Some presidential aides echoed concerns raised by outside critics that the threatened revocations smack of a Nixonian enemies list, with little or no substantive national security justification. Particular worry has been expressed inside the White House about Trump’s statement Friday that he intends “very quickly” to strip the clearance of current Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Trump, speaking to reporters as he left the White House to spend the weekend at his New Jersey golf club, called Ohr “a disgrace,” charging that he is tied to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of the Russia matter. “For him to be in the Justice Department, and to be doing what he did, that is a disgrace. That is disqualifying for Mueller,” he said.
His comments followed the release of a statement signed by 14 former CIA directors and deputy directors from Republican and Democratic administrations, as well as a former director of national intelligence, who called Trump’s revocation this week of former CIA director John Brennan’s clearance a blatant attempt to “stifle free speech” and send an “inappropriate and deeply regrettable” signal to other public servants.
Later Friday, 60 additional former CIA officials issued a statement objecting to the Brennan action and stating their belief “that former government officials have the right to express their unclassified views on what they see as critical national security issues without fear of being punished for doing so.”
While he has frequently called Mueller’s inquiry a “rigged witch hunt,” and did so again Friday, Trump’s move against Brennan, and threats to move against others, has brought the controversy to a new level. Sanders announced the Brennan decision Wednesday, citing what she called his “erratic conduct” and “wild outbursts” on television, as well as allegedly erroneous statements he had made.
The senior White House official acknowledged that the step against Brennan had been prepared in late July, when Sanders first said Trump was considering it. But the decision to take that step was made this week to divert attention from nonstop coverage of a critical book released by fired Trump aide Omarosa Manigault Newman.
Brennan, a career CIA official who served as director of the agency during President Barack Obama’s second term, briefed Trump during the presidential transition about intelligence conclusions that Russia had interfered in the election on Trump’s behalf. He has since been harshly critical, on Twitter and in appearances as a television commentator, of the president’s foreign policy and treatment of the intelligence community. He denounced Trump’s performance at a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month as “treasonous.”
The White House did not suggest that Brennan had committed any security breaches, and Trump himself, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, linked the clearance revocation to the “sham” Russia investigation, which he said Brennan and others had “led.”
It was unclear what the argument would be for revoking Ohr’s clearance, since Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, while not specifying Ohr’s current job, has said he has had no involvement in the Mueller investigation, begun last year.
But Ohr knew Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence agent who was hired in 2016 by Fusion GPS, then working for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee, to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia. Ohr’s wife also worked for Fusion GPS. According to news reports and congressional testimony, the two men discussed Trump before the election. Ohr later reported the conversation to the FBI.
Ohr is the only current official on the White House list of clearances Trump wants to lift. The others are former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.; former CIA director Michael V. Hayden; former FBI director James B. Comey; Obama national security adviser Susan E. Rice; former FBI officials Andrew McCabe, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok; and former acting attorney general Sally Yates. Several of them have said they no longer have clearances.
In his Friday comments, Trump said he had gotten a “tremendous response” for his action against Brennan. “If anything, I’m giving him a bigger voice,” he said. “Many people don’t even know who he is . . . I’ve never respected him.”
Similarly, the president said he did not know retired Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, former head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, who in a Thursday op-ed in The Washington Post called Trump’s tactics “McCarthy-era” and said it would be an honor to have Trump lift his security clearance “so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.”
Meanwhile, the statement by former CIA directors and deputies was quickly pulled together Thursday by George Tenet, who served as CIA director in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, and former deputy director Michael J. Morell, according to Hayden, who also signed the document.
Other signers include Clapper and former CIA directors William H. Webster, Robert M. Gates, Porter J. Goss, Leon E. Panetta and David H. Petraeus, as well as five former deputy directors and former director of national intelligence Dennis C. Blair.
“We all agree that the president’s action regarding John Brennan and the threats of similar action against other former officials has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances — and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech,” the statement said.
Several former officials have said they rarely use their clearances, which allow them to serve as institutional memories and provide advice to current officials, if requested. Hayden said he had been to the agency once — at his own request, for a briefing on Africa in preparation for a speech — since stepping down a decade ago.
While Brennan was a clear target of Trump’s action, Hayden said in an interview, another is “everybody else on the list. . . . Watch your step or this is going to happen to you.”
“The third group, I think, is the broader intelligence community,” Hayden said. “In essence, it’s been demonstrated to them that if you tell this president something he doesn’t want to hear, something he doesn’t believe, he’s prepared to retaliate.”
“There are a lot of times you have to go in there and tell him something he doesn’t want to hear. This series of events,” he said, “has made that even harder than it already is.”
John Wagner and Shane Harris contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to clarify the timing of Christopher Steele’s work for Fusion GPS, which occurred after the company had been hired by Hillary Clinton’s campaign to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia, and not during Fusion’s earlier work for an anti-Trump conservative organization.