Security clearances: The battle between Trump and Brennan
Another week of the Trump presidency, “another step closer to the abyss,” said David Ignatius in The Washington Post. President Trump’s latest lurch toward authoritarianism came last week when he revoked the security clearance of former CIA chief John Brennan. The White House essentially admitted that the revocation was payback for Brennan’s harsh public criticism of Trump—or “erratic conduct and behavior,” as press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders put it. The president’s attempt to punish Brennan prompted retired Navy Adm. William McRaven, who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, to write a letter asking for his own clearance to be revoked, “so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.” Nearly 200 other intelligence officials have now joined that list, accusing Trump of “trying to stifle free speech.” These usually tight-lipped intelligence professionals are speaking up because they know the stakes, said Jeffrey Smith in NYTimes.com. They know that dictators use state power to punish and intimidate critics, and that “fear is no way to run a democracy.”
Brennan is no hero, said Peter Van Buren in TheAmericanConservative.com, and “he deserved to lose his clearance.” The only reason intelligence officials get to keep their security clearance is so they can give informed advice to officials currently serving. Brennan, conversely, has been using his status as former CIA director in a blatantly partisan, anti-Trump campaign, calling Trump “treasonous” and “hinting to the public that he knows the whole story” of Russian collusion. When pressed, he admits he only knows what he reads in the newspapers. Brennan isn’t merely engaging in free-speech criticism of Trump’s public statements and actions, said Andrew McCarthy in NationalReview.com. He keeps hinting there are “shoes yet to drop”—information that he knows about as an intelligence agency insider. For Trump to yank the clearance Brennan abused so grotesquely “is not only warranted, it is way overdue.”
Trump’s real target isn’t Brennan, said Greg Sargent in WashingtonPost.com. It’s special counsel Robert Mueller. As Trump explained in a Wall Street Journal interview, he revoked Brennan’s clearance because of his (marginal) role in launching the “rigged witch hunt”—that is, the Russia investigation. Terrified of what Mueller will find, Trump is working round the clock to discredit anyone and everyone associated with the probe, hoping he can convince Republicans that Mueller’s eventual report is the tainted product of a “deep-state coup.” Brennan is just the beginning, said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. Trump has “drawn up a Nixon-style ‘enemies list’” of current and former Justice Department and intelligence officials with connections to the Russia investigation whose security clearances he plans to revoke—“a clear and unacceptable abuse of power.”
Trump has a good political reason to pick this fight, said Jack Goldsmith in LawfareBlog.com. In taking Trump on, Brennan and his allies are playing right into the president’s hands. What better evidence of a deep-state conspiracy could Trump hope to offer his supporters than to have hundreds of unelected government officials opposing him in unison? Trump doesn’t want to silence Brennan, said Eli Lake in Bloomberg.com. He wants to “elevate him,” turning an irascible, Obama-era CIA director “into the face of the so-called Resistance.” Trump hopes not only to frame the Russia investigation in partisan terms; he plans to set himself up to run for re-election in 2020 as an embattled outsider.