WASHINGTON >> For more than a year, law enforcement officials have repeatedly rebuffed President Donald Trump’s efforts to use the power of his office to derail the Russia investigation. Stymied, Trump is lashing out in other ways against an investigation that he clearly hates or fears.
The president said Thursday that he revoked the security clearance of John O. Brennan, a former CIA director, because Brennan had been part of what Trump has called the “sham” Russia investigation. That move, and the threats of more revocations, were the latest signs that the president seems determined to punish anyone connected to the Russia inquiry.
Law enforcement officials, lawmakers and members of the intelligence community expressed worry that the president’s act of retaliation will have a potentially chilling effect on the United States’ law enforcement and intelligence officers.
Anxiety about Trump’s next move could give investigators pause as they pursue cases, and it might hamper recruitment of a new generation of agents, they said. The president’s decision to follow through on his threats to revoke Brennan’s security clearance, they said, sent a shudder through the spies and intelligence officials he used to lead.
“This is the politicization of security clearances,” said David Priess, a former CIA officer who has written a book on presidential intelligence briefings. “It makes national security agencies vulnerable to the selective granting and removal of security clearances, which is something that happens more in a banana republic than the United States of America.”
Aitan Goelman, the lawyer for former FBI agent Peter Strzok, who was fired for writing anti-Trump texts, accused the president of abusing his constitutional authority to silence his critics.
“By revoking Director Brennan’s clearance and threatening the security clearance of Pete and seven other former officials on Trump’s ‘enemies list,’ the president has taken us down one more step on the path toward authoritarianism,” Goelman said.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., a member of the Intelligence Committee, defended the president’s decision to cut off Brennan’s access to classified information, and he played down the effect on the broader intelligence community.
“He’s mad at Brennan clearly — this guy called him treasonous and everything else,” Lankford said. “And so he is responding in a way he can respond, but he’s not trying to silence him. If anything, he’s given him a bigger microphone.”
Indeed, Brennan, who led the CIA under President Barack Obama and has been one of the most vocal intelligence community critics of Trump, drew attention on Thursday by striking back. He dismissed as “hogwash” the president’s claims of “no collusion” with Russia to influence the 2016 election and argued that Trump was trying to silence challengers.
“Mr. Trump clearly has become more desperate to protect himself and those close to him, which is why he made the politically motivated decision to revoke my security clearance in an attempt to scare into silence others who might dare to challenge him,” Brennan wrote in an opinion article in The New York Times. He said the move made it more important than ever for the special counsel in the Russia inquiry, Robert Mueller, to complete his investigation.
But others predicted that political appointees who have security clearances will be nervous about saying or doing anything that might make Trump angry, especially about the Russia investigation. And it is likely to worry the consulting firms, defense contractors and other private businesses that have employees with security clearances, they said.
“The message he’s sending is: Don’t cross me,” said Mary McCord, who helped run the Justice Department’s national security division until she left last year. “Career national security professionals are good at blocking out the noise of what’s in the news, but it’s harder to ignore when it’s the president attacking you.”
The president’s move to strip former top officials of their ability to access classified information was the latest example of Trump successfully using the power of his office to exert influence over the political and legal maelstrom swirling around his administration.
He pressured the FBI to fire Andrew G. McCabe, the bureau’s deputy director, and several members of the Mueller team. Trump helped his allies in Congress to strong-arm the Justice Department to hand over internal documents related to the Russia inquiry. And the president’s repeated attacks on Mueller’s investigators are meant to undermine the credibility of the investigation in the eyes of the public, lawmakers and even potential jurors.
None of his moves have brought down Mueller’s investigation, in part because Trump has mostly resisted the temptation to order officials at the Justice Department to act on his Twitter-fueled musings. And when he has not, including at least two attempts to fire the special counsel, White House aides blocked Trump’s way.
Two weeks ago, Trump tweeted that “Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further. Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!”
Sessions ignored the president’s demand.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, accused the president on Thursday of failing to follow the procedures for revoking security clearances that are set out in long-standing executive orders.
“It appears that President Trump has invented an entirely new standard for revoking security clearances that has no precedent,” Cummings wrote in a letter to the White House.
William H. McRaven, a retired Navy admiral who led the Joint Special Operations Command under Obama, wrote an open letter to Trump on Thursday saying that he would consider it “an honor” to have the president revoke his security clearance, as well.
“Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation,” McRaven wrote in the letter, published by The Washington Post. “If you think for a moment that your McCarthy-era tactics will suppress the voices of criticism, you are sadly mistaken. The criticism will continue until you become the leader we prayed you would be.”
Late Thursday, a group of former senior intelligence leaders, including six former heads of the CIA, issued a signed statement protesting the revocation of Brennan’s security clearance, saying that “insinuations and allegations of wrongdoing” by Brennan were baseless.
The signers — among whom were former CIA directors David Petraeus, Leon E. Panetta and Porter J. Goss — noted that not all of them agreed with Brennan’s public comments, but that they did support his right to voice his opinion.
Their statement said that Trump had used security clearances as a tool, and that he clearly intended to send a signal to former and current intelligence officials.
“As individuals who have cherished and helped preserve the right of Americans to free speech — even when that right has been used to criticize us — that signal is inappropriate and deeply regrettable,” the statement said.
Before Trump’s move against Brennan, security clearance revocations were initiated by the agencies and were done for causes such as mishandling classified material, or for personal problems that could be used against an official, such as financial troubles or alcoholism.
But Trump’s initial justification, presented Wednesday in a letter released by the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, centered on Brennan’s “erratic behavior,” a reference, it seems, to his at times angry denunciations of Trump on MSNBC, where he serves as an analyst.
Trump later explained his decision to revoke the security clearance in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, saying that the Russia investigation is a “rigged witch hunt,” adding, “And these people led it!”
He said that revoking Brennan’s clearance was “something that had to be done.”
The president also assailed the news media on Thursday for editorials in newspapers across the country that championed the freedom of the press.
In a series of morning tweets, Trump said that The Boston Globe was “in COLLUSION” with other newspapers, including The Times, for leading the editorial effort, choosing a word that has become synonymous with the special counsel’s investigation into Russian election interference — an investigation that he has repeatedly called a “witch hunt” and a “hoax.”
Trump also added “PROVE IT!” in one of the messages, though it was not clear what he meant.
One major question to be answered is whether Trump’s revocation of Brennan’s clearance will be a one-time event or if the White House will follow through with its threats against other national security officials.
The standard revocation process includes memos that outline why a clearance is being withdrawn, and would allow the former official to offer a defense or a rebuttal. In Brennan’s case, the CIA did no such review of his behavior or comments.
But national security experts and former officials said there was little doubt that Trump has the authority to revoke a clearance, and chances are small that a court would weigh in to overturn the decision. So if Trump were to decide the revocation of clearance was a convenient, if none-too-effective, weapon, little stands in the way of him wielding it again.
Former intelligence officials uniformly denounced the decision by Trump but said they doubted it would silence critics or hamper advice that former officials provide companies or the government.
“This is not going to have any impact on what Brennan says,” said John Sipher, a former CIA officer who has also been critical of Trump. But he added: “It heightens the fight and plays to Trump’s narrative of a deep state. It plays to all that ugliness.”