There are no safe spaces in President Trump’s America, and there is no better evidence of this today than the battle lines being drawn between the occupant of the White House and those who have led U.S. intelligence agencies in Republican and Democratic administrations dating back decades.
The precipitating event was Trump’s decision to revoke Wednesday the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan — a loud, persistent and acerbic critic of the president. The order has generated a kind of collective rebuttal rarely, if ever, seen in relations between a commander in chief and those who have gathered the nation’s secrets.
The critics of the president’s action are people who have worked across administrations and who prefer to avoid political fights. Their ranks include several retired military officers, for whom clashing with a president goes against all their instincts and sense of duty.
However, the critics’ allegiance, as they read it, should be to country, not party, and to the nation’s security.
This moment should not be cast as the righteous and virtuous vs. a vindictive president. Those speaking out against the president are not all saints. Instead, this is a real-time example of the limits of restraint in the Trump era. With his decision to go after Brennan, something collectively snapped.
In revoking security clearances for political reasons, rather than for cause, the president crossed another line. The reaction from those who have led in the intelligence community, displays a measure of alarm and represents a call for the president to return to norms, if that is now possible.
Trump likely sees the episode as further evidence that the intelligence community has been conspiring against him, starting with the 2016 campaign. That, however, would be a misreading of what’s involved here: an abuse of presidential power in the face of an American freely expressing his feelings about the nation’s leaders.
Brennan has castigated Trump so often that he made himself a target for angry presidential tweets and plenty of Trumpian scorn. After Trump’s performance at the Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Brennan called the president’s news conference performance “nothing short of treasonous.” Did he doubt that a president who counterpunches on the basis of far less would lash back?
Brennan has not been alone in criticizing Trump. James R. Clapper Jr., a former director of national intelligence, has been on the president’s back for months and months and even has said he thinks Russian interference in the election made the difference in the outcome — a judgment that the intelligence community, in its official reports, has never asserted. His reaction to what happened to Brennan was no surprise.
But what’s to explain retired Navy Adm. William H. McRaven? He was commander of the Joint Special Operations Command and oversaw the risky raid by Navy SEALs that took out Osama bin Laden in 2011.
McRaven retired in 2014, and neither as an officer nor subsequently as a University of Texas official had he engaged in partisan politics, though he has spoken out when he believed the military was suffering from heavy-handed actions by elected officials. But his criticisms then were broad and apolitical.
With Trump, McRaven has been more pointed, though still respectful. The president’s decision to punish Brennan, however, stirred in McRaven a reaction that was as strong and biting. In an op-ed published in The Washington Post, he ripped the president for taking Brennan’s clearance away. He said he would “consider it an honor” to have his security clearance revoked also “so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.”
But McRaven did not stop with what had been done to Brennan. He hit the president with a broadside that questioned the entirety of Trump’s leadership, writing: “Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.” He warned that the president should expect continued criticism until he changed his ways.
On the same day that McRaven put out his statement, a dozen former intelligence leaders signed a letter condemning the president’s action. They included Clapper as well as two former CIA directors who have been regular critics of the president: retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden and Leon Panetta, who served as defense secretary in the Obama administration.
But there were others who led the CIA at one time or another who may not be as well-known as Brennan or Clapper or some of the others who appear regularly on television criticizing presidential actions. They include William Webster, the former FBI director; George Tenet, who was CIA director at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks; retired Army Gen. David Petraeus; John McLaughlin, former deputy director and acting director of the CIA; and Mike Morell, who also served as deputy director and acting director at the CIA.
Another name was added to the list on Friday, that of Robert Gates, who had served as CIA director under President George H.W. Bush and later as defense secretary under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Gates has been a measured critic of some of Trump’s actions but has not been on the front lines of taking on the president. He was a late signatory only because he was out of pocket when the original letter was being assembled, but his was a notable addition to the letter.
The signers disagreed on whether Brennan’s criticisms of the president were appropriate, in terms of his language, his harshness and whether he was crossing partisan lines. What they agreed upon is what constitutes proper presidential behavior and leadership. They concluded that the president was wrong to retaliate by pulling Brennan’s clearance, saying the president was attempting to “stifle free speech.” They called the action “inappropriate and deeply regrettable.”
In an interview Wednesday with the Wall Street Journal, Trump connected his decision to pull Brennan’s clearance and possibly do the same for others to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion between Russians and Trump campaign associates. “I call it the rigged witch hunt; [it] is a sham,” he told the Journal’s Peter Nicholas and Michael C. Bender. “And these people led it.” Trump said that, as a result, “something had to be done.”
The rebukes Trump has received aren’t likely to force a change of course. In fact, others could find themselves without clearances in the days or weeks ahead. But the president’s actions represent one more use of presidential power that those who have watched presidents during times of maximum danger and difficulty find objectionable. That is the latest measure of the divisions that now exist in this country.