President Trump moved to retaliate against some of his strongest critics Monday, threatening to revoke the security clearances of former top officials who have raised alarms about Russian interference in the 2016 election or questioned the president’s fitness for office.
The move immediately prompted accusations of political retaliation by current and former officials, as well as security analysts, who said Trump would set a dangerous precedent by punishing political speech. Several of the officials he cited have written books questioning his leadership and his affection for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It’s routine for the former directors of intelligence agencies and other senior officials to maintain their security clearances, so they can share their expertise with current leaders or be called in for consultations on how a prior administration handled an issue or crisis, current and former officials said. Some former officials also have jobs that require a security clearance.
The officials who Sanders said might have their clearances revoked are former CIA director John O. Brennan, former FBI director James B. Comey, former CIA director Michael V. Hayden, former national security adviser Susan E. Rice, former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe. (Comey and McCabe no longer have security clearances, according to their representatives, and it wasn’t clear why the White House put them on the list.)
The ex-officials are among Trump’s most frequent targets in his speeches and angry tweets. He has variously accused them — without evidence — of leaking classified information to journalists, concocting facts to undermine the legitimacy of his election, and of profiting off their prior access to him by writing memoirs, a practice Trump is known to resent.
“The president is exploring the mechanisms to remove security clearance because they politicize and in some cases monetize their public service and security clearances,” Sanders told reporters at a regular news briefing. “Making baseless accusations of improper contact with Russia or being influenced by Russia against the president is extremely inappropriate, and the fact that people with security clearances are making these baseless charges provides inappropriate legitimacy to accusations with zero evidence.”
Security-clearance experts said while Trump probably does have the authority to unilaterally suspend or terminate a security clearance, no president has ever done so. Words and actions protected by the First Amendment aren’t grounds to take a clearance away, they said.
“It is completely inappropriate to revoke or withdraw someone’s security clearance based on political differences,” said Mark Zaid, an attorney who represents government employees in security-clearance disputes.
Trump’s decision could end up jeopardizing national security interests, said Evan Lesser, the president of ClearanceJobs, which helps the government find employees.
“When you have someone with their knowledge and experience,” he said of the former officials, “regardless of whether you agree with them or not, you typically want them to have access in the event that they need to be called back for something critical.”
Former intelligence officials said Trump’s move looked like an intimidation tactic designed to silence others from speaking out against him.
“This is the equivalent of Richard Nixon sending the IRS after people,” said a former senior intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still has a security clearance required for his work. “If I were to speak out at this point, I would lose a substantial portion of my income.”
Not all the officials in Trump’s crosshairs now have jobs that require a security clearance.
Clapper, who said he doesn’t do any work that requires a clearance, said Trump’s action was directed solely at “people who have criticized the president.”
Clapper, a career intelligence officer who last served as the director of national intelligence in the Obama administration, described the move by the White House as “unprecedented” and “petty.”
Hayden, who was also director of the National Security Agency under Bush, had no comment on Sanders’s statement. But he objected to any White House suggestion that he had done anything that would be grounds for revoking his clearance. Hayden said he requires a clearance for one proxy board position to protect sensitive U.S. information when dealing with a foreign parent company.
Brennan and Rice didn’t respond to the White House announcement.
Nick Shapiro, a former top aide to Brennan, said the former CIA director hadn’t done any work since leaving government that required a clearance. “This is a political attack on career national security officials who have honorably served their country for decades under both Republicans and Democrats in an effort to distract from [special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s] investigation.”
Comey’s lawyer, David N. Kelley, said the ex-FBI director “was read out of his security clearance not long after he left the FBI” in mid-2017, after Trump fired him.
In fact, Kelley said, Comey was offered a limited security clearance last month to review the classified findings of the Justice Department’s inspector general’s investigation into his actions at the FBI, and declined in part because he didn’t want to have access to classified information and then have the president or someone else accuse him of leaking.
McCabe’s clearance was deactivated when he was fired from the FBI, said Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for McCabe. She said McCabe’s lawyers were told that was according to FBI policy.
“You would think the White House would check with the FBI before trying to throw shiny objects to the press corps,” she wrote on Twitter.
Sanders made the announcement shortly after Trump met with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who said earlier Monday that he planned to ask the president to revoke Brennan’s clearance. The former CIA director under Obama last week described Trump’s performance at his summit with Putin in Helsinki as “treasonous” and said Trump showed he was “wholly in the pocket of Putin.”
In a tweet shortly after Sanders’s announcement, Paul appeared to take credit for the president’s decision.
“I restated to [Trump] what I have said in public: John Brennan and others partisans should have their security clearances revoked.”
He added: “Public officials should not use their security clearances to leverage speaking fees or network talking head fees.”
In a tweet earlier Monday, Paul had questioned whether Brennan was trying to profit off his security clearance by “divulging secrets to the mainstream media” that undermine Trump.
Democrats immediately criticized the White House announcement.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said punishing Trump’s critics “would set a terrible new precedent. An enemies list is ugly, undemocratic and un-American. Is there no length Trump will not go to stifle opposition? Wake up GOP.”
A member of the Senate Republican leadership voiced skepticism of the White House’s actions as well.
“I don’t know whether they’ve been abusing their security clearance at all,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (Tex.), the No. 2 Republican in the chamber. “That’s a very serious allegation. I want to see what the results are.”
Matt Zapotosky, Devlin Barrett and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.