Opinion writer

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced that President Trump had decided to revoke John Brennan’s security clearance, citing the former CIA director’s “erratic conduct and behavior”:

Trump is also reviewing security clearances of other former officials including former FBI director James B. Comey, Sanders said during a regular White House news briefing.

“First, at this point in my administration, any benefits that senior officials might glean from consultations with Mr. Brennan are now outweighed by the risk posed by his erratic conduct and behavior,” Trump said in a statement read by Sanders at Wednesday’s briefing.

“Second, that conduct and behavior has tested and far exceeded the limits of any professional courtesy that may have been due to him,” Trump said in the statement. “Mr. Brennan has a history that calls into question his objectivity and credibility.”

I don’t particularly care about the impact this has on Brennan, who is a leading critic of Trump, but this is important for what it says about Trump’s contempt for process and governance.


Former CIA director John Brennan on Capitol Hill in May 2017. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Trump’s full statement on the decision explicitly mentions Brennan’s criticism of his administration as a rationale for it:

Mr. Brennan has recently leveraged his status as a former high-ranking official with access to highly sensitive information to make a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations — wild outbursts on the internet and television — about this Administration. Mr. Brennan’s lying and recent conduct, characterized by increasingly frenzied commentary, is inconsistent with access to the Nation’s most closely held secrets, and facilitates the aim of our adversaries, which is to sow division and chaos.

More broadly, the issue of Mr. Brennan’s security clearance raises larger questions about the practice of former officials maintaining access to our Nation’s most sensitive secrets long after their time in Government has ended. Such access is particularly inappropriate when former officials have transitioned into highly partisan positions and seek to use real or perceived access to sensitive information to validate their political attacks.

Let’s put aside for a moment the profound absurdity of Trump invoking adversaries who want to “sow division and chaos,” which is pretty much what the intelligence community concluded was Russia’s aim in sabotaging our election, something that Trump continues to absolve Russia of culpability for to this day.

The key is that this suggests this move is all about striking a political blow against special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation.

Here’s the thing: The revocation of his security clearance will have no practical impact on Brennan’s ability to make public statements along the lines that Trump is objecting to on such disingenuous grounds. It will not constrain Brennan from publicly talking about about the Russia inquiry, his view of Trump’s conduct (Brennan has repeatedly said Trump will eventually be “exposed” in some fashion), or anything else.

As national security lawyer Bradley Moss notes in this useful explainer, having security clearance merely means being eligible for access to national security secrets. The decision to actually grant the access is made by a particular agency; security clearance is merely the precondition for that to happen.

Moss told me on Wednesday that it is highly unlikely that Brennan has been actually availing himself of such information since leaving office, since it’s highly unlikely that the CIA would be granting this access. Brennan’s eligibility is a holdover, but that doesn’t mean he has been getting any information since leaving as a result of that eligibility. Moss noted it is likely all the information that Brennan knows — and that has been informing his public statements — was gleaned while he was still the CIA chief.

Brennan still possesses that knowledge, meaning nothing changes in terms of what he can now say or not say.

“This will have zero practical impact on what Brennan does from here on out,” Moss told me. “It will have no impact on his ability to continue doing media appearances.” Moss added that Brennan will still face the same constraints against divulging whatever classified info he knows as he did before, so that aspect of this doesn’t change either.

Also note that the CIA was reportedly caught off guard by this decision. This likely means Trump is not availing himself of an agency process to remove Brennan’s eligibility and, instead, is using his inherent constitutional authority to nix it without any such process, which suggests Trump knows the agency would probably not find legitimate grounds for doing this.

In this context, the goal of this move is obvious. The White House statement — its suggestion that Brennan is using his access to classified info to “validate” his “political attacks” — strongly suggests Trump doesn’t want Brennan’s criticism to have the aura of authority that comes with having security clearance. By revoking it, Trump is trying to take Brennan’s legitimacy as a critic of him down a peg, while furthering the idea that so-called deep-state enemies of Trump have been nefariously using their access to secrets to keep the deep-state coup against him going.

Trump — who plainly feels constrained from trying to remove Mueller — cannot do anything about the Mueller investigation except tweet wildly about it and threaten not to sit for an interview. So instead, he is striking a blow against his deep-state enemies behind the investigation, and hoping his base sees him as taking decisive action. That’s the story this is meant to tell.