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Is Trump’s petty punishment of Brennan a threat to Mueller?

Is Trump’s petty punishment of Brennan a threat to Mueller?
Former CIA Director John Brennan testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the House Intelligence Committee Russia Investigation Task Force on May 23, 2017. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

Although he couched it in terms of protecting classified information, President Trump’s decision to revoke the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan is transparently an act of petulant payback for Brennan’s scathing criticism of the president.

Brennan, who served as the director of the intelligence agency under President Obama, has called Trump a “disgraced demagogue” and denounced his performance at the Helsinki, Finland, summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin as “nothing short of treasonous.” But caustic criticism of the president — or, as Trump put it in a formal statement, “wild outbursts” and “frenzied commentary” — isn’t fair grounds for revocation. (And can there be a more dramatic example of projection than the master of Twitter tantrums complaining about “frenzied commentary”?)

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The president also justified his action by pointing to the fact that Brennan in 2014 had initially denied that CIA officials under his supervision had improperly accessed the computer files of Senate Intelligence Committee staffers. But even Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who as chair of the Intelligence Committee confronted the CIA over that incident, denounced the revocation of Brennan’s clearance on Thursday. She said it “shows how petty and thin-skinned President Trump truly is.”

Trump’s reference to the computer trespassing controversy as a reason for moving against Brennan is reminiscent of his original explanation for dismissing former FBI Director James B. Comey: that Comey had mishandled the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server. Later Trump acknowledged in a television interview what most of us had already surmised: that when he fired Comey he had "this Russia thing” on his mind.

Trump’s use of presidential power to punish a prominent critic is outrageous in itself. But comments he made about Brennan in an interview with the Wall Street Journal suggest an even more ominous interpretation. Trump indicated that he included the former CIA director among those he holds responsible for the Russia investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III or, as he called it, “the rigged witch hunt.” He added: “I think it’s something that had to be done,” referring to the yanking of Brennan’s clearance.

Trump long has inveighed against the Mueller investigation, calling it “an illegal scam” and “totally conflicted and discredited.” Yet so far he has refrained from taking action to stop it. Does his willingness to use his authority to punish Brennan mean that he might be ready to match action with words when it comes to Mueller, by firing the special counsel, aborting his investigation or pardoning defendants who have pleaded or been found guilty?

Congress, including its Republican leadership, must face up to that possibility. It needs to make it clear to the president that any use of his authority to frustrate the investigation will instantly lead to impeachment proceedings.

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