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Trump escalates feud with U.S. spy chiefs after Brennan flap, hinting he'll strip more security clearances

Trump escalates feud with U.S. spy chiefs after Brennan flap, hinting he'll strip more security clearances
Former CIA Director John Brennan testifies on the Russia investigation before the House Intelligence Committee last year. (Melina Mara / Washington Post)

President Trump escalated his feud with the nation’s law enforcement and intelligence community Friday, threatening to revoke the security clearance of a Justice Department official and defying a bipartisan backlash of complaints that he is seeking to stifle criticism and politicize national security.

Trump spoke after 13 former top intelligence officials issued a harsh rebuke of his decision to strip the security clearance from John Brennan, a former CIA director who has become one of Trump’s most sulfurous critics. The bipartisan group condemned what they called the president’s “ill-considered and unprecedented remarks and actions.”

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Signing the letter was a virtual who’s who of American spy chiefs dating back to the late 1980s — a striking show of solidarity from the top ranks of the national security establishment, many of whom had avoided public criticism of Trump until now.

They included former directors of central intelligence William H. Webster, George J. Tenet and Porter J. Goss; former CIA Directors Michael V. Hayden, Leon E. Panetta and David H. Petraeus; former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper; and former Deputy CIA Directors John McLaughlin, Stephen Kappes, Avril Haines, David Cohen and Michael Morell.

Another former CIA director, Robert M. Gates, who served under Republican and Democratic presidents, signed on Friday. His name underscored the alarm following Trump’s punitive swipe at Brennan, which highlighted anew the lengths the president may go to to silence his detractors.

Adm. William H. McRaven, who headed U.S. Joint Special Operations Command and oversaw the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, also weighed in. In an op-ed published by the Washington Post, he excoriated Trump’s “McCarthy-era tactics” and said he would “consider it an honor” for Trump to revoke his security clearance in solidarity with Brennan.

Trump has tangled with America’s intelligence professionals before. Early last year, he infuriated veterans when he compared their tactics to those used in Nazi Germany, and boasted falsely about his inauguration crowd as he stood before a hallowed wall of stars for the dozens of CIA officers killed in the line of duty, many since Sept. 11. He never mentioned their sacrifice.

Last month, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats publicly pushed back after Trump, at a news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, appeared to dismiss the unanimous conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Moscow had interfered in the 2016 election. Under intense pressure, Trump later said he accepted the assessment.

The latest spat has raised the tensions to a dangerous new level, according to Kori Schake, a veteran of the George W. Bush administration and the deputy director of the nonpartisan International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"It matters that people with their experience feel that the president is different and more dangerous in his behavior than normal presidents are," Schake said. "And it really matters that there is a broad bipartisan consensus on this."

Trump's response, Schake added, "is reinforcing the validity of their criticism."

Mark Zaid, a national security lawyer in Washington, called the outcry from America’s top former national security officials “virtually unprecedented.”

"Typically, these are individuals who strive to be out of the limelight," Zaid said. Until now, he said, security clearances were nonpartisan and not ideologically driven.

Morell, who spent more than 30 years at the CIA and was an acting director of the spy service, said Friday that he and his colleagues “never imagined” publicly criticizing the president, as they did in the letter. "But we feel compelled to react when we see danger or harm being done to our country."

For his part, Trump has signaled that he relishes the rising acrimony, telling reporters he’s gotten a “tremendous response” since he revoked Brennan’s clearance on Wednesday. He also denied that he was trying to silence his critics.

“There’s no silence,” the president said on the South Lawn before he headed to New Jersey for a weekend at his golf resort. “If anything, I'm giving him a bigger voice. Many people don't even know who he is, but it’s OK — I like taking on voices like that."

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Trump again blamed his critics for the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, saying that many intelligence and law enforcement officials involved in the Russia inquiry should be under investigation themselves.

“They should be looking at the other side,” Trump said, singling out Bruce Ohr, who still works at the Justice Department.

Ohr was in contact with Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence operative who prepared a dossier on the Trump campaign’s alleged connections to Russian officials. The FBI later submitted details from the dossier as part of its evidence to obtain a classified surveillance warrant against one of Trump’s campaign aides.

“Bruce Ohr is a disgrace,” Trump said, hinting he would strip his security clearance. “I suspect I'll be taking it away very quickly.”

Ohr was associate deputy attorney general until late 2017, when supervisors learned of his contacts with Steele. He briefly continued as head of the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces. His current job is unclear.

On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders read aloud a statement from Trump in which he said he was considering revoking security clearances from nine former officials in all.

In addition to Clapper and Hayden, who signed the letter, Trump named Ohr, former national security advisor Susan Rice, former FBI Director James B. Comey, and former FBI or Justice Department officials Sally Yates, Andrew McCabe, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok. Several have said they no longer have clearances.

Concerns that Trump has moved aggressively to muzzle his critics gathered steam this week after Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former senior White House aide who was fired, played a tape that appeared to confirm her claim that she had been offered $15,000 a month to sign a nondisclosure agreement that would bar her from saying anything negative about the president, his family or his business. She wrote an angry memoir instead.

Senior intelligence officials normally keep their clearances, which permit access to some classified material, after leaving government in case their expertise is needed. Some use it to obtain lucrative jobs in the private sector.

It’s not likely that the Trump administration has sought advice from Brennan, who headed the CIA during President Obama’s second term and left the agency when Trump took office. He now works as a paid analyst for NBC News.

In their letter, the 13 former intelligence chiefs praised Brennan as “enormously talented, capable and patriotic,” and dismissed allegations of any wrongdoing as “baseless.”

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“The president’s action,” they wrote, “has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances — and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech.”

“You don’t have to agree with what John Brennan says (and … not all of us do) to agree with his right to say it, subject to his obligation to protect classified information,” they wrote.

Brennan excoriated Trump as “treasonous” after the president’s summit with Putin last month. Brennan this week called Trump “dangerous to our nation” and “the most divisive president we have ever had.”

Those volcanic tweets have given Trump running room to portray Brennan as out of control, a symbol of what his supporters call a “deep state” cabal out to undermine the president.

“Trump relishes Brennan as a strawman,” former CIA operative John Sipher wrote on Twitter. “He can hold him up as the bogeyman Deep State. Brennan's over-the-top comments help Trump.”

Although the White House initially said the president’s decision to revoke Brennan’s clearance was based on national security concerns, Trump — and a clerical error by the staffer who disseminated the statement to the news media — suggested a political motivation.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the president blamed Brennan and the intelligence community for the Russia investigation that has clouded the White House since he took office.

“I call it the rigged witch hunt; [it] is a sham. And these people led it,” Trump said. “So I think it’s something that had to be done.”

The president’s statement that the White House emailed to reporters was dated July 26. It was delayed until this week, when the White House was reeling from Manigault Newman’s revelations.

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