WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Wednesday followed through on threats to strip the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan, igniting a firestorm of criticism that the president was recklessly attempting to distract from his own political problems and silence high-profile critics.
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced the decision at a White House briefing, reading a statement from Trump that accused Brennan of making "a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations - wild outbursts on the internet and television - about this administration."
Brennan, who led the CIA during most of President Barack Obama's second term, has emerged as one of Trump's fiercest critics, denouncing his performance at a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month as "treasonous." On Tuesday, Brennan lambasted Trump's personal character after he derided former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman as a "dog."
"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 his statement. "Mr. Brennan has a history that calls into question his objectivity and credibility."
Trump added that he is reviewing the security clearances of nine other former officials, including former FBI director James Comey, all of whom have criticized the president or been targeted by congressional Republicans seeking to discredit the ongoing Russia probe.
The move sent shock waves through Washington's political class and the nation's intelligence community, which has traditionally sought to avoid public partisanship but has been dragged into the debate as Trump has accused the "deep state" of seeking to undermine his presidency through leaks of sensitive material.
The president also has lashed out repeatedly against the ongoing investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller III into the Trump campaign's contacts with Russian operatives accused of tampering in the 2016 presidential elections.
Trump appeared to make a direct link in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. "I call it the rigged witch hunt," Trump said of the Russia probe. "And these people led it. So I think it's something that had to be done."
Brennan was a longtime intelligence official who briefed three presidents and served as CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, CIA chief of staff, director of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, and assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism.
His former colleagues rallied to his defense, hailing his service to the nation, including a key role in the 2011 operation that killed Osama bin Laden.
In a tweet Wednesday, former vice president Joe Biden said Trump's decision was "unbecoming of a President" and praised Brennan as someone who "has never been afraid to speak up."
"If you think it will silence John, then you just don't know the man," he wrote.
Brennan reacted to the news by comparing Trump's actions to "foreign despots and autocrats."
"I never, ever thought I'd see it here in the United States," Brennan said on MSNBC. "I believe all Americans need to take stock of what is happening right now in our government - how abnormal and how irresponsible and how dangerous these actions are. If Mr. Trump believes this going to lead me to just go away and be quiet, he is very badly mistaken."
Sanders cast Trump's decision as the outcome of an ongoing review of former and current officials whose conduct has led the president to question their willingness to "protect classified information."
But since aides first raised the specter that Trump would strip Brennan and several others of their clearances, security experts have described such a move as unprecedented and warned that words and actions protected by the First Amendment aren't grounds to take a clearance away.
"As far as we know, this is the first time that a president of the United States has individually taken action against somebody's security clearance," said Mark Zaid, an attorney who represents government employees in security-clearance disputes.
Last month, the White House said that along with Brennan and Comey, the president was scrutinizing former CIA director Michael Hayden, former national security adviser Susan Rice, former director of national intelligence James Clapper Jr. and former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe.
On Wednesday, Sanders expanded that list to include former acting attorney general Sally Yates, former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, former FBI agent Peter Strzok and Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, who was recently demoted.
Yates was fired by Trump last year after she defied the president and ordered federal attorneys not to defend his controversial travel ban. Strzok and Page, two of Trump's favorite targets on Twitter, became the centerpiece of Republicans' efforts to discredit Mueller's Russia probe after anti-Trump texts between the two were revealed last year. Strzok was fired over the texts this week.
Ohr is also the frequent object of GOP criticism; he was named by Republicans in a memo earlier this year that targeted his ties to the former British intelligence officer who wrote the controversial dossier on the Trump campaign's alleged contacts with Russian officials.
Comey lashed out at Trump and said the significance of his actions should not be lost in the constantly churning news cycle.: "In a democracy, security clearances should not be used as pawns in a petty political game to distract voters from even bigger problems. This president befriends and praises despots and dictators like Putin and Kim Jong-un. Those friends provide stark contrast to patriotic Americans he disrespects, threatens, and calls enemies: a war hero like John McCain, members of our country's free press, and devoted public servants like John Brennan."
The timing of the announcement suggested the president may also have been trying to distract public attention from saturation media coverage of Manigault Newman's accusations in a new book that Trump made racist statements before he took office that were captured on tape.
After Sanders' briefing Wednesday, the White House released the written statement from Trump dated July 26 - before quickly releasing an identical statement with the date removed. That led some of Trump's critics to conclude he had made the decision on Brennan's security clearance weeks ago, but that the White House strategically delayed an announcement for maximum political benefit.
"This might be a convenient way to distract attention, say from a damaging news story or two," Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said on Twitter. "But politicizing the way we guard our nation's secrets just to punish the President's critics is a dangerous precedent."
Some Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., applauded Trump's move. In a statement, Paul sought to take credit for the idea of revoking Brennan's clearance.
"I urged the President to do this," Paul said. "I filibustered Brennan's nomination to head the CIA in 2013, and his behavior in government and out of it demonstrate why he should not be allowed near classified information."
Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian, called Trump's action unprecedented, saying he knew of no such historical example of a president trying to "dehumanize and embarrass an outstanding intelligence officer like John Brennan. There has always been a bipartisan spirit of support since the CIA was created in the Cold War."
Brinkley suggested the closest antecedent was President Richard Nixon's attempts to use the Internal Revenue Service to harass rivals on his "enemies list" and former senator Joseph McCarthy's congressional hearings to try to identify and punish suspected communists inside the U.S. government in the 1950s.
"The public outcry of Brennan being stripped will echo long and far in the annals of American history," Brinkley said. "It will be seen like McCarthyism - a dark stain on our democracy."
Nearly 4.1 million Americans have federal government security clearances of varying levels up to "top secret," according to government estimates. In some cases, former officials retain their clearances and are called on to provide advice or input on classified or highly sensitive matters, experts said. Some former officials also have jobs that require a security clearance.
It's not clear how much of an impact Trump will have if he seeks to strip others of their clearances. Comey and McCabe have said their security badges were automatically demagnetized after they were fired.
But the action was the latest in a long battle between Trump and top members of the intelligence and national security communities. During the 2016 campaign, a bipartisan group of national security experts, including Hayden, signed on to a pair of "Never Trump" letters, asserting that he "lacks self-control and acts impetuously," has demonstrated "erratic behavior" and is "fundamentally dishonest."
Since taking office, Trump has faced criticism that he has been reckless in his own handling of sensitive information, including disclosing highly classified material during an Oval Office meeting last year with the Russian foreign minister. And at his Florida retreat, Mar-a-Lago, Trump appeared to discuss the U.S. response to a North Korean missile launch in full view of patrons.
Questions also have been raised about Trump's staff, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, who had his security clearance downgraded in February before being granted a permanent clearance in May. Former White House staff secretary Rob Porter was granted clearance despite allegations that he had been violent toward two of his ex-wives, charges he has denied.
"This is not merely erratic - it's somewhat dangerous, using clearances to get at political opponents," Eliot Cohen, a former State Department counselor during the George W. Bush administration who organized one of the "Never Trump" letters, said of president's decision on Brennan.
Rep. Adam Schiff, Calif., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump's move demonstrates "how deeply insecure and vindictive he is - two character flaws dangerous in any President."
"An enemies list is ugly, undemocratic and un-American. I also believe this action to silence a critic is unlawful," Schiff said in a tweet.
Republicans were more muted. Last month, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., had minimized Trump's threats, suggesting the president was merely "trolling people." Ryan's office declined to comment Wednesday.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who has said he won't seek reelection after tangling with Trump on foreign policy issues, called it a "banana republic kind of step."
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Brennan has been "far too political" in his commentary about Trump. But she added that recently retired intelligence officials generally have worthwhile expertise to offer and called Trump's move "unwise."
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The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.
More than 300 Catholic priests across Pennsylvania sexually abused children over seven decades, protected by a hierarchy of church leaders who covered it up, according to a sweeping grand jury report released Tuesday.
The investigation, the broadest inquiry into church sex abuse in U.S. history, identified 1,000 children who were victims, but reported that there probably are thousands more.
"Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades," the grand jury wrote in its report.
The 18-month investigation covered six of the state's dioceses - Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton - and follows other state grand jury reports that revealed abuse and coverups in two other dioceses. The grand jury reviewed more than 2 million documents, most from the "secret archives" - what church leaders referred to the reports of abuse they hid from public for decades, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a news conference Tuesday.
The 1,400-page report, delivered in scathing language, described some of the abuse in disturbing detail:
In Erie, a 7-year-old boy was sexually abused by a priest who then told him he should go to confession and confess his "sins" to that same priest.
Another boy was repeatedly raped from ages 13 to 15 by a priest who bore down so hard on the boy's back that it caused severe spine injuries. He became addicted to painkillers and later died of an overdose.
One victim in Pittsburgh was forced to pose naked as Christ on the cross while priests photographed him with a Polaroid camera. Priests gave the boy and others gold cross necklaces to mark them as being "groomed" for abuse.
The report makes clear that few criminal cases may result from the massive investigation.
"As a consequence of the coverup, almost every instance of abuse we found is too old to be prosecuted," the report said.
Shapiro said at a news conference that he was bound by the state's statutes of limitation. In Pennsylvania, victims of child sex abuse have until they are 30 to file civil suits and until they are 50 to file criminal charges. The oldest victim who spoke to the grand jury was 83.
"We all wish more charges could be filed, but due to the church's manipulation of our weak laws in Pennsylvania, too many predators were out of reach," he said.
The investigation has helped renew a crisis that many in the church thought and hoped had ended nearly 20 years ago after a church scandal erupted in Boston. But recent abuse-related scandals, including in Australia and Chile, have reopened questions about accountability and whether church officials at the highest levels are still covering up crimes.
About 15 victims flanked Shapiro at the news conference Tuesday, several holding back tears.
James VanSickle, 55, recalled being sexually abused in 1981 by a priest in Erie, but the priest was not prosecuted for the abuse because the statute of limitations had passed.
"This is the murder of a soul," said VanSickle, who testified before the grand jury. "We don't have a statute of limitations on the crime of murder. We don't go after victims . . . and question their 'repressed memories' or 'recovered memories.' "
State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D, said he was raped by a priest at his Catholic school in Berks County, Pennsylvania. The same priest, he said, sexually abused one of his childhood friends, who killed himself in 2009.
Rozzi called on fellow legislators to pass measures that would eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of sexual abuse of children.
In addition to ending such limitations, the grand jury also called for a law to allow older victims to sue a diocese for damage inflicted upon them as children, tighter laws that mandate the reporting of abuse and an end to nondisclosure agreements when settlements have been reached.
The new allegations have focused attention on Pope Francis and his handling of abuse as many Catholics look to him to help the church try to regain some of its credibility.
The Vatican press office declined Tuesday to comment.
The grand jury's report follows the resignation last month of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a towering figure in the U.S. church and a former archbishop of Washington who was accused of sexually abusing children and adults for decades. Both have further polarized the church on homosexuality, celibacy and whether laypeople should have more power.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, figures prominently in the report, because he led the Pittsburgh diocese as its bishop from 1988 to 2006. The grand jury depicts his actions as a mix of well-intentioned and obfuscatory, at times stopping abusive priests from continuing in their ministries in the diocese and at other times guiding them back into parishes.
Wuerl defended his conduct in a statement, saying: "While I understand this Report may be critical of some of my actions, I believe the Report confirms that I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse."
Pennsylvania is believed to have conducted more investigations of institutional child sex abuse than any other state. But there is no full accounting of abuse in the Catholic Church in the United States.
Peter Isely, a longtime advocate for victims of sexual abuse, said groups have long been pressing the U.S. government for a national investigation of child sex abuse, especially in the Catholic Church. Isely, who was abused and is a spokesman for the global group Ending Clergy Abuse, said that a five-year inquiry in Australia is "the gold standard," but that other nations, including Canada, Germany and Ireland, have conducted national forensic reviews.
"Imagine if they did what was done in Pennsylvania, but nationwide," he said, but noted that the problem needs to be solved by the Vatican.
The closest thing was the 2004 study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. It reviewed abuse by priests and deacons from 1950 until 2002.
Worldwide, national law enforcement agencies are targeting abuse within the church. In Chile, prosecutors and police are raiding church offices, confiscating documents and looking for evidence of crimes that went unreported to police. On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that authorities were raiding the headquarters of Chile's Catholic Episcopal Conference.
The crisis in Chile is just one case in a new wave of abuse-related revelations that have raised pressure on Francis to deal more forcefully with abuse. In France, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin is facing a trial on criminal charges of not reporting sexual abuse. In Australia, one archbishop was recently convicted in a criminal court for concealing sexual abuse, and Cardinal George Pell, a top Francis lieutenant, will soon stand trial on charges related to sexual offenses.
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Gately reported from Harrisburg. Reis Thebault and Julie Zauzmer in Washington contribute to this report.