fostered respect and collegiality. Intrinsic to his methods was an underlying respect for opponents. To him they were not enemies, merely honorable people who were mistaken.