Institutional Norms Taking Hits from Both Sides: Talking to Michael Hayden

How might Enlightenment-era ideals inform the everyday scruples of intelligence professionals working with the Donald Trump administration? How might such professionals resist the president’s norm-breaking tendencies without themselves thereby contributing to the corrosion of democratic norms? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to General Michael Hayden. This present conversation (transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman) focuses on Hayden’s The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies. General Hayden is a retired four-star general who served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. He is currently a principal at the Chertoff Group, and a distinguished visiting professor at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government. In 2014, Hayden was the inaugural Humanitas visiting professor in intelligence studies at Oxford University. The New York Times selected Hayden’s memoir Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror as one of its 100 most notable books of 2016. At present, President Trump is threatening to revoke General Hayden’s security clearance.


ANDY FITCH: This book makes the perhaps counterintuitive (or, at least, metaphor-mixing) case for placing the often secretive, shadowy practice of intelligence alongside a broad array of Enlightenment-inspired truth-telling enterprises: from science, to scholarship, to journalism. I know from your previous book that intelligence work brought you into frequent conflict with journalists, and drew sometimes embittered responses from professors. I also sense, though, that if a moment ever existed for those apparent rivals to recalibrate their own relationship to the broader intelligence community, that moment might be right now. So can we imagine you standing before a room not of your brother’s friends on their way to a Pittsburgh Steelers game, but of reporters, academics, critics of various sorts taking part in some panel discussion probing tensions among the combined (at times competing) claims of security, transparency, oversight, privacy, secrecy, surveillance, interrogation (and, of course, informed and effective governmental action)? And let’s say most of this assembled audience still feels quite skeptical about intelligence’s place in any broader Enlightenment project (or, conversely, considers this association with intelligence a further reason to critique that Enlightenment project). Could you offer your most persuasive case for why this particular audience should feel otherwise?

MICHAEL HAYDEN: I’ll answer in two ways, first with what maybe seems like an overly simplified metaphor. A football coach once told me to be careful about arguing with the referees. He said: “You have a right to complain when referees get calls wrong, but we can’t play without the referees.” In other words, in my previous life, I definitely argued with the New York Times, but I also realized we couldn’t play without the New York Times. My public affairs guy might have come running in with his hair on fire, saying: “You won’t believe it! They’re taking this to print! You better call the publisher!” And when I did call, I always began with: “Thanks for taking my call, and look — we both have our jobs to do when it comes to protecting American security and liberty, but I’m afraid that the way you’re about to do your job will make it much harder for me to do mine. So can we talk?” After that, we almost always could start up a good conversation, some of which you won, some of which you didn’t win. So that’s a core reality.

Second, I do believe (and this comes out of a long tradition, definitely not just some recent idea) that we need to think of intelligence and espionage, at least as conducted in Western democracies, as children of the Enlightenment. So I’d tell my audience that our intelligence practices don’t just emerge out of some mythology of our national creation, or some predetermined set of beliefs. They rely on rigorous fact-based methods like those you find in science, scholarship, courts, journalism. Then, after taking some pleasure ticking those off on one hand, with intelligence being the thumb, I’d coyly say: “But you know, the thumb has never been bunched up against these other institutions as much as it is now” [Laughter].

Historically those other institutions have felt pretty uncomfortable about how intelligence acquires its data. Right now though, as you suggest, all those institutions I mentioned feel a greater sense of kinship with intelligence, because they also base their judgments on data. Intelligence may differ in how it gathers information through surveillance or other types of espionage, but we all share and value and reinforce society’s fact-based decision-making. That’s become the more frequent discussion. I can remember one single time in the last three years on a university campus when somebody asked me a question about the NSA’s past practices. That’s not today’s driving issue.

I asked you to situate your field amid a broader professional ecology in part because various authors I’ve talked to recently (political scientists like Daniel Ziblatt, philosophers like Jonny Thakkar) have stressed the crucial role that professional ethics can play when cultural and institutional norms find themselves threatened — particularly in the face of authoritarian corrosion of these norms. So could you describe what the professional ethics you have picked up during decades of military and intelligence work require you to say at present, and how these ethics shape the methods by which you make your case? Could we try to include the more acute personal responsibility that you (as someone who has publicly defended interrogation practices that your successor declared torture, as someone who has publicly endorsed and at times initiated aggressive modes of surveillance, detention, targeted killings) feel, specifically to call out Donald Trump’s callous rhetoric and unreflective approach to such tactics? And then could we also include how you see this book speaking to (and quite often channeling, speaking for) the ethical quandaries that your peers still working in government face? Basically, can we start to flesh out all that gets implied when you call on “the men and women of American intelligence” to “save us from ourselves,” to “above all, protect the institution,” and to not only maintain American safety, but to defend American liberty?

That first point comes from a joint op-ed written with Ben Wittes. Ben first articulated this idea, and I immediately jumped on it. Of course some parts of American political culture respond reflexively, suspiciously, and antagonistically towards what I would call “tough security practices.” We do need a constant debate about privacy, security, safety. And we know that certain people on the left inevitably will go in one direction. Ben and I tried for something less absolute. We said that when we see a president go too far in the direction of security, those of us who don’t instinctively resist tough security practices need to speak up, because our views do carry more weight. When people like us say: “I think that one’s a little too tough,” Americans hear this differently than when the ACLU files a formal complaint about X, Y, or Z. We felt strongly about that.

And then my broader sense of professional ethics again comes out of being fact-based and telling the truth. But this book describes how hard it gets sometimes to keep working that way. First of all, presidents matter. When Donald Trump wins the electoral college, he becomes president, and our job becomes to accommodate this president and to help him succeed — just as we have accommodated previous presidents. But as I said, you can’t accommodate to any president so well that it undercuts your own legitimate responsibility to yourself, to the American people, and to future presidents. So people still in the business try to figure out how to impose fact-based decision-making on a president who acts instinctively. Of course you do have to pick your fights. If you go in there and fall on your sword about every issue, you won’t find yourself talking to the president all that much. You have to decide when to dig in and push back, and when to defer to the executive (after all, he is the executive). That puts a great burden on the people still doing this type of work.

Here in terms of acute dilemmas your colleagues face today, could we consider not just perennial concerns regarding the ethics of intelligence gathering, but the more peculiar fate of presenting intelligence findings to this particular president, and to an administration clearly committed to certain fictionalized narratives? To start from some of the basic procedural questions that your book poses: how to approach a decision-maker who weighs a claim’s credibility perhaps more by who delivers it to him than by the supporting evidence this person provides? How to teach someone who doesn’t share intelligence professionals’ emphasis upon incisive historical contextualization, lucid and logical and rigorously tested argument, or long-range foresight? How and when to provide the most useful, actionable information to an impatient, impulsive, vindictive personality ill-equipped for absorbing (and for keeping confidential) partial, real-time, still inconclusive data? How should one, for instance, present Trump with a possible but not yet confirmed terrorist threat, or a slow-moving, necessarily secretive project like the eventual raiding of Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound? Of course I so far only have asked about crisis matters, setting aside all of the more critical if less urgent intelligence topics a president should absorb. And of course, in terms of your colleagues’ lived scruples working with Trump, we probably should add first that Trump has on numerous occasions publicly expressed his distrust and devaluing of America’s intelligence communities (explicitly associating intelligence officials with Nazis), and second that our perhaps most pressing national-security threat remains something of a personal-taboo topic for Trump — further drawing out many of his worst tendencies.

You brought up some stark examples. Let me give you a real-world scenario right now: “Mr. President, you realize that that Kim guy ain’t gonna give up his weapon? You need to be careful with what you say, Mr. President, because he’s never going to zero.” How about that one?

Our intelligence estimates might make some people in the administration uncomfortable, but Dan Coats is not giving them up. He actually has been quite careful with his words and with his timing in response to questions before Congress. He has actually said that about North Korea. So there’s someone who’s holding his ground.

And in terms of talking to this president, there you have the synopsis of Mike Pompeo’s success. Mike sounded more political than any CIA director since Bill Casey, but I also know from being a CIA director how you need to talk. The agencies I know best simply appreciated that, with all of those statements from the president making them uncomfortable, Mike never got tossed off the island. He was someone the president listened to at CIA. That was quite an artform for Director Pompeo, and now for Director Haspel. How do you hold your ground without alienating your first customer? So at CIA, Pompeo was actually pretty successful. Other folks, like the first FBI director, not so much.

Here I also can give you a more concrete example, from my time in the Bush administration. It has to do with the 2006-2007 surge in Iraq. Right after the off-year election in 2006, our president knows he has to change strategy in Iraq. I’ve described this as one of Dante’s circles in hell. His defense secretary resigns, so the president has a bit of a blank sheet to write on, and he puts us all to work. We meet constantly to discuss what we should do. You know where this ends up. It ends up with the surge. We send five combat brigades into Iraq, mostly Baghdad, to settle it down. But first the general intelligence assessment was: “Mr. President, you send five combat brigades in there, you will save some lives, you will suppress some violence, both good things — but those aren’t really your strategic objective. Your strategic objective is to create enough space for Nouri al-Maliki to actually become the prime minister of all of Iraq and all Iraqis. Mr. President, that’s a low-probability shot. Maliki is a member of the Dawa Party. He has spent his entire adult life in exile, and continues to believe there’s a Baathist behind every bush trying to kill him, because that’s been true for most of his life. Based on his life experience, he feels the need to be sectarian. But now he really needs to become prime minister, and you’ll be sending Americans into harm’s way to make that possible.” The president agreed with our analysis, though then he said: “Send the brigades.”

I had done my duty. We had to set the left- and the right-hand boundaries on the logical poles of this discussion. The president made a decision pretty close to one of those boundaries, but not outside it. And the president followed up by arranging a personal video conference with al-Maliki every week for the rest of the Bush administration, trying to get him to be the prime minister we needed him to be and Iraq needed him to be. So again, intelligence sounded a cautionary note to the president, but the president still had to make the decision.

Pivoting back now to Trump, specifically on this topic of civilian control over how to apply intelligence findings and decide on something like troop deployments, I appreciate your accounts of our intelligence community pushing back against Trump’s overreach, but I also take seriously your cautionary note that governmental agencies need to watch out for defying their own institutional norms as they defy this norm-breaking executive. Here could you make concrete some of the longer-term concerns (which I have heard articulated best perhaps by you and David Frum) that as, say, our intelligence and military get increasingly conditioned to, and comfortable with, having to work around this particular president on some of our most urgent and most sensitive national-security questions, it will grow harder for these communities not to apply that same non-transparent, non-civilian-directed approach to working with any future president — and with this discomforting dynamic playing out precisely as you yourself see many extremely talented veteran and even much younger intelligence professionals leave the field in frustration?

You bring up a great point. You’ve got the most norm-busting president since, like, forever. You’ve got permanent governmental institutions (people who actually see the need for these norms) pushing back against the president. You get an appointed (not permanent) official like the attorney general recusing himself. So you do see good examples of the institution itself saying: “No, we’ve got to do this the right way.” But then you also have a president attacking his attorney general for doing things the right way. And you face the great danger that, as these institutions push back in this extraordinary situation, they’ll get in the habit of breaking their own norms. So you see American institutions and processes right now getting doubly damaged, both by what the president does, and by what people in government opposed to the president’s rule-breaking end up doing themselves.

Early in the administration somebody leaked the story about the FBI investigating Mike Flynn for speaking to the Russian ambassador. Important story for sure, but taking it public meant this violent (and, frankly, unjustifiable) breaking of norms. Now, I do not automatically assume that the intelligence community leaked this story. It could have come from internal White House fighting. But under any circumstances, we should think of this as norm-busting.

You’ve also got people like John Brennan, Jim Clapper, and to some extent me (all career intelligence folks, two of us career military) actually commenting on a current president in sometimes harsh ways. I might come across as a little less harsh than Jim and John but, nonetheless, we all say a lot of things that retired senior officials don’t have a strong tradition of saying. I, for one, do try to tread carefully, but I still probably engage in some form of professional norm-busting too. So again you see these dynamics coming out of the extraordinary circumstances we now live in, and you see institutional norms taking hits from both sides.

OK, and now to get to the scary part: amid all the daily Trump antics and absurdities and indignities, amid fears of long-term institutional corrosion, amid the ever-frightening hypotheticals of an impulsive Trump initiating (or prompting some impulsive adversary to start) some unnecessary military conflict, your book makes absolutely clear the even more imminent security threat we face from Russia manipulating our national conversations and our elections. As a 2001 New York City resident, speaking to a D.C.-based government official from that time, I never would want to downplay the loss of individual lives that the September 11th attacks brought about, or the impact on survivors. But I do see Russian manipulation of our electoral process potentially posing a greater existential threat to American democracy. And I had (and have) many strong disagreements with how the George W. Bush administration (in which you played an important part) responded to the September 11th attacks in the name of national security. But I recognize that I speak from the insulated position of a citizen who had others deciding for me precisely how to respond to a pressing crisis. And I realize how much more panicked, imperiled, furious I would have felt had Bush simply called the attacks no big deal, fake news, perhaps part of some deep-state conspiracy directed at himself, perhaps the work of an impossible-to-trace agent, but certainly an annoying topic real Americans don’t care about — even as he expressed a strange personal admiration for Osama bin Laden. From that comparative perspective, could you outline your sense of how an opportunistic Putin might find himself further emboldened, incentivized, even better leveraged and resourced (not only by his 2016 election-swaying success, but by his 2017 and 2018 successes at getting away with it, and at exploiting those results) to manipulate our political process all the further? Particularly with our midterms soon approaching, with so little apparent executive concern over such vulnerabilities, with Congressional representatives (fearful of becoming victim to Trump tweets) ignoring an association of Internet companies and cyber firms and intelligence groups seeking to raise public concerns about present and future threats Russia still poses, what do you see as the most likely next stages of any such Russian operation?

I actually make that 9-11 comparison myself. I also want to note the difference in terms of the tragic loss of life that day. But as you say, we absorbed an attack from an unexpected direction, against a previously unappreciated weakness. Our administration’s response was: “This will not happen again.” Clearly they had hit a seam, and we needed to close that seam, and that demanded what I call “extraordinary” measures (extraordinary structures, extraordinary resources, people, laws, policy), many of which, as you said, caused quite a controversy. But we all can agree to think of these as extraordinary steps brought about by an extraordinary situation. And I believe we all should be able to agree that we’re safer for having made them. Within that moment, though, I’m just thinking: We can argue the fine print later of what it means to say: “We all know we’re safer.”

Still, we only went extraordinary when the president told us to go extraordinary. Bureaucracies play in their lane. They take up familiar positions. They do what they always do — until the president puts both arms up in the air and goes: “Huddle up here. We’re calling a new play.” And until this president says “Huddle up,” our response will, by definition, be inadequate to what the Russians have done and what the Russians continue to do. So here we are.

As you said, this president seems unable to separate the reality of Russia’s intervention from the legitimacy of his own election. You get this classic scene of Dan Coats up there for the Worldwide Threat briefing, with all three letter-agency directors, and a senator asks Coats: “Have you received directions from the president to guard against and work against what the Russians did in 2016?” Coats says “No.” Then this senator goes down the room, CIA to NSA and so on, and everyone says: “No sir. No sir. No sir.” That’s remarkable.

Your book also describes well how, say, in terms of responding to election manipulations, various agencies at various levels of government find it basically impossible to work together without some strong executive push.

And then we watch the president launch a task force for the vice president to go find the pretend three million ghost voters in California. He does nothing comparable for what the Russians actually did.

And to outline in a bit more detail what the Russians did, and have continued to do, could you further clarify the overlaps and differences between “cyber” campaigns and “information-dominance” campaigns, and provide some cultural and historical context on why the U.S. still finds itself much better equipped to deal with the former than the latter? 

As I wrote this book, I started thinking back to my own experience in the mid-1990s in Texas. I remembered the debates about what line of work were we in: cyber dominance or information dominance? Cyber dominance seemed complex enough. We shied away from information dominance, because of all sorts of legal, policy, and constitutional questions that came up. But, as I say in the book, the Russians stepped through Door Number Two, which might include cyber dominance, but only as one of many techniques for gaining control over people’s (and whole countries’) perception of reality. Valery Gerasimov, as Chief of General Staff, wrote in 2013 about a contactless warfare using informational means against an adversary civilian population to achieve strategic objectives. Russia began that type of campaign against its own population, its domestic adversaries, and then took this to the old Soviet space, then much more widely abroad, and then they took their game to their main rivals in 2014 and 2015, and especially 2016 here in the United States.

What do you now see as potential 2018 extensions of Russia’s 2016 interventions?

Well I’d say that the Russians had four clear objectives in 2016, which then expanded, and only some of which they now have left behind: number one, as the base objective, mess with our heads (check); second, punish Hillary Clinton because Putin hates her (check); third, delegitimize the eventual President Clinton. And then fourth: “Holy smokes, this guy actually could win, so let’s start pushing votes in his direction.” All four of those objectives coexisted. I don’t at all consider them mutually exclusive. I think they all in different ways fulfill that base objective: to mess with our heads, to erode confidence in our own democratic norms and institutions and processes, to divide us and divert us and make us less competitive against Russia globally. The baseline for everything the Russians want to do comes down to that. That gives them enough incentive, for example, to jump on this “take a knee” controversy — just to keep it alive. The Russians don’t care whether NFL players stand or sit. They just want to get Americans arguing with one another.

Within that context of Americans fighting each other, how does viewing Russian manipulations through an information-dominance lens recalibrate your sense of American complicities in such manipulation — say with legalistic accusations of “collusion” failing to account for a potentially much more pervasive (if less easily confirmable or punishable) “convergence” effect, whereby Trump, alt-right sources, national news outlets like Fox, and Russian bots all serve to amplify each other, further legitimate each other, apparently corroborate each other, and all at a volume that drowns out possibilities for factual corrections, critical thinking, coherent or constructive or conclusive conversation?

That takes us back to basing our decisions on facts. That gets to why I don’t even mention the Russians much until pretty late in the book. First we need to think through this post-truth culture I describe as making decisions based less on fact, data, and evidence, and more on emotion, preference, feeling, grievance, tribe. I mention Peter Wehner showing me that facts don’t help much to dissuade someone from a point of view that itself isn’t fact-based. Unfortunately, so much of our national dialogue now gets based on something other than data.

This February, I gave a speech out West. As part of my responsibilities as an invited guest, I had dinner with members of this organization’s leadership. I went from table to table. One table says: “Really interesting talk, pretty politically neutral, but what about Hillary Clinton? Shouldn’t she be in jail?” And I go: “Why? What for?” And this guy goes: “Well, Uranium One to start.” And I just look at him and go: “You know that’s a totally made-up story, right?” And he looks at me like I’m from Mars. So I walk him through the facts: a Russian company bought a Canadian firm because of their mines in Kazakhstan. This Canadian firm owns a couple mines in the U.S., and the U.S. government has a branch called CFIUS to regulate these kinds of things, and no uranium will ever leave America. But I could see I didn’t dissuade this guy. He held back from arguing with me, but out of politeness.

In the book I mention asking an audience once: “Why do you believe Barack Obama wire-tapped Trump Tower? What evidence do you have?” One woman in the front goes: “Obama” [Laughter].

That was her evidence?

Yeah, Q.E.D. Thus it has been demonstrated.

You know, your book offers any number of critiques of the Obama administration with which I disagree — most frequently on the grounds that historicizing Trump’s rise through a litany of supposed Obama administration failures conveniently cuts off the contextualizing before we take ourselves back to truly disastrous foreign-policy decisions starting with the 2003 Iraq invasion (a decision which, I realize, your own books present quite ambivalently). Nonetheless, I still consider you a billion times better informed on these questions than me, and I likewise consider my broader political and intellectual and artistic communities to have contributed in critical ways to what you’ve described as problematic, elite-distrusting, expertise-and analysis-discounting public conversations — conversations that too easily coincide with the rise of a truth-indifferent and cynicism-exploiting demagogue like Trump. But in terms of The Assault on Intelligence’s question about how the American electorate ever arrived at a point where this type of information-dominance attack could succeed, if I had to isolate any one especially corrosive counter-Enlightenment 21st-century initiative setting the groundwork for Trump’s rise, it would no doubt be the Republican Party’s decades-long, self-deluding, authority-denying, discussion-disabling approach towards the existential threats of climate change. I don’t see any huge pivot (other than the more recent addition of Russian interference) from, say, the Bush administration’s head-in-the-sand ducking of climate-change responsibilities, to the sinister counter-Enlightenment convergence you see now among conspiracy theorists and faux-news sources. The only real difference seems to come, in fact, from Republicans also now finding themselves caricatured as job-killing, treaty-loving, big-government girly-men somehow fooled by some hoax of global elites. You don’t have to publicly affirm my own proto-Trump contextualizing, but can you at least see where such a line of critique comes from?

There’s truth to your discussion. We did have a conscious discounting of scientific evidence, which I probably took part in for a while as well, although I’ve since gotten religion on that subject. And another example could come out of intelligence assessments of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. My first book makes the case strongly that we need to think of this as my problem, not George Bush’s. We got the data wrong. We didn’t disregard obvious evidence — as you describe with climate change. But we didn’t need much help arriving at the wrong conclusion. The decision-makers might have appreciated our confusion. They might have found it politically useful. But they didn’t need to pressure us for it. We already had made our conclusion. So that’s another really troubling dynamic.

Of course you also could say that our work does sometimes consist of latching onto uncomfortably extreme views or techniques, when tactically useful at the moment, and always with the belief that you can keep these uncomfortable elements under control. Think of my agency supporting religious fanatics in Afghanistan in the 1970s, which kind of got out of control. Or the Israelis actually, in an attempt to undercut the Palestinian Authority, looked fairly benignly on the growth of Hamas. Or Republicans with the Tea Party maybe did something similar. In each case these more extreme elements get out from under their supposed master, and become far more powerful than anyone had ever anticipated.

Here as a much more positive type of pivot, would it be worth discussing in more detail (and maybe as a potential model for people) this personal experience of starting to think about climate change differently?

Most basically, in the face of science, and after being out of government for a decade, I actually went to Antarctica last year, where you just can’t help noticing that things aren’t what they used to be. I mean whole glaciers, for example. I’m fact-based enough to say that climate change exists. How much of that have humans caused might still be worth debating, but I would frame the most important question by asking: “How lucky do you feel? How ready do you feel to keep ignoring the consequences if we just skip taking serious steps to slow down the change?” Again, I recognize that natural cycles might play their part here, but we have enough evidence that human activity has reinforced this current cycle, so why wouldn’t you respond to that?

And by the way, again from an evidence-based perspective, the green movement, whatever you think about the merits of its scientific argument, does seem to lead to a broader quality of life. So (without even wanting to throw a few blows against the current administration) who actually believes coal’s coming back? I’m from western Pennsylvania, and again, from the evidence-based perspective: no, it’s not. It won’t come back, because gas is just cheaper. It won’t be coming back, so why pretend? Why make up some story?

Well in terms of re-establishing a solid U.S. presence within the global community, in part by rebuilding a sense of possibility for positive-sum international engagement, could you imagine yourself again among a room of your brothers’ friends in western Pennsylvania, and could you articulate the value in a foreign policy built along Hay Initiative lines — drawing on the tradition of a Republican Party committed to an economically and militarily strong U.S., dedicated to free trade, good governance on a global scale, liberty secured by individual rights? Why should a voting class which you yourself present as too often overlooked by professional America (including most greater-D.C.-based intelligence professionals) value this agenda almost as much as you do?

As part of the research for this book, I actually downloaded a copy of NSC 68, the Paul Nitze-directed document, which provides this wonderful statement of American values, and blueprint for America’s internationalist approach for so long after World War II. It makes the clear case that the America we want to be can’t exist in a world hostile to those American values. It reinforces my own strong sense of America as a credo nation — not a nation defined by blood, soil, or even shared history. Our shared beliefs define the essence of who we are as a people. Even during the 2016 campaign, you didn’t hear English-language equivalents for the German word volk or the Slavic národ, because we still think of those concepts as alien to basic American political culture. Since independence, we have broadly defined ourselves as a credo people. How do you get to be an American? You read the documents, you prove you understand the documents, and you’re in. I guess we could redefine ourselves in some other way. I personally would consider that a horrible idea. But if we want to remain a credo people, we cannot easily protect ourselves in a world increasingly hostile to the values we hold most dear.

So I’d try to make clear to my audience this broader focus less on what we want to do over there, and more on who we want to be right here. I’d begin the conversation that way, and then I’d offer the overwhelming body of evidence that when we do get involved internationally (and I realize we have made some horrific missteps), things generally go better than when we do not. I tell a story in my first book of being in Sarajevo during the siege, and people looking at the American flag on the sleeve of my battle dress as if it were talismanic.

And I do think of defining America’s international role as an important part of deciding and defining who we are. I retweeted something from Bono, the Irish rock star, last night: “America is an idea. That’s how we see you around the world. As one of the greatest ideas in human history.” I would say something similar to the folks in the back row. We are less a nation than a concept, and that concept cannot survive in a hostile world.

Here with credos in mind, could we return to Enlightenment-era public-education projects? If, as your book argues, future resilience (in the face of attempts to undermine our public dialogue) will in many ways have to found itself on a broader education project, how do you see that pedagogical project reshaping us — especially at a historical moment in which technological prompts, cultural critiques, and no doubt some dose of passive inertia and/or personal self-centering leave us much more inclined than ever before to trust like-minded peer groups over institutionalized authorities? I assume, for example, that when you call for new education initiatives, you at least in part mean to emphasize civic education.

Absolutely. I mean civic education. I mean talking about how governments work. I mean talking about social contracts. I mean talking about how our constitutional system gets structured to sometimes guard us against the will of the people. I mean thinking through deeply why our particular tradition of government focuses more on maintaining certain processes and less on producing specific outcomes. We of course need to work hard to achieve desired outcomes, but we also hold the belief that if we keep the right process in place, we will get good enough outcomes over time. We have Miranda rights, and we have first-amendment and fourth-amendments rights — even though these can complicate what might look like a pretty logical, tactical, immediate solution to a problem. We’ll forgo the transient, tactical advantage to guard the core principle. We know that, over time, the core principle is what keeps us free and safe, not the transient tactical advantage. Civic education reinforces all of that. That horrific video just came out on Twitter of the guy harassing a woman just for wearing her Puerto Rico shirt. In what universe does this happen? Of course some unhappy people always have acted against the better angels of their own nature, but you just see more of that going around right now.

Agreed, and to close on one additional unhappy scenario: I typically try not to waste interviewees’ time by asking them to put together some speculative character-profile of Trump. But since constructing actionable character profiles of prominent political figures remains such a crucial aspect of your own professional field, you don’t get off the hook so easily. So here, in response to John McLaughlin’s suggestion that the public release of the Robert Mueller investigation’s findings will constitute a qualitatively new phase of Trump’s presidential trajectory: let’s say that, instead, various alt-right outlets and Fox News enablers and Russian bots and presidential tweets again combine to muddle the national conversation for a substantial enough percentage of the country, so that we keep just drifting along like this. Let’s say you then try to envision a few steps further along that presidential trajectory. Based on your own character-assessment of Trump, what confidence do you have that this chronic norm-breaker eventually will allow for a peaceful transition of power, will embrace retirement from office and a corresponding withdrawal of whatever legal immunity he might have — will open space, say, for a Democrat-led Congress and/or administration to investigate much more thoroughly past actions by himself, his associates, his family?

I don’t fear as much the scenario you just laid out. I’m not saying one way or another I know what will happen. But I fear more the consequences of attempting to remove this president from office by extraordinary means. At least one third of this country would consider that a coup. I don’t agree with these people, but I do think we need to look to the 2020 election for a solution, so that, through the same method by which this president became president (the state votes determining the electoral college), he can lose the presidency — according to the unarguable will of the American people, and without certain elements of our society blaming some deep-state plot against the duly elected president.

I take that point. That’s well-articulated. I will repeat though that your book really brought out for me the concern going forward about election-results tampering — even with us seeming to take for granted right now that this pressing concern from 2016 somehow hasn’t carried over into 2018. So for this idea that we have an electoral mechanism that will deliver us if we wait patiently enough: I just really hope that’s true.

I still fear the most this president instinctively appealing to our darker angels. That’s why I highlight the take-a-knee thing, which never should have become some national issue, certainly not at the presidential level. And yet Trump bit in and clamped his jaws around it, because it fed the intense divisions that confront us as Americans. I doubt this strengthens the breadth of his support. But it does strengthen the intensity. So we should be looking towards these off-year elections coming up. We should be asking where we, as a people, stand in all of this mess. I’m a Virginian now. I vote in Virginia. We’ve already had a mini wave-election, in our off-off year. We elect our governor one year after the president, and we had unprecedented voting numbers in the northern Virginia suburbs.