There’s this disturbing scene early on in the 1990 Cold War thriller “The Hunt for Red October.”
A bunch of Soviet sailors have just decided to steal a nuclear missile submarine and make a run for America. But there’s one unpleasant piece of business that has to be taken care of: Moscow has put a mole on the boat, the “political officer,” and of course, he has to go.
So, the sub’s captain, played by Sean Connery in all his Connery-ness, lures the poor sap to his cabin where he meets with a swift and painful end.
That scene rushed to mind this week in the wake of a fairly mind-blowing report that President Donald Trump had stocked cabinet-level agencies with political appointees who have one job and one job only: To act as loyalty enforcers for the White House.
And they’re about as popular as you’d expect. At the Environmental Protection Agency, the White House’s hall monitor has been shut out of some staff meetings, according to The Washington Post.
At the Pentagon, they call the tag-along assigned to Defense Secretary James Mattis “the commissar,” The Post reported, citing the obligatory high-ranking official “with knowledge of the situation.”
The nickname is a reference to, you guessed it, the political operative assigned to keep tabs on field generals in the Soviet-era.
All told, the Trumplings have installed these profoundly creepy hall monitors at 16 agencies across the government, from the Energy Department to NASA. They have offices within the executive suite or just outside it, the newspaper reported.
And none of Trump’s three predecessors, former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama ever took a similar approach, the newspaper noted.
Because here’s the thing: While the Cabinet secretaries are political appointees in the purest sense of the word, the oath of office they take isn’t to the President, not Donald J. Trump, nor Stephen K Bannon, nor anyone working for him — it’s to the Constitution.
Why? It’s because no matter how hard Trump fanboys over Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, this is still the United States of America.
And government employees, even political appointees, still ultimately work for the good of all citizens — and not the chief executive. For that matter, the president is also a public servant — something he seems to have forgotten, indeed, if he ever knew it at all.
The administration’s allies defend this heavy-handedness by claiming that the glacial progress on filling hundreds of vacancies across government forced their hand.
The effective hog-tying of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the gutting of the State Department’s budget kneecapped that argument. This is an control-obsessed administration that has discarded the standard practice of allowing senior officials to operate with a reasonable degree of independence.
These revelations took on an added level of impact this week with the blockbuster news Monday that the FBI is actively investigating possible collusion between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Trump’s campaign to meddle in last year’s presidential election.
“(The FBI is) investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts,” FBI Director James Comey said during an appearance before the House Permanent Subcommittee on Intelligence.
Trump responded about the way you’d have expected him to, peddling a patently false narrative on Twitter about Democrats and “fake news” that tried to undercut Comey’s plain-English statement:
“The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign. Big advantage in Electoral College & lost!” Trump said in one tweet.
“James Clapper and others stated that there is no evidence Potus colluded with Russia. This story is FAKE NEWS and everyone knows it!” the president said in another.
Except that they weren’t and it’s not.
But from his trafficking in alternative facts to bullying tweets and a threat Tuesday to “come after” Republicans who break ranks on his health-care bill, Trump’s affections for the trappings of authoritarianism have long been on public display.
It’s bad enough that Trump cuts lies about Russia from whole cloth. The truth about his authoritarian fixation is far worse.
An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the opinion editor and political columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.