Why you should care
The security clearance fight is both a distraction and a serious erosion of norms.
Donald Trump isn’t always careful when selecting enemies. Feuds with Pope Francis and LeBron James, for example, were unwise. Last week’s war with former aide Omarosa Manigault Newman — who arrived to the fight with secretly recorded tapes — was not one the president chose. But just as often, Trump elevates someone he sees as an ideal foil, such as California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters.
Happy Birthday to the leader of the Democrat Party, Maxine Waters!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 15, 2018
So it is with John Brennan, Barack Obama’s CIA director turned #resistance figure. Trump’s Aug. 15 decision to revoke Brennan’s security clearance was handed to White House reporters with a July 26 date on it. Trump had been waiting for the ideal moment to strike, and he decided he wanted to watch something on cable news other than Manigault Newman and the fraud trial of his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
While Brennan has a long record of public service in counterterrorism, he is not a terribly sympathetic figure. The keeper of Obama’s “kill list” for drone strikes, Brennan lied to Congress about targeted assassinations — saying there had been zero civilian casualties. His CIA spied on its Senate overseers, and Brennan lied about that too. Of course, that all happened years ago, and it’s Brennan’s anti-Trump rhetoric on Twitter and cable news now drawing the president’s ire.
Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???
— John O. Brennan (@JohnBrennan) July 16, 2018
“If anything, I’m giving him a bigger voice,” Trump told reporters when asked about Brennan on Friday. “Many people don’t even know who he is, and now he’s a bigger voice, and that’s OK with me, because I like taking on voices like that.” Trump also declared that he’d be coming for the clearance of Bruce Ohr, a former associate deputy attorney general who still works for the Department of Justice and had been in touch with Christopher Steele — the British spy and author of the infamous “dossier” on Trump’s Russian entanglements.
Others on Trump’s enemy list who could lose access to classified material are former government officials with whom he has sparred or worse: FBI Director James Comey, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director Michael Hayden, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe and FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page.
The outburst has made even stiffer enemies out of the wider national security establishment. A dozen former leaders of the CIA — including OZY columnist John McLaughlin — and one former director of national intelligence, who had served Republican and Democratic administrations, signed a letter condemning the move. Retired Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, wrote a scathing op-ed saying Trump should take away his clearance too, decrying Trump’s “McCarthy-era” tactics. The statements were remarkable for ex-officials often reticent to speak publicly, and reminiscent of former generals who came forward in 2006 to criticize Donald Rumsfeld’s handling of the Iraq War.
There seems to be a dispute about whether Trump’s act is a distraction or a serious erosion of norms. It’s both.
The intelligence gatherers and national security apparatus are no longer above politics, and haven’t been for quite some time. Trump has crusaded against the “deep state” from day one, making former officials all too eager to condemn him, while sensitive details of Trump’s presidency have often found their way into reporters’ hands. Still, the president officially punishing former officials for criticizing him — and in effect denying his intelligence gatherers access to people with substantial experience — is a new escalation.
Trump’s rebuke to Brennan won’t stop him from going on NBC, but “this action is quite clearly a signal to other former and current officials,” the former intelligence leaders wrote. Among them: Special counsel Robert Mueller, who of course needs access to classified material for his investigation.
Trump has feinted at firing Mueller for a while. But in order to do that, he’d have to Saturday Night Massacre his way through the Justice Department, as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has said he will not send the special counsel packing. Revoking a security clearance is a surgical strike that Trump can execute himself. The question is whether he would be able to stomach the political collateral damage.