ASPEN, Colo. — Two former senior Obama administration intelligence officials on Friday expressed anger at President Trump’s statements disparaging the intelligence community and disbelief at his embrace of Russia.
In remarkably strong terms and in their first extensive remarks on the topic since leaving office on Jan. 20, former CIA director John Brennan and former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. let loose on Trump, who before taking office had compared his intelligence community to Nazi Germany.
“That was a terrible, insulting affront” to the rank and file — “completely inappropriate, over-the-top,” Clapper said at the Aspen Security Forum. He said he could not let that pass and had called Trump to register his displeasure.
Brennan said “it’s interesting” that Trump will invoke U.S. intelligence when it suits his foreign policy aims in North Korea, Syria or Iran. “But when it’s inconsistent with . . . preconceived notions as well as maybe preferences to what the truth would be” and the analysts’ conclusions are disparaged, “that’s when Jim Clapper’s blood and my blood boils,” he said.
A case in point is the intelligence community’s assessment made public in January that Putin ordered a campaign to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election, sow discord, undermine Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and help Trump win.
The intelligence chiefs, including then-FBI Director James B. Comey, briefed Trump on Jan. 6 at Trump Tower in New York.
“What we did do is give him the benefit of the evidence,” which they could not share with the public, Clapper said. He added: “I thought it was pretty compelling.”
That day, Trump did not push back on it, Clapper said. But since then, Trump has expressed doubts that the intelligence showed Moscow’s culpability. “I think it could very well have been Russia, but I think it could well have been other countries,” Trump said at a speech in Poland a day before he met with Putin this month. “Nobody really knows for sure.”
That contradiction of his own intelligence community, Clapper said, “put him at a great disadvantage in the run-up to his meeting with President Putin.”
The veteran intelligence figures — whose years of service together total more than seven decades — were remarkably candid, with Clapper showing some gallows humor. “I was kind of hopeful that after [Trump] got rid of the two chief Nazis — John and me — then maybe things would have improved.”
He added: “It’s liberating to be a former” official.
Brennan said he was dismayed by the “photo op” of Trump leaning over and telling Putin “it’s an honor to be with you.” That, he said, “was not the honorable thing to say.” The Russian leader “assaulted one of the foundational pillars of our democracy — our electoral system . . . invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, has suppressed and repressed political opponents in Russia and has caused the death or killed many of them.”
Said Brennan: “For someone who knows the art of the deal, I thought it was a very, very bad negotiating tactic.”
Asked by the moderator, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, why Trump seemed so uncritical of Russia, Brennan said that he found “incongruous” Trump’s position toward the Kremlin and “the negative things” he says about U.S. intelligence agencies.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is conducting an investigation into whether Trump or his associates coordinated with Moscow in the election meddling. The probe has upset Trump, who in May fired Comey, who was then running the probe. Trump has accused Mueller’s team of having conflicts of interest that undercut their credibility, and he has not disavowed the possibility that he might fire Mueller.
If Trump attempts to fire Mueller, “I hope that our members of Congress are going to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” Brennan said.
He added that he thought it would be “the obligation of executive branch officials to refuse” to carry out such an order.
On Dec. 29, the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia over its election interference. The sanctions included the seizure of two Russian compounds that the administration said were used in part for spying. The Trump administration reportedly is considering returning them to Moscow’s custody.
“What have the Russians done to deserve getting them back?” Clapper said.
“I don’t see any earthly reason to do that,” Brennan added.
At the end of their panel discussion, Clapper and Brennan received a standing ovation.