President Donald Trump abruptly revoked the security clearance of ex-CIA Director John Brennan, an unprecedented act of retribution against a vocally critical former top U.S. official.
Later, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump drew a direct connection between the Russia investigation and his decision, citing Brennan as among those he held responsible for the investigation.
"I call it the rigged witch hunt, (it) is a sham," Mr. Trump told the Journal, which posted its story on its website Wednesday night. "And these people led it!"
He added: "So I think it's something that had to be done."
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That connection was not in a statement issued earlier Wednesday in which Trump denounced Brennan's criticism of him and spoke anxiously of "the risks posed by his erratic conduct and behavior." The president said he was fulfilling his "constitutional responsibility to protect the nation's classified information."
Trump also threatened to yank the clearances of a handful of individuals, including former top intelligence and law enforcement officials, as well as a current member of the Justice Department. All are critics of the president or are people whom Trump appears to believe are against him.
Trump's action against Brennan, critics and nonpartisan experts said, marked an unprecedented politicization of the federal government's security clearance process. It also was a clear escalation in Trump's battle with members of the U.S. intelligence community as the investigation into Russia election meddling and possible collusion and obstruction of justice continues.
And it came in the middle of the president's latest controversy — accusations of racism by former adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman and his bitter reaction to them. Trump's statement, distributed to reporters, was dated July 26, 2018, suggesting it could have been held and then released when needed to change a damaging subject. The White House later released a new version without the date.
Democratic members of Congress, reacting to Trump's initial announcement, said his action smacked of an "enemies list" among fellow Americans and the behavior of leaders in "dictatorships, not democracies." Brennan, in a phone interview with MSNBC, called the move an "abuse of power by Mr. Trump."
"I do believe that Mr. Trump decided to take this action, as he's done with others, to try to intimidate and suppress any criticism of him or his administration," he said, adding that he would not be deterred from speaking out.
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On Thursday, Brennan published an opinion piece in The New York Times saying that Trump's claims of no collusion with Russia in the run-up to the 2016 election are "hogwash," based on his insight into Russian activities and what's been reported in the news. He said that what remains unclear is whether there was a criminal conspiracy, "whether obstruction of justice occurred to cover up any collusion or conspiracy, and how many members of 'Trump Incorporated' attempted to defraud the government by laundering and concealing the movement of money into their pockets."
"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.
Trump, his statement read by his press secretary, accused Brennan of having "leveraged his status as a former high-ranking official with access to highly sensitive information to make a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations, wild outbursts on the internet and television about this administration."
"Mr. Brennan's lying and recent conduct characterized by increasingly frenzied commentary is wholly inconsistent with access to the nations' most closely held secrets," Trump said.
In the Journal interview, Trump said he was prepared to yank Brennan's clearance last week but that it was too "hectic." The president was on an extended working vacation at his New Jersey golf club last week.
Brennan has indeed been deeply critical of Trump's conduct, calling his performance at a press conference last month with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Finland "nothing short of treasonous."
Brennan continued that criticism on Wednesday. "I've seen this type of behavior and actions on the part of foreign tyrants and despots and autocrats for many, many years during my CIA and national security career. I never, ever thought that I would see it here in the United States," he said.
Brennan said he had not heard from the CIA or the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that his security clearance was being revoked, but learned it when the White House announced it. There is no requirement that a president has to notify top intelligence officials of his plan to revoke a security clearance. "The president has the ultimate authority to decide who holds a security clearance," the ODNI said in a statement.
Former CIA directors and other top national security officials are typically allowed to keep their clearances, at least for some period, so they can be in a position to advise their successors and to hold certain jobs.
Trump's statement said the Brennan issue raises larger questions about the practice of allowing former officials to maintain their security clearances, and said that others officials' were under review.
They include former FBI Director James Comey; James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence; former CIA Director Michael Hayden; former national security adviser Susan Rice; and Andrew McCabe, who served as Trump's deputy FBI director until he was fired in March.
Also on the list: fired FBI agent Peter Strzok, who was removed from the Russia investigation over anti-Trump text messages; former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, with whom Strzok exchanged messages; and senior Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, whom Trump recently accused on Twitter of "helping disgraced Christopher Steele 'find dirt on Trump.'"
Ohr was friends with Steele, the former British intelligence officer commissioned by an American political research firm to explore Trump's alleged ties with the Russian government. He is the only current government employee on the list.
At least two of the former officials, Comey and McCabe, do not currently have security clearances, and none of the eight receive intelligence briefings. Trump's concern apparently is that their former status gives special weight to their statements, both to Americans and foreign foes.
Former intelligence officials are also wondering how far Trump will go, according to a former senior intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity to share private conversations he's had with people who have worked in the field.
They said Trump has moved from threatening to revoke security clearances of former intelligence officials who have not been involved in the Russia investigation to former officials who did work on the probe. And they wonder if he will next choose to target those who currently work on the investigation, which Trump has called a "witch hunt."
The CIA referred questions to the White House.
Clapper, reacting on CNN, called Trump's actions "unprecedented," but said he didn't plan to stop speaking out. Asked what linked those threatened by the White House, Clapper said he and the others have been outspoken about the Trump administration, have "directly run afoul of it" or have taken actions the president dislikes.
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"So I guess that's what we all have in common," Clapper said.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump's press secretary, insisted the White House wasn't targeting only Trump critics. But Trump did not order a review of the clearance held by former national security adviser Mike Flynn, who was fired from the White House for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Russian officials and later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
Democrats, and even some Republicans, lined up to denounce the president's move, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., slamming it as a "stunning abuse of power." Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, warned that a "dangerous precedent" was being set by "politicizing the way we guard our national secrets just to punish the president's critics."
And California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, tweeted, "An enemies list is ugly, undemocratic and un-American."
Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen tweeted, "Trump is now categorizing dissent and free speech as 'erratic behavior.'" He added, "Leaders behave like this in dictatorships, not democracies."
Several Republicans also weighed in, with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., saying, "Unless there's something tangible that I'm unaware of, it just, as I've said before, feels like a banana republic kind of thing."
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House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., had previously dismissed Trump's threat as nothing more than presidential "trolling."
Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann, Zeke Miller, Lisa Mascaro and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.
Brennan is an NBC News and MSNBC senior national security and intelligence analyst.