Last week, we learned that intelligence officials alerted the president-elect to the existence of an unverified research report, assembled by an ex–British spy, which claimed that Donald Trump’s campaign had been in close contact with the Russian government through much of 2016 — and that the Kremlin possessed “compromising” information about him.
Then, thanks to BuzzFeed, we learned that the alleged compromising information included a video tape of Trump doing something involving sex workers, urine, and a bed the Obamas once slept in.
It’s not clear who leaked word of these salacious allegations. The dossier that BuzzFeed published had been commissioned by Trump’s opponents during the 2016 campaign, and had been circulating among journalists and political operatives — as well as intelligence officials — for months. It is possible that CNN would have needed an intelligence-community source to report that our spy agencies had briefed Trump on the dossier. But the list of people who could have sent the documents themselves to BuzzFeed extends well into the private sector.
Nonetheless, Donald Trump decided to pin the blame on the intelligence agencies he will soon rely upon — and in the most incendiary possible terms.
These remarks did not endear the president-elect to outgoing CIA director John Brennan.
And in an interview with Fox News Sunday, Brennan did not mince words when assessing the incoming president’s command of geopolitics.
“I don’t think he has a full understanding of Russian capabilities and the actions they are taking on the world,” the CIA director said. “Mr. Trump has to understand that absolving Russia is a road that he needs to be very, very careful about moving down.”
Brennan also decried Trump’s assumption that the intelligence community was “leaking or releasing this information,” arguing that it had been “circulating for many months,” and thus, “was already out there.”
Trump responded by observing that several bad things happened in the world while Brennan was running the CIA — and that this (somehow) amounted to evidence that Brennan was the mystery leaker.
The CIA director then turned his indignation up to 11, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
“Tell the families of those 117 CIA officers who are forever memorialized on our wall of honor that their loved ones who gave their lives were akin to Nazis,” Brennan said, referring to Trump’s days-old tweet. “Tell the CIA officers who are serving in harm’s way right now and their families who are worried about them that they are akin to Nazi Germany. I found that to be very repugnant, and I will forever stand up for the integrity and patriotism of my officers who have done much over the years to sacrifice for their fellow citizens.”
This is all remarkable for a number of reasons. Most obviously, the outgoing CIA director and incoming president are publicly describing each other as repugnant and incompetent, on the one hand, and ineffectual and Nazi-esque, on the other. While Trump won’t need to rely on Brennan in the coming years, he’ll presumably need to rely on some of the old director’s loyalists. That Trump is choosing to further heighten tensions with the CIA, days before he takes office, seems inauspicious — both for his relationship with the intelligence community, and for the prospects of the next commander-in-chief responding rationally to attacks on his ego.
But Trump isn’t the only one who made some curious remarks during this exchange. Brennan claims that the information in the dossier was “already out there,” and so there’s no reason to suspect the intelligence community was involved in its publication. But as Marcy Wheeler notes, the last report in the dossier is dated December 13, 2016 — many months after the FBI first got wind of the documents. Which is to say: The iteration of the dossier that leaked was a newly updated one, a fact that shrinks the pool of people who could have leaked it.
Further, in his interview with the Journal, Brennan claimed that he hasn’t even read the dossier. Which is odd, if true, for reasons Wheeler aptly summarizes:
I mean, sure, you’re conducting one of the most sensitive briefings of recent history. The briefers here are all principals — along with Brennan and Clapper, Admiral Mike Rogers and Jim Comey. And you don’t even read the stuff that goes into it? You don’t review the underlying dossier that, you claim, you’re briefing just so Trump knows what the Russians have on him? That may well be true.
But if it is, it suggests a very deliberately cultivated plausible deniability, one that the decision to have Comey brief the dossier to Trump by himself only adds to. Most charitably, Brennan cultivated such deniability only to ensure he can claim that the CIA is not engaging in domestic politics (and that may well be enough).
Whatever Brennan’s intentions, the whole situation is deeply weird. So weird, you almost have to wonder whether we’re living in Nazi Germany — if you’re the incoming leader of the free world, anyway.