President Trump’s statement announcing that CIA director John Brennan was being stripped of his security clearance, which press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders read at Wednesday’s White House press briefing, cited “the risks posed by his erratic conduct and behavior,” and his public criticism of the administration.
Additionally, Mr. Brennan has recently 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 nation’s most closely held secrets, and facilities [facilitates] the very aim of our adversaries, which is to sow division and chaos.
… [Access to government secrets] is particularly inappropriate when former officials have transitioned into highly partisan positions and seek to use real or perceived access to sensitive information to validate their political attacks. Any access granted to our nation’s secrets should be in furtherance of national, not personal, interests.
Some, like the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, interpreted this to mean that punishing Brennan — and threatening to revoke the clearance of other critical former officials — was really about “striking a political blow against” Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
In a subsequent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump made that crystal clear, saying he had to move against Brennan and others he holds responsible for the Russia probe.
“I call it the rigged witch hunt, [it] is a sham,” Mr. Trump said in an interview. “And these people led it!”
He added: “So I think it’s something that had to be done.”
Trump then pointed to other investigators who worked on the Russia probe and the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
“You look at any of them and you see the things they’ve done,” Trump said. “In some cases, they’ve lied before Congress. The Hillary Clinton whole investigation was a total sham.”
He went on to suggest he’s reviewing the security clearance of other critics — James Clapper, James Comey, Michael Hayden, Sally Yates, Susan Rice, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, and Bruce Ohr — simply because he’s decided that they’re bad people.
“I don’t trust many of those people on that list,” Trump said. “I think that they’re very duplicitous. I think they’re not good people.”
Trump’s comments are reminiscent of when he claimed he was firing Comey over mishandling the Clinton probe, then admitted in a TV interview days later that he was thinking “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.”
It was clear from the start that Trump’s move was about punishing his critics and threatening other intelligence officials to watch what they say. But Trump’s comments to the Journal underscore that the specific goal was undermining the Russia probe. In the Post, Sargent argued that the aim was to further discredit the special counsel’s investigation, and convince his base that he’s taking strong action against the “deep state.” (Notably, the announcement came as the Mueller team’s first case against Paul Manafort went to the jury.)
Trump — who plainly feels constrained from trying to remove Mueller — cannot do anything about the Mueller investigation except tweet wildly about it and threaten not to sit for an interview. So instead, he is striking a blow against his deep-state enemies behind the investigation, and hoping his base sees him as taking decisive action. That’s the story this is meant to tell.
Some suggested Trump might have grander, and more nefarious ambitions: he could be testing the waters on stripping Mueller of his security clearance.
The Brennan incident showed Trump might be able to get away with using the same attack on Mueller. The president’s legal authority in this area is untested, but the response on Wednesday suggests the political blowback may be manageable. Senator Rand Paul saw Trump use his authority to punish a political enemy and cheered, as Brennan was his foe too. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who previously laughed off the idea of such a gross abuse of power, suddenly went silent.